Boundary setting is a commonly discussed concept and practice in therapy. Boundary setting refers to appropriate emotional and physical behaviours that help facilitate healthy relationships and wellbeing.
Examples of Physical Boundaries
- Turning your phone notifications off at a certain time in the evening.
- Closing your work laptop.
- Scheduling time for work and time for leisure in your day/week.
- Choosing how much time you will spend at a social gathering.
- Deciding how frequently you will have contact with [draining] family members or friends.
- Communicating your expectations for how you will respond (or not) during vacation time with work.
- Choosing how you spend your time on a weekend.
- Telling someone that you don't want to be touched or hugged.
- Saying "No" to unwanted physical touch or intimacy.
- Telling people "I'm not available," when you need time to yourself.
Examples of Emotional Boundaries
- Caring through your actions rather than excessive worrying or rumination.
- Allowing others to experience their own thoughts and feelings [without trying to fix].
- Acknowledging what you have control over and what you can't control.
- Resist urges to fix or "save". Empathy, listening, and presence is often enough.
- Recognize that other people's emotions are not your responsibility; don't fragilize the people you love - rather, let them have agency.
- Be honest with yourself about what level of support and presence you're willing to and have the capacity to provide.
- Forgive yourself for imperfection.
- Allow yourself to not be liked by everyone.
- Accept that some people will judge.
Examples of Boundaries with Yourself
- Not buying things you can't afford.
- Taking rest and mental health days.
- Taking time to process your emotions and honour your feelings.
- Deleting or taking breaks from social media.
- Keeping promises to yourself.
- Creating a healthy bedtime routine.
- Establishing a morning routine.
- Regular exercise and movement.
Why are Boundaries Important?
Boundaries are a necessary part of self-care. It helps create a clear guideline for how you want to be treated and protects your mental and physical wellbeing by limiting stress. Boundaries help us feel in control, safe, and respected.
Let's demonstrate the point of boundaries with a thought experiment:
- Close your eyes and reflect on your own emotional and physical boundaries over the past month.
- Evaluate: Did you have boundaries in your relationships and/or work?
- If yes, how did that feel? What did you notice about your energy levels? Your willingness to participate in life? What was difficult?
- If not, how did that feel? What did you notice about your energy levels? Your willingness to participate in life? What was difficult?
- Take a moment to acknowledge the costs of your lack of boundaries. As genuinely as possible, ask yourself, "Is this the life I'm trying to live? Is it helping me show up as the person I want to be?"
- Write down where you could have benefitted from better boundaries over the past month. Tell yourself how you will address these and do differently this month. If you feel lost in knowing how to set better boundaries, it could be a good idea to bring it up with your therapist or start working with one.
Mock Case Example
Jessica has been a high achiever as long as she can remember. She's praised by most people in her life for her ambition and work ethic. Jessica learned to value herself based on how hard she could work and how well she could perform, such that receiving validation from others became a significant motivator to produce more. This served Jessica very well throughout her twenties. She graduated with straight A's and was offered the job of her choosing.
Jessica now has a two-year-old who requires more time and energy on top of her demanding job. Not only is she working full-time with a toddler at home, but her sister is going through a divorce and she's been calling her nightly for the past month. Jessica is experiencing symptoms of burnout and she has received negative feedback at work because the quality of her work has slipped. Jessica could benefit from boundaries!
Jessica could implement boundaries by:
- Communicating to her partner how they can help her by taking care of bedtime duties with their toddler on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
- Communicate her unavailability with work past 7pm on weekdays and to expect delayed responses during these hours. Commitment is key to resist urges to constantly check her email or respond to messages right away [apart from clear work emergencies or genuine obligations].
- Working within her work hours only to demonstrate the realistic amount of work that can be accomplished in a given time frame.
- Carve out 30 min-1 hour two days per week that are completely her own - and make this time known to others to minimize chances of disruption.
- Learning emotional boundaries within herself by practicing acceptance, acknowledging that she is indeed only human, and giving herself permission to have boundaries. She might need to remind herself that it's okay to have boundaries and personal limits.
Common Barriers to Boundary Setting
- Lack of skill in assertiveness
- People pleasing tendencies
- Fear of real or perceived consequences
- Experiential avoidance
- Safety concerns
Steps to Start Setting Boundaries
- Identify where you could benefit from better boundaries.
- Personal relationships
- Eating habits
- Substance use
- Explore what's getting in the way for you. Why have you not implemented boundaries yet?
- What boundaries do you want to set? What could make a meaningful difference to you now?
- If your boundaries involve communicating with others, create a script for saying "No" or asking for what you need.
- Be non-defensive and matter of fact in your communication.
- Plan for how you will cope with feelings of guilt or anxiety following boundary setting. Tell yourself how you will you resist urges to let the boundary slide.
- Remind yourself why it's important to set a boundary.
- Give it time and space for the boundary to settle; be willing to wait and see what happens. Let guilt simply be data rather than direction.
Options When Boundaries are Repeatedly Crossed
- Tell the person crossing the boundaries how you feel about them not being respected. Inform them how you will be handling this boundary crossing moving forwards if it continues happening.
- Stop communication with them altogether. Sometimes we must end toxic relationships if we want to protect our emotional health.
- Note: If physical boundaries are being crossed, such as non-consensual physical touch, harassment, or abuse, please seek guidance from a mental health professional, contact your HR department (if work related), or make a report to the police.
Disclaimer: This blog is for general information purposes only and does not constitute the practice of professional healthcare services, including the giving of medical advice. The use of information on this blog or materials linked from this blog is at the users' own risk. The content of this blog is not intended to substitute for psychotherapy or professional medical advice or treatment. Users should not delay from seeking medical advice for any medical condition they may have and should seek the assistance of a healthcare professional for any such conditions.
- Boundaries: What they are and how to create them. (2022, February 25). University of Illinois Chicago. Retrieved from https://wellnesscenter.uic.edu/news-stories/boundaries-what-are-they-and-how-to-create-them/#:~:text=It%20helps%20to%20create%20a,burnout%2C%20stress%2C%20and%20anxiety
- Brenner, A. (2015, November 21). 7 tips to create healthy boundaries with others. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-flux/201511/7-tips-create-healthy-boundaries-others
- Trefalt, Š. (2013). Between you and me: Setting work-nonwork boundaries in the context of workplace relationships. Academy of Management Journal, 56(6), 1802-1829.