Setting Boundaries: Gives us Control Over our Life, our Time, our Energy

Setting boundaries is for many of us one of the hardest and scariest things to do, because we don't like having boundaries imposed on us. Equally, we don't like the idea of imposing them on others. Most people believe that happy relationships should be problem-free, so any requests to behave differently can feel like a rejection. Some people may even interpret a "no" from a loved one as the end of a relationship. Ultimately, we don't really know how to go about it.

Our preference for not setting boundaries is driven by short-term thinking, out of fear of disappointing others or appearing selfish. It's a way for us to avoid immediate pain, instead of maximizing long-term benefits. This is the path that leads to boundless misery.

We need boundaries to function effectively and enjoy our life and work. They are there for our protection and well-being; they allow us to control our life, our time and our energy.

What is the purpose of boundaries in relationships?

Boundaries are important in all areas – partners, family, friends, work... They are a set of internal rules intended to clearly define which behaviors we will accept from others, and which ones we will not. At the same time, they also spell out the behaviors others can expect from us.

In a sense, the purpose of boundaries is to make each party aware of the individual responsibilities and expectations resulting from their interactions with each other.

In relationships, healthy boundaries are about assuming responsibility for your own actions and emotions, but NOT taking responsibility for the actions and emotions of others. This means other adults can accept that you won't be carrying their burden – and that you can still be a good person if you say no.

It’s particularly important to clearly make our boundaries known to the people we interact with so that they understand the rules. Communicating boundaries is the foundation of a healthy relationship! This is where boundaries differ from barriers. Unlike boundaries, barriers cut off communication and negotiation.

Boundaries are often thought of as rules for others, but in reality, they are rules for us. They are informed by our core values, as well as our current goals and priorities. They are our definition of what we are comfortable with, and our choice of what we will do if someone ignores them. They encourage autonomy and reduce codependency.

Some examples of setting healthy boundaries

Whether it's a family member, a friend, a partner, a roommate or a professional relationship, it's important to set boundaries to protect ourselves from negative emotions such as anxiety, frustration, resentment, overcommitment, burnout, etc.

People with healthy boundaries can say "no" to others when they need to.

·      Set healthy boundaries with colleagues at work

Setting boundaries at work can be a difficult line to walk when the power dynamic isn’t in your favor.

Boundary issues at work feed a vicious cycle. Poor boundary definition often leads you to accommodate the needs and expectations of others at the expense of your own. This results in a loss of control over your work and your results, which not only is depressing, but can lead to further infringement of your boundaries, since others now expect you to be available on-demand, whatever the cost to you.

Fortunately, it's possible to put an end to this situation. Setting the right boundaries at work will increase productivity, reduce stress, and turn a vicious cycle into a virtuous one.

Frame your boundaries in terms of a collective agreement for the common good. That is, you take full accountability for your work and its contribution to the common good (the team's overall success), provided you can control your working conditions. For example, you may set the following boundary: "no unannounced calls unless it's an emergency". In other words, I'm asking you to respect my working time and understand that I won't be able to talk or discuss until X, Y, Z is completed.

This may seem scary at first and you will need to be consistent about sticking to it, otherwise boundaries won't mean anything. However, if you frame things in terms of the common good, it will be virtually impossible to argue with you about these boundaries. Even a boss will respect that. Especially a good boss.

·      Set healthy boundaries with a roommate

Establish rules/guidelines on how you will split household chores, for example, set up a cleaning schedule. When it comes to visitors, you may want to limit visitors beyond a certain hour or as exams approach. Consider setting your expectations in terms of noise levels, especially after certain hours, as well as the use of common amenities.

·      Set healthy boundaries with an aging parent

As the population ages and develops disabilities, many of us will most likely be challenged to assume some caregiving responsibilities. This happens against a backdrop of simultaneous demands of family responsibilities and work obligations, on top of the natural stress of caring for an elderly relative [taking care of aging parents].

It's important to set healthy boundaries from the outset. Define early on the extent of your involvement and be willing to say "no" to preserve your sanity (I'm thinking of the 11 p.m. call requesting an urgent visit to ease near-daily panic attacks). Be clear about what you can and cannot do; this is particularly important to avoid any feelings of guilt once the person is gone.

·      Set healthy boundaries with a romantic partner

Even as a couple, you'll always remain two distinct entities, with different needs, desires, and expectations.

Well-defined boundaries enable you and your partner to maintain your own identities, thoughts and feelings. They help preserve each partner's autonomy and personal space, while preventing co-dependency. At the same time, it also avoids misunderstandings and conflicts. In short, setting boundaries is key to a healthy and balanced relationship that fosters trust and emotional security.

Fear of conflict is a common reason for not setting boundaries in the first place. To avoid upsetting or angering our partner, we sometimes sacrifice our own needs and desires to keep the peace.

Steps to take to set your boundaries

1.     Recognize you deserve to be treated with respect.

2.    Get clarity about where to draw the line and set your boundaries. This involves differentiating between hard (non-negotiable) boundaries and soft (aspirational) boundaries. Hard boundaries are those you're unwilling to compromise on and have to act on immediately. Think of them as things you would never accept as reasonable. For example, you would never tolerate disrespectful behavior from your partner or anyone else. Soft boundaries are more like wishes, which you're willing to compromise on. Think of them as goals to be achieved, but on which you're flexible. Maybe you want to start leaving the office at 4:30 pm instead of 5:00 pm.

3.     Decide what the consequences will be if someone breaks one of your rules. It's bound to happen, and often does. Decide what the consequences will be from the get-go. If you haven't thought about the consequences beforehand, they may be difficult to determine.

4.     Communicate the above clearly. Make your boundaries known. People need to know when they will be crossing the line.

5.     Enforce your boundaries. If someone crosses your boundaries, do what you said you would. Be compassionate but be firm. The first time someone violates your boundary, you might just remind them about your boundary. The next time, you might decide to go a week without talking, for example. Only in extreme cases should you cut off all contact.

Final thoughts

Clearly, setting and enforcing boundaries is an ongoing process, not a one-off exercise. In so doing, we must keep making judgments about when to be strict and rigid, and when to make exceptions or changes based on new information or factors (soft and hard boundaries).

Having boundaries frees up our time and energy to live the life we want. It also helps us develop and maintain healthy, supportive relationships based on mutual trust.

Boundaries that work for some may not work for others. That's why we need to champion our own, while helping others to advance theirs – and respect their choices, even as we defend our own.

Did you read those already ?

Discover more posts in

Science, Health and Well-being

Sign up for our newsletter

And never miss our latest articles

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.