You may have heard of people establishing healthy boundaries, but what does that even look like? Well, for starters, a healthy boundary can look like a lot of things. If a friend wants you to stay out later than you’d like and you decide instead to trust your gut and go home, that’s a healthy boundary. If your significant other has become too demanding of your time and you ask for some personal space, that, too, is a healthy boundary.
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Knowing when and how to set up healthy boundaries can be tricky. When you evaluate your values and core beliefs, it’s easier to put protections in place to support your own physical, mental and emotional health. When you do this, in most cases, you’ll be overwhelmingly supported. But you may also discover who your true allies are along the way.
Social worker Karen Salerno, MSSA, LISW-S, shares why healthy boundaries are important and how to put them in place regardless of the kind of relationship you have.
What are healthy boundaries?
Healthy boundaries are an important tool needed to make sure you have your needs met. They allow us to:
- Retain our identity.
- Prevent others from taking advantage of or manipulating us.
- Promote healthy relationships.
- Allow us to be appropriately assertive.
- Empower us to strive for personal goals and establish empathy for others.
“Boundaries are the framework we set for ourselves on how we want to be treated by others and how we treat other people,” says Salerno. “It’s setting up how you want to be treated, it promotes physical and emotional wellbeing, and it respects your needs and the other person’s needs in a relationship.”
So, if you have a colleague who’s getting too personal with you at work and they’re making you uncomfortable, you may want to stop that behavior in its tracks and explain what you expect and respect.
The same thing goes for any family member who might overstay their welcome during a family get-together. You are the master of your fate, and you’re allowed to put healthy boundaries in place for the sake of your own happiness and well-being.
If there’s ever any question on whether a boundary is healthy or not, keep in mind that healthy boundaries will never try to assert control over someone else. Instead, healthy boundaries shine a light on your personal needs while acknowledging the needs of those around you.
How do I start setting boundaries?
The first step to setting healthy boundaries is knowing what your needs are and what you need to be healthy, have good self-esteem and retain your sense of identity. To do this, consider making a list of your core values and beliefs: What do you need to be happy? What makes you feel safe? How much time and energy are you willing to spend with different people and situations?
“It’s important to set up healthy boundaries early on so that people know how to best communicate and interact with you,” advises Salerno. “You also want to make sure you follow through on your boundaries. If you don’t act on them, it may make it harder for other people to trust your boundary setting.”
The first step to boundary setting is to trust and believe that you have the right to set and enforce a boundary.
“A lot of us have grown up in a family with no boundaries or with blurred boundaries, so we don’t always know that we have the right to set our own boundaries,” explains Salerno. “If setting boundaries is new to you, I would encourage you to start with small boundary changes to help build confidence when you set those larger boundaries in the future.”
Sometimes, if we fear confrontation, setting healthy boundaries can seem frightening. You may worry about rejection or feel guilty for putting boundaries in place, but it’s important to know that it’s your right to carve out the space you need for the things that will make you happy, free and safe at the same time.
If you’re a people pleaser, or you’re in a codependent relationship, knowing how to separate your feelings from someone else’s can be difficult.
“But you can always start this practice at any time, and the more you practice, the better you’ll get at it,” reassures Salerno.
And you can be flexible, too. As your life changes, your relationships will change and evolve over time. If you ever feel like something is off, it’s never too late to get back on track and re-establish boundaries that make sense at the time that you’re setting them.
Here are a few areas where healthy boundaries should be set.
Boundaries in romantic relationships
When we think of healthy boundaries, the first kind of relationship that might come to mind is the ones we have with romantic or sexual partners. Dating, in a way, is like a great melding of the minds: The longer you get to know someone, the more you figure out how compatible you are with one another. Often, healthy boundaries in romantic and sexual relationships come down to determining what you’re comfortable doing with your time, energy, body and space.
“Healthy boundaries in a relationship are respectful of your space and autonomy and the space and autonomy of your partner,” says Salerno.
This means if you find yourself at your significant other’s house and you don’t feel comfortable spending the night, you should set a healthy boundary in place and determine what time you’re going to go home. Other healthy boundaries may determine how frequently you text or call one another, how often you spend time together and even establish expectations on what sexual activity is right for you.
Over time, these things may shift. You or your partner may even change how you feel about some of these boundaries, but the important thing is to communicate with each other before any issues become glaring red flags. It’s also important to respect the boundaries you put in place.
“As much as you know another person, you never 100% know what their thoughts are or what their comfort level is,” says Salerno. “Their boundaries and comfort level may shift based on what’s going on in their life, so it’s important to check in with your partner every now and then to confirm where they stand on certain topics and issues and learn if anything has changed for either of you.”
Boundaries with family
Setting healthy boundaries can feel all sorts of weird and wrong at first, but trust us when we say, they’re equally important to establish with mom, dad, siblings or even that one uncle who likes to go a little too hard on tough political beliefs at the holiday dinner party.
“It can be hard to set up a healthy boundary if you grew up with someone being an authoritative figure over you,” says Salerno. “But it’s OK to set up these boundaries because you’re committing to yourself, you’re respecting yourself and it’s helping you retain a sense of identity.”
If you have helicopter parents who push the envelope on coming over unexpectedly or calling you multiple times every day, and these behaviors make you uncomfortable, it’s OK to tell them how you’re feeling. You can work together to figure out a healthy compromise that works for you both without either side feeling frustrated or neglected.
This same concept extends to tough, uncomfortable discussions where one person is pushing their religious beliefs, political ideology or words of wisdom when they’re not wanted or warranted. If something makes you uncomfortable, say so before it gets too out of hand. If it keeps happening despite your requests for change, then putting boundaries in place on whether you share time with that person may be essential. Setting these boundaries will help avoid burnout and also reinforce who you are as a person and what you need to remain healthy.
“If you don’t set boundaries and you’re always letting other people sort of dictate your time or what you’re doing, it really can lead to a sense of exhaustion and burnout across the board,” says Salerno.
Boundaries with friends
Setting boundaries with friends can feel really personal, even when it’s not. Think about it: Some of us share everything with our friends. The limitations we put on our friendships can often fall by the wayside when we’re having fun. But a healthy boundary can show up in surprising ways.
Maybe you shared an intimate secret with your best friend and you’ve asked them not to tell anyone. A healthy boundary exists in respecting the request and expecting that request to be met.
Or maybe you’re out for a few drinks and you want to head home early but your friend wants to stay out a little longer. Setting a healthy boundary and going home when you’re ready is important. Maybe you help establish a way for your friend to go home, or you come to an understanding that you’ll both check in with each other later. How you handle it is up to you, but it’s important that you put these boundaries in place despite your fear that it might affect your friendship. After all, a true friend will understand not to cross a line when it comes to your health, happiness and safety.
“Setting boundaries really lets you get rid of toxic relationships that maybe you didn’t even know you had,” notes Salerno. “If people don’t respect your boundaries, you learn very quickly that maybe some of your friends aren’t respectful of you.”
Boundaries at work
Can you set up healthy boundaries at work, even if you’re dealing with a toxic work environment or a problematic boss? The answer is yes, but this one may take a bit more strategy and collaboration between you and your leadership team.
“If your supervisor or manager doesn’t model healthy boundaries, it can be hard for an employee to try to set boundaries,” says Salerno.
Let’s say you’re pulling in multiple late nights and working on the weekends. If you’re finding yourself dealing with burnout in the workplace, you may want to sit down with your manager or team lead to discuss alternative methods to make your schedule mutually beneficial.
If you’re dealing with difficult co-workers who are making you uncomfortable and causing a stressful work environment, you can also set up healthy boundaries directly with them or by going to your human resources department and determining other solutions. At the end of the day, the key is making sure everyone you come in contact with at your job understands what’s OK and not OK when it comes to your physical space, emotional health and mental capacity.
“You can have boundaries where you don’t overcommit yourself or you block time on your calendar where you can be productive,” says Salerno. “What’s key is having a conversation with your manager about what the expectations of your job are and creating boundaries from that discussion to help you meet your performance goals.”
Boundaries with strangers
And finally, it’s possible (and crucial) to set up healthy boundaries with just about everyone, even if they’re a complete stranger. If someone is invading your personal space in the grocery store or in line for an amusement park ride, setting up a healthy boundary may look like asking them to politely step back and give you some breathing room. If someone starts getting aggressive with you, it may look like stepping back yourself and asking someone nearby for help.
“You set healthy boundaries based on how you’re feeling in the moment and knowing how someone else’s actions will make you feel,” says Salerno. “If you ever feel unhappy, unsafe or pressured to do or feel something, it might be time to look at your options, determine what will make you feel better and set or adjust your boundaries.”