How to Set and Reinforce Boundaries

Creating boundaries in any situation can be difficult, confusing, anxiety-provoking, and out of the ordinary. Setting boundaries can help boost mental health, communication skills, source of identity, self-esteem, and self-respect, yet many people find boundary definition and setting hard to identify and execute. What is a boundary? What contexts can boundaries be used in? How do I set a boundary, and what do I do if it's violated?


In the most straightforward and elementary sense, a boundary means separating yourself from a situation or other individuals. It can be as simple as imagining an invisible line between yourself and something else that you don’t want to have full access to you, resulting in putting yourself outside of an unpleasant experience or emotion. In terms of mental health and wellbeing, a boundary can be limits, standards, or rules that you establish and enforce so you can feel safe, understood, and have higher mental energy and time for yourself.


Boundaries can be used in a number of settings with some of the most common ones being in the workplace, with family and friends, in a romantic relationship, financially, emotionally, physically, mentally, and more. A professional boundary could be a therapist and an adolescent client agreeing not to follow each other on social media, so the partnership is primarily focused on the client. Another professional boundary could be not checking your work email after six o’clock in the evening in order to unplug from work and focus on other interests and passions, and avoid burnout and over-commitment. A relationship or sexual boundary could be establishing what consent means with your partner(s) or committing to a few nights a week seeing friends outside of your romantic relationship to keep those ties strong.


A physical boundary could look like keeping yourself on a sleep schedule in order to get eight hours of sleep a night, determining the amount of personal space that feels most comfortable to you in social settings, and avoiding large crowds where you may feel claustrophobic. A mental or personal boundary may be saying no to friends or family who ask for incessant favors that you may not have time or desire for, or having a daily hour limit for social media apps and websites. Boundaries with family or friends may look like having a limited amount of time to spend with a loved one you disagree with or often argue with or asking your family to find other accommodations when visiting you if having them in your home causes you anxiety. A financial boundary could be committing to not discussing salaries and savings with others if it makes you uncomfortable, or setting a strict limit on how much to spend on holiday gifts for others.


One of the first things to examine when setting a boundary for yourself is: what area of my life causes me stress, anxiety, dread, burnout, or anger? Or, what is the most pressing area of my life that I feel could benefit from analysis or change? Once you identify a place where you want to make a change and set a boundary, ask yourself: What are some things I’m willing to make an adjustment on, now or in the near future? What steps do I need to take to set and commit to this boundary? How can I support myself if my boundary setting upsets or puzzles others? It may be helpful to write while you’re brainstorming or bounce ideas off a therapist or someone you trust. Boundaries are works in progress and not set in stone, and can be altered depending on different points and circumstances in your life.


One of the trickiest parts of boundaries is what to do if they’re violated by yourself or others. If you don’t follow through on a boundary such as not checking email past 6 PM, you may want to ask yourself: What caused me to push that boundary and how did it impact the rest of your evening? How does my work-life balance feel right now, and how might it feel if I continue to engage in this behavior and ignore my boundary? Of course, not all boundaries can be followed perfectly, yet you may want to ask yourself if this behavior is in line with your values and if it’s helping you move forward. If someone else violates a boundary you’ve set, such as your friend pushing back when you say you can’t help them move apartments, it’s best to be firm in your decision and have an honest conversation with them or give yourself some time and space if they don’t respect it. You have the right to set boundaries in a number of ways and enforce them, even if it doesn’t make sense to others. Looking out for your best interests and wellbeing takes time and practice, and is entirely worth it.


Written by Carolyn Simon, MS, LPC