The Importance of Setting Boundaries

What does the word “boundaries” make you think of? Do you think of boundaries you’ve set? Does it remind you of times when people have crossed your boundaries? Does the word make you feel tense and uncomfortable, or safe and secure? There are no right or wrong answers, but take some time to consider what boundaries have meant for you in the past as you start to define your current boundaries. 

It might even be helpful to refresh yourself on what a boundary is: a boundary is just a limit that you set in a relationship. Boundaries are a way for us to protect our energy, decide what we’re willing (or not willing) to give, and maintain our relationships. The idea of setting boundaries can be intimidating because often we think of boundaries as a sort of punishment. However, setting a boundary is actually an act of kindness. When we set boundaries, we are really doing the best we can to preserve our relationships while also protecting our energy and our mental health. 

Here are some examples of what boundaries can look like: 

  • Not going on social media on the weekends
  • Saying how you feel, even when you’re uncomfortable
  • Asking for what you need from others
  • Saying no without guilt
  • Allowing the people in your life to be responsible for their own feelings
  • Letting people know how to treat you
  • Prioritizing rest or self care
  • Asking others not to talk about diet culture or bodies in front of you

Boundaries also seem intimidating because we often aren’t taught how to set them. Our culture prizes folks going above and beyond and giving until we are depleted. We don’t prioritize rest, and we value productivity above almost all else. However, even though these values dominate our culture, they aren’t always helpful. Boundaries can help us to decrease our stress level (by learning to say no, asking for help when you need it, or reevaluating what you are able or willing to give to others), increase our energy (taking more time to rest, prioritizing work-life balance), and increase our satisfaction with our relationships (being upfront with communication, not expecting others to read your mind). 

The hardest part about setting boundaries is communicating them. When we set boundaries with the people in our lives, it sometimes feels like we’re being overly harsh or we’re punishing the other person. But remember that setting boundaries helps to preserve our relationships and that not setting boundaries leaves us feeling depleted and resentful, which is not how we want to feel about the relationships in our lives. It’s important to be clear when you communicate your boundaries because no one can read your mind. 

When communicating your boundaries, try to follow this formula:

  1. Explain to the other person what you need
  2. Offer some options for meeting that need
  3. Define the consequence of violating the boundary
  4. Reassure the person that you value the relationship (if that’s the case)

For example, if you’re trying to set a boundary that you won’t respond to yelling during an argument, you can say to the other person, “I know that we respond to our feelings in different ways, but yelling makes me feel unsafe and I would appreciate it if you could express your frustration in another way. If that means you need to take a break in the middle of an argument to cool off, that’s fine. If there is yelling, I will leave the room or hang up the phone. Our relationship is important to me, and I’m committed to finding a way forward that works for us.”  

The other tricky part of setting boundaries is enforcing them. When you set a boundary, it is inevitable that at some point someone might push back. It’s important to define the consequence of violating the boundary you set, and then follow through on that consequence if someone pushes. It will get easier with practice and when you see that enforcing your boundaries can help protect your energy and support your mental health. 

If you need help learning how to set boundaries with the people in your life, our counselors can help guide you. 

-Lindsay Sanner, LSCSW, RPT