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Emotional boundaries are the hypothetical “do not cross” lines of any interpersonal relationship, from spouses to best friends to co-workers. Boundaries help clearly establish what each party in a relationship is comfortable with and how they would like to be treated. From the seemingly menial to deeply intimate, every relationship we have in our lives are two-way streets, and emotional boundaries help everyone stay in their metaphorical lane.
New year’s resolutions are often tied into physical appearance and well-being, but equally important for a successful and happy new year is setting goals to improve mental and emotional health. Resolving to set boundaries between family, friends, or co-workers can not only fortify existing relationships; it can also be the biggest act of self-care you can do for yourself.
Setting boundaries can seem off-putting, aggressive, or downright impossible for those used to pleasing others and putting others’ needs before their own. But we’re here to set the record straight: The word "no" can still be said with love, kindness, and respect.
Licensed clinical social worker Sharon Martin defines personal boundaries as “a separation between two people.” This separation can come in the form of clearly defining your own feelings, thoughts, and actions as unique and distinct from the other party. Boundaries also indicate each person’s responsibility within that relationship. In a relationship with healthy boundaries, each party is responsible for their feelings, thoughts, and actions only.
Boundaries provide a sense of agency over one’s person and range from seemingly trivial to incredibly personal. Personal space, sexuality, emotions, thoughts, possessions, time, energy, culture, religion, or ethics are all areas of one’s life where boundaries can be necessary. Setting boundaries is an entirely individualistic process, and only you can decide which boundaries are best for you.
Although boundaries might seem divisive or distancing, they actually work to strengthen bonds by offering guidelines to healthily and productively navigate all types of relationships.
The deeply personal nature of emotional boundaries means it’ll take a bit more than a Google search to figure out what’s best for you. Learning how to set boundaries also involves learning how to listen to yourself. Finding your comfort zone in social, romantic, and professional settings is a crucial first step to building the best boundaries for you.
It’s also important to remember our fundamental human rights, as explained by mental health author and licensed psychotherapist Judith Belmont, to Healthline. These include everyone’s universal right to:
Next, consider your values. Which matters more, love, or success? Freedom or stability? Healthline recommends identifying 10 important values, narrowing the list to five, and then to three if possible. Are any of these values regularly challenged or threatened in any of your relationships? If so, it’s best to start there when building new boundaries.
Finally, listen to your body. We react physically to that which makes us uncomfortable. The next time your spouse’s teasing about dinner sends a flash of red heat to your cheeks or a friend’s constant venting leaves you emotionally exhausted, take note and work on setting appropriate boundaries to prevent those reactions in the future.
A boundary never discussed is a boundary that will never be followed. So, as confrontational and cringe-worthy as it might seem, it’s absolutely crucial to talk these feelings out with the other half of the relationship in question. It’s also important to remember that setting boundaries for yourself is not necessarily an attack on someone else.
By keeping the focus of the conversation on your own feelings and needs, you can emphasize that you are seeking out solutions to your own problems instead of berating a partner, friend, or co-worker with a list of things they’ve done wrong.
“I” statements are the name of the game when setting boundaries, offering an effective means of communication that is confident and assertive without being threatening or aggressive. Examples of direct “I” statements include:
Jane Collingwood’s medically reviewed explanation of setting boundaries on PsychCentral.com suggests implementing a "five things" method, in which you sit down and list five things you’d like people to stop doing around you, to you, or things people may no longer say to you. While you might not get around to addressing all 15 concerns, this provides a general framework to begin prioritizing needs that must be met first.
Do you often volunteer to do favors for others, even if it means putting you out of time, money, or otherwise? Are you constantly picking up co-workers’ shifts even though yours can never get covered? Do you find yourself going with the flow to the point of being miserable? You might be a chronic people-pleaser. Luckily, there are ways to break this self-sacrificing habit.
“There is great power in the pause,” says Natalie Lue of Baggage Reclaim. People-pleasers will often say yes as soon as possible to quickly diminish perceived tension or anxiety. However, taking a slight pause between the request and the response offers more time to determine whether the request is something you desire to do or something you feel obligated to do.
If, after the short pause, you decide the answer is no, Lue suggests either a “hard” no or a “soft” no. “Hard” no’s are clear, concise, and brief: “no, thank you” or “thank you for asking, but I can’t this week.” No further explanation, no added apologies, just a simple and firm “no.” “Soft” no’s, Lue explains, should be about three sentences long and can offer a brief explanation to soften the “no” blow: “thank you for asking me to do this project, it sounds really exciting, but I don’t have the time to commit right now.”
Coming to a compromise is another way to say “no” with less conflict. Meeting in the middle takes the needs of everyone involved into consideration, ensuring that neither party is being exploited. A guide to setting boundaries from TherapistAid.com suggests looking at the bigger picture: “some days you will give more than you take, and other days you will take more than you give. Be willing to take a longer view of relationships, when appropriate.”
In a word, yes. Setting boundaries improves self-esteem and mental health, conserves emotional energy, increases independence and agency, and provides deeper, more meaningful connections with those around you. Healthy boundaries also help protect you from exploitative or abusive relationships.
While setting boundaries can upset those around you, this in no way means the boundaries shouldn’t have been set. Relationships built on love and mutual respect will be able to withstand the transition to a new set of boundaries. If you’re met with someone unwilling or unable to respect your needs, it might be time to evaluate whether that relationship is worth keeping in your life.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide when to set, enforce, or change your boundaries. It’s impossible to control others' actions, but you can maintain control over your own emotions, thoughts, and actions. Remember your fundamental human rights and act in love, respect, and compassion, and your boundaries will keep you and those around you safely and happily driving in your own lanes.