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Boundaries Are Buzzy—And Needed. No Clue How to Set a Single One? Here Ya Go

Stay on your side, guy! Not a good way to set boundaries, but no wonder: Most of us were never taught how. Enter therapists who aren’t gate-keeping the advice they share with clients.
Andres Ayrton/Pexels

Setting boundaries for mental health is like basic financial knowledge: Neither taught in school, both very necessary in life. Apparently obscure historical dates and trigonometry are more useful.

TBH, most of us aren’t ever really taught what boundaries are. It’s no shocker we’re so clueless about how to prevent our managers from texting on the weekends or tell our parents to butt out of our relationship.

Boundaries for mental health get a lot of hype, and rightfully so: When you don’t have any, your physical and emotional needs often go unmet.

“Boundaries are limits that you set to communicate what’s okay with you and what isn’t,” says psychotherapist and codependency expert Sharon Martin, LCSW, author of The Better Boundaries Workbook. “Boundaries also safeguard what’s important to you, whether it’s time with your family or getting enough sleep.”

While the idea of “setting boundaries” can sound a bit nebulous, therapists see the very real and concrete ways it affects people when they aren’t established or respected. Therapists also have a front-row seat to the life-changing results that spring forth once someone does lay down the law. So what are the most important thing peeps in therapy learn about boundaries? These 10 pearls of wisdom.

1. Boundaries tell others your limits.

Here’s the big secret about boundaries: They aren’t actually about other people; they’re about you. “Boundaries are a way to communicate your expectations and how you want to be treated,” Martin says. In this way, explaining your boundaries is a way of expressing your self-worth. 

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What does that look like exactly? “You can set some boundaries by asking others to change their behavior,” Martin says. “For example, you can ask your mother not to text you after 11 p.m. so you can get enough sleep.” In this way, you are putting your own need (for sleep) first. While the exact phrasing can vary depending on the vibe you have with your mom, Martin says to be both direct and polite. After all, if you aren’t clear about your bedtime texting cutoff, uninterrupted sleep may remain but a pipe dream.

2. You need boundaries in romantic relationships.

Meghan Trainor may have side-by-side toilets. You do you, Meg. Most of us need a wee bit more space with our partner. In fact, it’s one of the most critical areas to have boundaries, says psychologist Alexandra Jacowitz, Psy.D., co-founder of P.S. Therapy, a private therapy practice in Brooklyn, New York

“If you’re in a relationship without any boundaries, there’s no difference between two people; it’s very blurry,” she says. Martin agrees. “Having boundaries in a romantic relationship is important so we remain autonomous individuals with our own preferences, goals, and values rather than simply an extension of our loved ones,” she says.

How romantic boundaries actually look depends on the couple, Dr. Jacowitz says. A hallmark sign you may need to enforce some? You’re sacrificing your own needs for your partner’s. “Let your partner know that you’re setting some new boundaries and explain why they are important to you,” Martin says. “Give your partner time to adjust to your new boundaries. If you haven’t been setting boundaries, this can be a big change for both of you, and there will likely be a learning curve.”

3. Boundaries can change over time.

One common misconception people have about boundaries is that once set, they’re sword-in-the-stone grounded. But Dr. Jacowitz emphasizes that boundaries—with your partner, friends, family, or work—can, and will, change over time. 

Say you’re dating Jake. Early on, as you’re just getting to know each other, you may have emotional boundaries around how much you’re willing to share, boundaries re: how much time you want to spend together, as well as physical boundaries. But as the relationship progresses, of course those boundaries will shift. In fact, says Dr. Jacowitz, they should.

4. Your boundaries with one friend can be totally different than with another friend.

Boundaries aren’t a one-size-fits-all situation—particularly with friendships. “There are certain friends that you may feel more comfortable opening up to,” says Dr. Jacowitz.

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Maybe, for example, you don’t want to talk to your work pals about your intense family drama, but you’re cool telling your high school bestie. Having varying boundaries like this is perfectly healthy, says Dr. Jacowitz, who adds that friendship boundaries, like romantic ones, can also change over time. If a coworker reveals something personal to you, it might make you feel safer sharing your own struggles. On the other hand, some friendships will fade away with time—it’s a natural part of life.

5. You can’t make other people respect your boundaries.

Oh, harsh reality! You bite! Just because you communicate your boundaries to someone doesn’t mean they’ll honor them. If that happens, “you must consider what action you will take,” Martin says. This might involve restating the boundary or explaining how crappily you felt when said boundary was crossed. 

“Often, the consequence of repeated boundary violations is that you choose to distance yourself, spending less time with the person, sharing less personal information, or even ending the relationship if the violation is egregious,” Martin says. “The goal is not to punish the other person, but to protect yourself.” 

If you’ve never really been tight with a boundary-ignorer, there’s no need to justify your actions, Martin says. If it’s someone you’re close to, she recommends letting them know your reasoning. But always consider your safety. “If you anticipate that sharing your decision to distance yourself will enrage the other person, or they have a history of violence or unpredictable behavior, don’t put yourself in danger by talking about it,” she says. 

6. If a family member’s comments are hurting you, you’ve gotta set a boundary.

One of the most challenging places to set boundaries? Your family. “What someone’s boundaries are with their family members is very personal and is based on their culture, preferences, and experiences,” Dr. Jacowitz says. But that doesn’t mean family gets a pass.

One boundary-crossing line Dr. Jacowitz often sees with clients relate to weight or food. “A parent may say something like, You’re eating a lot today, or Wow, you must be really hungry, and it can make someone feel bad about themselves,” she says.

Simply put, this is not okay. If a family member’s comments are hurting you, you need to say so. Maybe the issue isn’t food-related. Maybe your mom keeps giving uninvited, unwelcome relationship advice. “Parents may think they have the right to comment on their adult child’s life unsolicited, but if you feel uncomfortable, you should voice that,” says Dr. Jacowitz.

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Anxious about how to word it? Be direct but warm. “Explain how the boundary violation makes you feel and what you’d like the other person to do differently,” Martin says. For instance, Mom, I feel frustrated when you give me unsolicited advice about my relationship. It feels like you don’t have confidence in me, and then I second-guess myself. It would mean a lot if you could just listen and let me vent. Is that something you can do?

7. It’s never too late to set work boundaries.

So you’ve always responded to work Slacks after hours, or let your boss text you whenever she fancies? Been there, done that. Just because this is what people have come to expect, you aren’t stuck living this way. (Unless it’s a job requirement, like you’re a doctor on call.) 

When you’re setting work boundaries that didn’t exist before, avoid doing so spur of the moment, unless your safety is in jeopardy. “Think through your boundaries and what you’ll do if they are violated ahead of time,” Martin says. Be clear, professional, and polite with your manager and (if necessary) colleagues about what you need and where there’s room for compromise. Then, you’re responsible for showing you’re serious by actually not replying to emails after hours or whatever limits you expressed.

That said, keep in mind what you willingly signed up for. If you’re a veterinarian and knew from day 1 that every vet in your office takes turns being on call one weekend a month, it isn’t fair or realistic to set a no-weekend-contact boundary. If you’re a news journalist, you’re gonna need to be cool with texts at weird hours.

8. Setting boundaries at work could hold you back from promotions and praise.

Another ugly truth, another fact of life: Not all bosses will take kindly to your boundaries. “It’s possible that setting boundaries with an employer could prevent someone from getting ahead at work,” Martin says. “On the other hand, your employer could respect you more for setting boundaries. We can’t control how people respond to our boundaries.”

This doesn’t mean you should forget about putting in place the limits you need. “It just means that you need to be aware of the power differentials and risks,” Martin explains. 

9. Physical boundaries can help create emotional ones.

One reason many of Dr. Jacowitz’s clients struggle with work boundaries is they’re now WFH. (Hashtag relatable.) Her best advice is to build in physical boundaries at home, with a dedicated work area that doesn’t bleed over into where you relax. “Even if you have a studio apartment, you can create these boundaries,” she says. Once you’ve established physical borders, the emotional separation will come more seamlessly.

10. Setting boundaries for mental health can make you feel guilty—but you aren’t.

If this whole boundaries thing is new for you, expect some growing pains. “People often feel guilty when they start setting boundaries,” Martin says. Especially for women, it can feel unnatural to put your own needs before someone else’s, even if doing so is essential for your sanity. Martin’s advice? Remember that boundaries are vital not just for your personal health and wellbeing, but the health and wellbeing of your relationships.

“There is nothing wrong with setting limits, asking for what you need, and taking care of yourself—even if others tell you that you’re being selfish, mean, or difficult,” Martin says. The good news, adds Dr. Jacowitz, is that once you introduce boundaries in one area of your life, it gets easier to do it in other areas. Like dominos, you just need that initial push.

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