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5 Steps to Set Boundaries With People (Backed by Studies)


An article called “How to set boundaries with people” might bring to mind all sorts of scenarios. You might think of stern parents with sullen teenagers. Perhaps a struggling teacher with a class full of rowdy children. Or even someone struggling with a toxic relationship.

But setting boundaries isn’t only for crisis situations. Science has shown that it’s a powerful and even necessary tool for happiness in all aspects of our lives. When you set healthy boundaries with people, your relationships are strong and healthy.  You prevent conflicts from happening. You reduce anxiety and depression. And ultimately, you feel a greater sense of wellbeing and happiness.

Yes, you can achieve all that by learning how to set boundaries! But how exactly do we do that? In this article, we’ll take you step-by-step through how to set healthy boundaries with others.

This article is part of a much bigger guide on learning how to become happy that I’m sure is the biggest freely available guide on the internet right now. This article contains some great tips, but you’ll find a lot more actionable tips in the section Happiness Tips!

What exactly are boundaries?

Before we can learn how to set boundaries, we must first, of course, understand what they are.

Definitions differ, but psychologists seem to agree that boundaries do the following things:

  • Define the limits that separate you from other people
  • Determine what behavior you will tolerate from others
  • Allow you to say “no” to others

It’s easiest to explain by looking at physical boundaries in the world around us. These can be a wall, an obstruction, a locked door, or a strip of tape. They let you know that you’re not supposed to enter a certain area, and prevent you from doing so. There may also be a security alarm that signals when you cross a physical boundary. 

You can have physical boundaries, too. They determine how close you let a person come to you and if or how you let them touch you. But you can’t build a cage around you or install a siren on your head to signal your boundaries to others. You have to set and communicate the boundaries yourself.

Of course, there are many other kinds of personal boundaries. Rather than physical spaces, they can relate to actions, words, and emotions. 

Types of boundaries with examples

The best way to explain boundaries is with concrete examples. Here are some different types of boundaries you could set:

Boundaries in professional relationships

Here are some examples of setting boundaries in a professional setting:

  • A teacher doesn’t share details of her personal life with her students.
  • A boss doesn’t allow employees to use swear words in the office.
  • A therapist chooses not to connect with clients on social media.
  • You ask your colleagues not to call you on your personal phone about work issues.

Boundaries in family and romantic relationships

Here are some examples of setting boundaries with your partner:

  • You agree with your partner to have one night to yourself each week.
  • You tell your partner on what you’re comfortable with physically.
  • You ask your roommates for more help around the house.
  • You ask your children to knock before entering your room.

Boundaries in friendships

And here are some examples of setting boundaries with your friends:

  • You limit the amount of time you let a friend spend in your home.
  • You don’t accept help or advice on things that are personal to you.
  • You ask your friends to contribute gas money if you drive them around often.
  • You tell a friend who stood you up that you won’t make plans with them anymore if they continue.

It’s important to be aware that different relationships have different boundaries. A boundary that you have with a colleague might be too cold applied to a friend. On the other hand, your physical boundaries with your partner would be wildly inappropriate with your boss.

Studies on the effects of setting boundaries with people

Studies show that setting boundaries with people plays a huge role in well-being. This has been examined from several different angles.

Study shows blurred boundaries lead to lesser wellbeing

One study examined a lack of boundaries using the teleworking environment. As homes double up as offices, many people struggle to set clear boundaries with colleagues and family members. Consequently, their work and personal lives can blend together without a clear divide. This has several negative effects:

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Reduced happiness
  • Lower sense of commitment to work
  • Resentment among family members
  • Greater family conflict

Study shows setting clear boundaries increases wellbeing

Another approach to studying boundaries is considering their benefits when implemented. One such study focused on workers who set clear boundaries in their workplace. It found the following benefits: 

  • Higher motivation
  • Sense of empowerment
  • Greater wellbeing

Five steps to set boundaries with people

It’s clear by now that learning how to set boundaries is important. It creates a happier life and helps you build healthy relationships. But just how do you set boundaries with people? Let’s break it down.

1. Define your boundaries

Before you learn how to set boundaries with people, you need to figure out what they are for you personally. Here are some ways you can do that.

Think about your values

Starting from your values helps ensure that boundaries play a positive role in your life.

Take a moment to think about what is truly important to you. Write down a list of 5-10 things. This can be anything: family, health, personal growth, self-care, etc.

Your boundaries will need to reflect these values and help you achieve them. For example, if I value privacy, then I need to set boundaries that respect that. I might set a passcode on my phone, close my office door while I’m working, or ask people to knock before entering my room.

Reflect on uncomfortable feelings

Discomfort feels uncomfortable — duh. When something happens and we feel this way, it’s instinctive to sweep the feeling away. Why would we want to wallow in something negative?

But the healthiest thing to do would be to spend some time examining the feeling. Often, feelings of discomfort come when a  boundary has been breached. Reflecting on these feelings can help you identify this breach. Consider if there is a boundary missing, or if you are too lenient with your boundaries.

For example, I might feel uncomfortable when my sister asks me about my breakup in front of my friends. That tells me that I don’t want her to talk about my personal life to others. This is a boundary I will need to set with her. If we don’t pause to examine our negative feelings, we will never be able to identify our boundaries.

2. Put your boundaries in place

Now that you’ve defined your boundaries, it’s time to implement them! Here are some tips.

Set boundaries early in a relationship

Setting boundaries can be difficult if people have been used to a certain status quo for a long time. It can be uncomfortable and difficult to suddenly change the rules. It’s like training old pets. If they’ve been sleeping in your bed for years, just try to make them stop now and you’ll know what I mean.

The best way to avoid this is to set boundaries right from the start. That way people know where they stand, and you will avoid causing confusion or hurt feelings down the road.

Start with small boundaries

Perhaps you haven’t set boundaries yet, or people have been breaking them for a long time. In this case, starting big might feel overwhelming. That’s totally fine – Rome wasn’t built in a day either. Lay down the first stone, then build on it over time.

For example, let’s say you’re constantly online and all your colleagues and boss know it. They call you at any hour of the day, even your vacation, for help with things that aren’t even in your job description. This has been going on for some time, but you value family and want to have a better work-life balance. 

As a first step, you could stop responding to phone calls and emails after 8 pm. Once you feel ready, you can move it up to 7 pm. Then 6 pm, and eventually 5 pm.

The plus side of this is that along the way, you can re-evaluate if you’re heading in the right direction. If not, you can reconsider your values and adjust your boundaries accordingly.

3. Communicate your boundaries with others

So now you’ve fully defined your boundaries. Great! But you can’t expect others to have a crystal ball and automatically know what they are. You have to communicate your boundaries with the people they involve.

Not communicating your boundaries isn’t fair to you, nor to others. It would be like grading kids on knowledge you haven’t yet taught them. You’d just be setting your relationships up for conflict. 

Of course, most relationships don’t start with two people sitting down and mapping out their boundaries. You can just communicate boundaries with people as they come up.

However, there might be someone who has been crossing your unspoken boundaries for a long time. In this case, you may need to sit down for a serious conversation. You need to let them know that things are going to change and why it’s important for your relationship.

Whatever the case, be firm, but kind. Remember that you haven’t communicated your boundary to this person until now. So they haven’t really crossed a boundary. To them, it doesn’t exist!

Either way, communicating boundaries isn’t necessarily easy. Here are some ways to do it effectively and without creating conflict.

Use “I” statements

Your boundaries are based on your values, and so they’re highly personal to you. If you communicate your boundaries this way, they won’t sound like an attack against the other person. “I” statements are just the trick to do this.

Consider the difference between these two comments:

“You have to stop bothering me after work” 

“I need some time to myself when I get back from work”.

The first one sounds aggressive, accusatory, and punishing. The “I” statement leads to more cooperation, less hurt feelings, and a healthier relationship.

State facts

When boundaries are breached, you may feel angry, hurt, or disrespected. These emotions can easily leak out when you communicate your boundaries. But unfortunately, this is usually counterproductive. It can make the other person feel attacked, and prevent them from actually hearing you out.

Remember that people often don’t overstep boundaries on purpose. Why would they? It’s not pleasant for anyone involved, and nobody wants to make others feel uncomfortable.

So a lot of the time, boundaries are overstepped because:

  1. They aren’t clear.
  2. They haven’t been communicated yet.
  3. The person has different values than you, and so your boundaries aren’t obvious to them.

Remember that boundaries are meant to promote healthy relationships. So avoid using charged language and making negative assumptions. Instead, describe the facts.

For example, a comment like this:

When you cruelly humiliated me in front of my friends, I felt violated and embarrassed. I trusted you with my private life and you threw that trust in the trash. I need you to start being respectful with me.

Could become something like this:

When you brought up my recent breakup in front of my friends, I felt hurt and embarrassed. It was private information that I told you in confidence. I need you to keep things I tell you to yourself, and let me tell others when I’m ready to do so.

Just say “no”

It might feel uncomfortable to say “no” without giving an explanation. But would you feel the need to explain a “yes”? Well, saying “no” should work the same way.

We tend to offer explanations to soften the blow or spare the person’s feelings. But this is often an excuse that’s not the real reason why we’re declining. This can make you feel guilty and out of alignment with your values.

The person may also think that you’re only saying “no” in particular circumstances. They might thus try again in the future, thinking you would say “yes” when the conditions are different. You, in turn, respond with a different “no” explanation. Eventually, they will catch on, but not before you both feel frustrated and worn out. Saying just “no” makes sure you communicate clearly and don’t mislead anyone.

Of course, your answer doesn’t have to be limited to a curt “no”. You can still decline something politely, but without making excuses. Melissa Flint, an associate professor of clinical psychology, gives a great example:

I’m quite sorry, but I cannot commit to working on that project over the weekend. I appreciate you thinking of me and having confidence in me, but not this time!

Melissa Flint

4. Maintain your boundaries

By now, you’ve communicated your boundaries. But if you fail to follow up on them, you’re actually making things worse than if you never set them at all. People will see that you don’t take your boundaries seriously, and then they won’t either. Here are some tips for maintaining your boundaries.

Remember your values

If you’re hesitant about sticking to your boundaries, come back to the reasons why you set them in the first place. Your boundaries should uphold your values, and your values are very important to you. Recalling them will give you the motivation and courage to demand others to respect them.

Be consistent

As you think back on your values, you might realize that they have shifted over time. As a result, your boundaries will shift with them. This is perfectly fine. But make sure you’re not changing your boundaries without a good reason. Otherwise, it can be very confusing to everyone involved. People might start to feel like you’re messing around with them, or like they can’t rely on what you say.

Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself

Setting boundaries may feel a little strange at first to you, but also to others around you. Remember that it’s a learning process for everyone involved, and you may both need some time to adjust.

During this process, you might need to restate your boundaries. Remember our earlier tips for communication and be kind but firm. The end goal is for a happy, healthy relationship.

Set consequences that you’re willing to follow through on

If someone repeatedly violates your boundaries, there must be consequences. You can even communicate these from the start. This will let the person understand how important the boundaries are to you. In the best-case scenario, they will make sure not to cross your boundaries and everyone is happy.

But if this isn’t the case, you need to draw a hard line and be prepared to walk away. For example, you can tell your partner that they need to respect your career goals if they want to stay in a relationship with you. Make sure you set consequences you’re willing to follow through on. 

5. Respect other people’s boundaries

Boundaries are a two-way street. You should set your own and hold others accountable for respecting them. But you should also respect other people’s boundaries. People who are bad at one are often also bad at the other. 

So you can build your skills with boundaries from both perspectives. This will help you improve your overall ability to manage healthy relationships. Here are some ways to do this:

Express gratitude

When a person communicates their boundaries, you might feel dismissed, rejected. But remember, when someone sets boundaries, they’re not blaming you for trying to hurt them on purpose. They are just letting you know what behavior to avoid so that you don’t do it by accident.

Nobody likes being told “no”. But as we saw, not setting boundaries leads to discomfort, resentment, and exhaustion. These feelings pile up and damage the relationship. Communicating boundaries actively keeps relationships healthy. This is certainly positive, and so you should encourage anyone who wants to set boundaries.

You can do this by responding with gratitude:

  • “I value your honesty”
  • “I appreciate you sharing that with me”
  • “Thank you for letting me know how I can help our relationship stay healthy”

Boundaries can be hard to hear at first. But if you want to keep your relationship with someone, respecting their boundaries is the only way. Otherwise, you’d just be damaging your relationship and pushing them away. Most likely, it would eventually end.

Be perceptive

It is the other person’s responsibility to set and communicate boundaries with you. But not everyone knows how to do this yet. If you notice that a person is feeling uncomfortable, don’t continue with the behavior just because “they didn’t say anything”. Not respecting boundaries is very harmful to a relationship, as we’ve seen. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is. The end result will be the same.

Ask

Communication is everything! If you’re not sure if you overstepped a boundary, a simple question will get you an answer. This is also a great way to open up communication and let the person know that it’s okay for them to communicate boundaries to you in the future.

Wrapping up

Hopefully, now you feel a lot more confident with how to set boundaries with people. See if you can start putting them into practice. Over time, you’ll learn how to communicate your boundaries and how to react when people cross them. Gradually, you’ll see that your relationships and happiness get all the better for it.

What do you think? Do you find it hard to set boundaries with others? Or do you want to share a tip about what’s worked best for you? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

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Silvia Adamyova

Writer

Born in Slovakia, raised in Canada. Online English teacher, editor, copywriter, and translator. You’ll find me holed up in a bookstore, typing in a cafe, or immersed in a philosophical debate.

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