Culture, Life, Relationships

Setting Healthy Boundaries

Boundaries are intellectual lines that set our limits where other people are concerned.  It can be difficult to know where to draw those lines at times, particularly with those we care about.  We often do things that make us uncomfortable because we are unclear about our boundaries.  To have healthy relationships, we need to set healthy boundaries to avoid use, abuse and disrespect.  Below is a look at how to set healthy boundaries in your relationships, at work, in romance, with family or friends.

What Won’t Work


Using absolute language dooms us to failure, as words like always and never are unrealistic and will most likely lead to disappointment.  For example, statements like, “You can never talk to her again,” or “Always call me when you get out of work.”  These things may seem easy, but they are also easily forgotten and fail to take outside circumstances into consideration.  While the task is small, the opportunity for letdown is huge.  Maybe their phone died and they couldn’t call. Perhaps the person they shouldn’t to talk to approached them and struck up a conversation.  It may be difficult for a relationship to continue under that kind of strain.


Attempting to bribe or coerce a behavior is another form of boundary setting that just won’t work.  Saying, “You must do X or I will/won’t do Y,” alienates the other person and creates a situation that is difficult for you to maintain.  Under these circumstances we usually lose our resolve and give in, which sends the message that our boundaries do not need to be respected.  And again, continuing a relationship after a mess like this could prove difficult.


Giving an ultimatum is not a good way to set a clear boundary with someone.  In fact, it usually sends the message that you are irrational.  Think about it.  Saying, “It’s her or me,” forces a choice where there shouldn’t necessarily be one, and makes you look unreasonable and foolish.  It also creates the possibility that you will lose out.  This behavior could make someone second-guess their opinion about you, and you could potentially lose them.  Better to not risk it.

Vague Boundaries

Are you a mind reader?  Do you ever feel like people think you should be able to read minds?  That is because they aren’t being clear about what they want.  Vague boundaries happen in two ways. First is when we set boundaries that are too general, such as, “Don’t spend too much money this week.”  Well, how much is too much?  Should we just know, or guess at the specific amount that is too much and evoke anger?  That’s not fair to anyone.  The second way boundaries can be vague is when they aren’t vocalized at all.  If you don’t want to be treated like a mind reader, then don’t expect it from others either.

What Will Work

Be Self-Aware

The first step to step to setting healthy boundaries is to know yourself.  Know what you like and dislike, what you can tolerate and what makes you uncomfortable.  Know your limits, and own them without shame.  If you know who you are and how you want to be treated, let others know respectfully.  Treating yourself with respect and honesty lets others know how you will treat them in turn.

Be Clear

When you know yourself and your boundaries, you can communicate them to anyone trying to violate them.  Avoid any misunderstandings by being as clear as possible.  Let others in on behaviors that irk you, don’t keep it to yourself.  Often in any kind of relationship, the other person does something to bother you but you never let them know for fear of starting a fight.  Remember that it is OK to have preferences, and it is OK to let others know about them.

Speak Up

Speak up for yourself and be your own best advocate!  Mind readers don’t exist, so don’t act like everyone knows what you want.  If you don’t let others know what your boundaries are, they can’t respect them.  For example, say your boss asks you to change shifts to 11 AM to 8 PM, but you were hired to work 8 AM to 5 PM.  This could impact your life in several negative ways, like seeing your significant other less, confusing your pets and messing with your sleep cycle.  Your boss tells you that doing this is good for the company and your career, though you don’t want to make the switch.  What do you do, tell the truth that you don’t want the new hours, or agree and be unhappy?  Making the change might look good, but is that worth your happiness?

Be Specific

Make your expectations simple and direct.  Instead of saying, “Don’t spend too much money this week,” try something like, “Don’t spend more than $50 this week, or we might not be able to pay bills.”  This may seem like a simple change, but it is not.  By giving a specific dollar amount the expectation is clear.  Also, by being specific about the consequences, you are clear about what will happen if your boundary is broken.  The more specific you can be, the better.  For example, you could say, “Pick up your clothes or I won’t wash them.”  Or you could say, “If you put your clothes in the hamper by 10 AM tomorrow I will wash them.”  Which sounds better?

Setting healthy boundaries isn’t always easy, but it is important.  If you communicate your boundaries clearly and with kindness, you will find others more receptive and respectful of them.  If someone close to you has violated a boundary, explain why it is important to you, and let them know you want them to respect it in the future.  Be as gentle with them as you want them to be with you.

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