The Fine Line of Boundary Setting

| Written by Jessica Lelinho, MA, LPC, NCC, LCADC, C-DBT

We all have relationships in our life . . . whether it be a significant other/romantic partner, family, friends, or even co-workers. Do you find yourself struggling in communicating with them or even feel that at times they take advantage of you because you’re “too nice”? Feel as if they’re walking all over you even though you’re communicating your wants and needs and even beliefs? Do you want to set boundaries but don’t know how to set these boundaries?  It’s important to set healthy boundaries in any type of relationship whether that be significant other/romantic partner, family, friends, and even co-workers. Setting boundaries will greatly assist you in strengthening your relationships and provide improvements in your overall self-esteem and well-being. 

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What are Healthy Boundaries in a Relationship?

Sheldon Reid wrote an article in which he discusses healthy boundaries on When we think of the word “boundaries” we may imagine a negative connotation in which we believe these boundaries will separate us from others and we’re putting up a wall. While this is somewhat correct, we have to remember that not all boundaries are negative – they’re actually an important part of our relationships to ensure that we are maintaining healthy relationships that are balanced. By setting healthy boundaries it greatly assists us in maintaining both our mental and physical health. So what exactly are boundaries pertaining to relationships? Boundaries can encompass a variety of factors including: restrictions on physical actions such as respecting our belongings (i.e., not allowing others to look through our cell phones) or psychological (i.e., acceptance that our goals and dreams may not always align with our partners). Healthy boundaries as discussed on serve the following purposes:

  • Encourage autonomy and reduce any co-dependent habits
  • Set our expectations when interacting with others
  • Give ourselves a sense of empowerment and self-respect
  • Ensure we are comfortable both physically and emotionally
  • Clarification of individual responsibilities in any relationship whether that be with our significant other/partner, family, friends, or even co-workers
  • Separate our wants or needs or thoughts or feelings from other individuals

If we were not able to set these healthy boundaries our relationships could become toxic or even unsatisfying thus causing our overall well-being to suffer. We may even feel taken advantage of or stressed or even resentful. 

Studies have shown that when boundaries are blurred between both our personal life and work, individuals experience more emotional exhaustion and less happiness, however, if we were to set those healthy boundaries specifically pertaining to our job, it can lead to a greater sense of empowerment. 

Healthy Boundaries and Unhealthy Boundaries – What’s the Difference?

Seth Menachem wrote an article on Menachem Psychotherapy Group in which he discussed the difference between healthy and unhealthy boundaries. A healthy boundary is a limit which  allows you to maintain your own sense of health and well-being; it’s the opportunity for us to define what we will or won’t do and what behavior(s) we don’t want to welcome into our lives. It’s important to note that when setting healthy boundaries, there are consequences for disrespecting the limits we have put in place. In comparison, unhealthy boundaries are limits that are ill-defined or poorly enforced. For example, you may have set the boundary and put it in place but have difficulty in maintaining or communicating the boundaries that have been broken. It’s important to note that unhealthy boundaries are not to be utilized for control. Boundaries are put in place as a guide to ourselves. 

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Types of Healthy Boundaries addresses and discusses various types of healthy boundaries that exist including:

  • Physical boundaries: These types of boundaries help keep us comfortable and safe, not just when we’re dealing with strangers but even when we’re interacting with those closest to us. For example, we may tell individuals we prefer handshakes over hugs or tell a friend that we need a break when engaging in physical activities. If a physical space exists to us, we can set limitations on that such as not having others intrude our bedroom or cluttering our office with other individuals items. 
  • Sexual boundaries: These types of boundaries can cover a wide range including consent before engaging in physical intimacy or checking in with our partner’s comfort level when being physically intimate. No matter how long we have been with our partner we always need to communicate likes and dislikes. 
  • Emotional boundaries: These types of boundaries ensure that other individuals are respectful of our emotional well-being and comfort level. When setting this type of boundary we could say, “I don’t want to talk about this while I’m at work I need to focus”. It’s important to set barriers to ensure that we do not feel overwhelmed by other individuals’ feelings. A great example of this is when it comes to going on a second date we should know that we are not responsible for how they react should we decide to turn down the offer of a second date. Remember we are not responsible for anyone’s reactions other than our own.
  • Material/financial boundaries: This type of boundary extends to our belongings (i.e., money, clothing, car, or even our housing). If we like to give back charitably, we may have a hard time saying “no”, however, it is important to remember that individuals may intentionally or unintentionally take advantage of our own goodwill which may result in resentment. For example, if choosing to set a material boundary we could say “you can borrow my charger but please put it back where you found it when you’re done” or even say “no I can’t loan you money to buy new shoes or clothing”. Remember it’s okay and healthy to say “no” when it comes to these types of boundaries.
  • Time boundaries: This type of boundary allows us to focus on our own priorities whether that be at work or our own personal life without feeling overwhelmed by other individuals needs and wants. For example, we could have had a stressful week and just want to use the weekend to decompress but we’re invited to a social event so we may decline the invite or even set a time limit on how long we stay if we do decide to go. Other examples of time boundaries include: asking others to avoid calling us while we’re working or asking our significant other/partner to hold off on that important conversation until it’s more convenient for us. 

Shifting Boundaries

While we would like all boundaries to be set in stone, it’s important to know that sometimes we may need to adjust our boundaries. It is extremely important to ensure proper communication of boundaries as we’re re-evaluating and revising our boundaries. We want to be clear about the change and reason we’re changing those boundaries. shows various examples of shifting boundaries.


Initial Boundary New Revised Boundary
Initially we have loose financial boundaries with family members and assist financially when necessary. We have now lost our job so we are deciding to set tighter boundaries to protect our own self financially.
Oftentimes we agree to work extra weekend hours to assist our co-worker. You just had a baby and now you’re cutting back on your hours to spend more time with your newborn.
You allow your friend(s) to vent their emotions and feelings to you daily. You feel that your friend(s) oversharing of information is affecting your mental health so a  limit is set on how long they can talk about the subject and how often they talk about the subject.
You and your partner are physically intimate multiple times a week. Your drive for physical intimacy changes and you ask your partner to focus on the other aspects of intimacy.
You allow a family member(s) to temporarily use your house for storage. You now need the space for your own belongings and needs so you communicate the need to relocate their items elsewhere.

Unhealthy Boundaries

Unhealthy boundaries can either be too rigid or too porous while healthy boundaries fall in-between. discusses rigid and porous boundaries. 

Rigid boundaries keep others at a distance. You may refuse to talk about your emotions or rarely set aside time for others.

Porous or weak boundaries develop if you have a hard time saying “no”. We may be too willing to take on every responsibility in a relationship or we overshare when talking with strangers. 

You may be struggling with setting healthy boundaries and struggle with unhealthy boundaries such as: a desire for control, fear of rejection, lack of experience in limit setting, being overly agreeable, or even have issues with low self-esteem/self-confidence. 

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Benefits of Setting Boundaries

While setting boundaries may be difficult for you, it’s important to set boundaries as it has many benefits. WebMD discusses various benefits of setting boundaries including but not limited to: 

  • Building greater self-esteem
  • Getting clear on who you are, your wants, values, and belief system
  • Bringing focus to yourself and overall well-being
  • Enhancement of your mental health and emotional well-being
  • Avoidance of burnout
  • Development of independence
  • Gaining a greater sense of your identity

How to Set and Maintain Boundaries in Relationships

It’s important to set boundaries from the beginning of any relationship. Just by setting healthy rules/limitations we can strengthen our relationship(s). We may not know that something is needed such as a restriction until we get to know each other more – we may not realize our co-worker is distracting us at work or our significant other/partner is too controlling.

Tips on Setting Boundaries

  • Know what you want in a relationship(s): It doesn’t matter the type of relationship but it’s important to have our needs, values, and beliefs met. asks us to ask ourselves the following questions:
    1. What traits do I like to see in other relationships?
    2. What behaviors bother me?
    3. What qualities do I admire in others?
    4. What materialistic items matter the most to me and why do those materialistic items matter?
    5. What makes me feel fulfilled?

Gaining this understanding of our needs, values, and beliefs can greatly assist us in knowing the boundaries we need.

  • Assess how we feel with someone: It’s important to think about how others make us feel. asks us to reflect on our feelings by asking ourselves:
    1. Did the other individual(s) make jokes or comments that made me feel disrespected?
    2. Did the other individual(s) do anything that made me feel physically uncomfortable or unsafe such as raising their voice when angry?
    3. Did I feel pressured to do things that don’t match my values?
    4. Did I feel overwhelmed by the other individual(s) request(s) or expectation(s) of myself?
    5. Did I feel as if the other individual(s) were infringing on my sense of control?

Identifying and reflecting on the above questions can greatly assist you in deciding and determining if you need to set limitations with the other individual(s) in the future.

  • Talk to the person about your needs: Utilize effective communication techniques to communicate your needs. Establish ground rules and don’t feel rushed or have poor wording or vague requests as it will only make it harder to understand and respect those ground rules.
  • Consider your timing: Don’t set a boundary when stressed. The best time to set boundaries is when you’re relaxed and are able to focus on the conversation at hand. If you’re arguing, try to walk away and cool down – this doesn’t mean that it won’t be addressed, address the issue at hand when you’re both calm.
  • Be prepared: If you’re nervous about how the conversation is going to go, write down important points you’d like to make or issues you’d like to address to ensure you are clearly communicating our needs.
  • Consider how it’s delivered: Use “I” statements such as “I feel _____ when you _______ because _______”. Avoid blaming and using “U” statements. 
  • Be clear: Don’t give vague requests (i.e., I’d like more personal space) while this may communicate the message it can result in confusion. Instead use “I” statements (i.e., I feel disrespected and uncomfortable when you come into my room unannounced. Please knock before entering my room”. 
  • Address any feedback: The individual you’re communicating the boundary to may have questions. Don’t feel that you need to justify your needs or expectations or explain yourself. Instead, help the individual understand where you’re coming from. Follow up questions after the conversation can assist in ensuring the message was conveyed clearly and effectively. 
  • Let others take responsibility for their emotions: Do you ever feel responsible for other’s emotions? It’s important to know that we shouldn’t feel responsible for their emotions or reactions to boundary setting. Don’t feel guilty or selfish that the boundary is being set or established. Keep reminding yourself why the boundary is being set and important to you. Don’t put your own needs aside for others’ needs.
  • Enforce boundaries: While we wish everyone would respect our boundaries, unfortunately at times the boundaries may be crossed. identifies the following steps to re-inforce our boundaries:
  • Restate our needs: It could be that there was a misunderstanding or even being forgetful, if that’s the case remain calm, firm, and clear when communicating your needs.
  • Have clear and reasonable consequences for crossing boundaries: Utilize the “I” statements (i.e., “I feel disrespected when you talk over me. If you do that again, I’ll have to end the conversation”. 
  • Only state consequences that you’re willing to enforce: It’s important to follow through on a consequence. If we don’t, others will be more inclined to overstep your boundaries in the future. For example, we may tell our significant other/partner that if they continue to lie to us we’re going to take a break from the relationship – only say that if you can actually follow through on the consequences. Don’t make a consequence that you won’t be able to do; almost like a false promise. 

We all have those moments where we feel we’re being taken advantage of for being “too nice” or not being heard in the relationship. Those feelings need to be addressed by setting boundaries which are of importance in any type of relationship. These are just a few tips on how to set boundaries in a relationship.  

If you are looking to set boundaries within your relationships, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Setting boundaries within your relationships can lead to decreasing mental health symptoms of anxiety, depression, self-esteem/self-confidence and various other mental health challenges. A licensed professional can assist you in overcoming these challenges. 

When Jessica is not providing therapy, she enjoys spending time with her family and friends, listening to country music, cooking, baking, and going to the beach.

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