Boundaries are one of those ‘therapy speak’ terms that are on the rise in many social circles. Despite their increasing popularity, boundaries are actually among the most misunderstood psychological concepts.
When misused, boundaries can easily be confused with controlling or antisocial behaviour. One infamous example is the Jonah Hill texts that forbade his partner, a professional surfer, from surfing with men or posting photos in a swimsuit because they “crossed his boundaries”.
Widespread misuse of the term has led some to dismiss setting boundaries as a trademark of a selfish ‘snowflake generation’. However, when used correctly, boundary setting is an incredible assertiveness skill that could change your life.
Healthy boundaries can improve your mental health, build stronger personal and professional relationships, and help you retain energy for the things that bring you joy and fulfillment.
What exactly is a boundary?
Boundaries can mean many things in different contexts, but in essence, they are about advocating for your needs and protecting yourself from harm.
Relationship and emotional boundaries act like physical barriers. They create a safe space to live your most authentic and rewarding life rather than succumbing to the expectations and demands of others.
Importantly, boundaries are not something we can impose on others to control their behaviour and make ourselves feel more comfortable. Boundaries are limits we have for ourselves that help us respond appropriately to people or circumstances that cross those limits.
The first time I tried to set boundaries with my parents, I announced that they were ‘not allowed’ to make judgemental comments about my appearance while I worked on healing my relationship with food and my body.
They looked at me confused and denied ever doing so, but ultimately agreed. But sure enough, the next time I saw them, they looked me up and down and said I was looking ‘healthy’. At the next family gathering, they raised their eyebrows and said, “someone’s hungry” when I reached for seconds. I was furious and flabbergasted. My master plan to stop them from triggering me had failed.
I now realise my plan was flawed because their behaviour was ultimately out of my control. Telling them they were forbidden from treating me in a particular way had no meaningful effect.
A better approach to setting a boundary can sound like an “if, then” statement. For example, “If you comment on my body, then I will leave the room and take some space from this relationship”.
This approach helps you maintain your autonomy and control of the situation. It leaves the ball in your court and avoids conflict or disappointment when people inevitably slip up or revert to habitual patterns that may be deeply ingrained.
Why is setting boundaries so tricky?
Many people understand the need to establish boundaries with a friend, family member, colleague, or partner but are anxious about doing so. This fear could be due to socially entrenched ideas that boundary-setting is a trademark of needlessly argumentative, bossy, selfish, unlikeable, or ‘not nice’ people.
Sadly, the fear of rejection or punishment when setting boundaries is sometimes warranted. Some personality types and relationship dynamics become unhealthy or even dangerous when one party tries to assert themselves.
Unhealthy responses to boundary-setting include guilt trips, lashing out, punishing the person by giving them the silent treatment, or twisting the narrative to shift the blame onto the person speaking up for themselves. These responses are not always deliberately cruel or manipulative, but they are still painful and damaging.
For those who have experienced adverse reactions to setting boundaries, it’s natural to feel anxiety or fear about it. Self-advocacy can be particularly triggering for those with a parent or attachment figure who shamed, dismissed, or punished them for voicing their needs and limits as a child.
We rely on our caregivers for survival when we are young and vulnerable. If we voice a need or concern that is unheard or penalised, we can internalise the idea that our feelings don’t matter or that speaking up is unsafe and ineffective. Unlearning this takes time, patience, and self-compassion, but it is worth the effort to build healthy relationships that don’t require self-sacrifice to sustain.
The benefits of boundaries
Boundaries aren’t synonymous with being cold, distant, or lacking compassion for others. If anything, they can allow you to deepen your relationships because you can show up as your true self, express your needs and emotions, and minimise future conflict or resentment.
Setting boundaries can be intimidating, but with time, it can build your trust that your connections can withstand challenges and respectful disagreements.
Boundaries help you build more trust in yourself and your relationships, reduce stress and anxiety, and free up mental space and time in your schedule for things that matter most to you. If you say yes to everyone, eventually, you will have to start saying no to yourself, your hobbies, your values, or other areas of your life that need your attention.
Boundaries are also an essential form of self-care. When stuck in a trap of saying yes to everyone and people-pleasing, we can easily find ourselves burnt out, resentful, exhausted, and even physically unwell.
Self-compassion or self-love can sometimes evoke images of bubble baths and pink nightgowns, but in reality, it can be as simple as speaking up for yourself to create a life of peace and harmony that aligns with what you truly want.
Embodiment practitioner and writer Prentis Hemphill describes it perfectly: “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously”.
Advocating for your needs and putting limits in place with others doesn’t make you any less loving. It provides space to direct that love inward where it is often most needed.
How to start setting boundaries
With so much anxiety, confusion and misinformation, knowing where to start with setting boundaries can be tricky. Before we start having these difficult conversations with people, we need time to reflect and find what boundaries feel like for us.
Everyone’s boundaries are unique to their circumstances and history. Talking to an objective person or mental health professional can help you work through what works best for you in a way that doesn’t judge or shame your needs and emotional experience.
Next, plan how and with whom you will begin setting boundaries. Take your time, set realistic expectations, and be prepared for confusing or negative responses from others.
With time, the art of setting boundaries will serve two purposes: one, it can bring you closer to the people who can learn to respect them, and secondly, it can help you cut ties with those who cross or ignore your boundaries.
Ultimately, relationships that require you to self-sacrifice can be emotionally unsafe. As painful as goodbyes can be, especially with close friends or family members, it can also allow healthier, more fulfilling relationships to flourish.
Communicate clearly and confidently, and remember there is no need to overexplain yours to anyone, even yourself. When in doubt, remind yourself that ‘no’ is a complete sentence.
It’s natural to experience fear, guilt, shame, or other challenging emotions when you start. Notice this and give yourself grace and gratitude for this courageous step towards a healthier life.
Setting healthy boundaries allows for authenticity, reduced stress, and stronger relationships. Over time, you may notice saying ‘no’ or speaking your mind no longer causes anxiety. You may see the gap between how you feel and express yourself closing.
By staying true to ourselves, we can also inspire and empower others to speak their truths and use boundary-setting to carve out a life that is truly authentic, meaningful, and fulfilling.
TELL US: Do you have any helpful tips for setting boundaries? If so, share them in the comments section below.