Boundary Setting 101

by Dr. Chelsea Graziano, Assistant Director of Case Management

Boundaries are limits that we set for our interactions with others. They are essentially the rules that we use for navigating through our relationships. Our boundaries help us to draw the line that expresses to others what is permissible and what is not permissible in our relationships.

Boundaries include ideas such as parameters for physical touch, verbal communication, and utilization of resources (including physical resources such as personal items, food, or money as well as more abstract resources such as time or space). Specific examples may include whether or not you like to hold hands in public, how much time you or a partner spend on social media, name calling in arguments, sharing or not sharing passwords with a partner, loaning money to family/friends, or desire for personal space.

Where the line is drawn can be different for everyone. Some individuals have very loose boundaries and can be easily swayed by others. Some individuals have very rigid, or inflexible, boundaries and are sometimes viewed as closed-off or cold. Healthy boundaries tend to fall somewhere in the middle of the two.   

Maintaining healthy boundaries can help to reduce stress. As we are currently several months into the COVID-19 Pandemic, many of us are feeling the stress. One of the effects of the social distancing and quarantining is that many of us are staying at home in record numbers. For some, staying at home can mean spending more time with people who may not necessarily respect our boundaries.

It is safe to say that we have all had people in our lives who struggle with respecting the boundaries that we set. For some of us, those relationships can be managed without major life disruption. But for others, this may be impossible, especially if we live with them. Repeated violations of our boundaries can lead to anger, conflict, and resentment in a relationship. Even though it can be difficult to uphold certain boundaries, it is up to you to set and maintain them. This is true even if those around you do not want them.

Healthy boundaries can help to minimize conflict in relationships because both parties clearly understand the desires and limits that they both have in the relationship. Also, healthy boundaries can help us to maintain balance during a time where many things feel unbalanced. It makes sense that setting boundaries can help us to stop overburdening ourselves with additional tasks and responsibilities when all we really want to do is say no.

Below are four basic steps for setting and maintaining your boundaries.

Steps for setting clear boundaries:

  • Identify the boundary- Be clear with yourself about the line being crossed that makes you feel uncomfortable. Define within yourself what you believe to be acceptable and unacceptable within a relationship. Boundaries can be physical, emotional, verbal, etc. Your boundaries need to feel right with you, but they also need to respect the needs of others.

  • Communicate the need and importance of the boundary- Do not feel the need to over explain. Clear and simple reasons for setting your boundary work best. For example, some physical boundaries that we set for ourselves arise as the result of a physical or sexual trauma. Although a trauma history is not something to feel ashamed of, you should not feel like the world needs to know your entire life story just to be able to respect your boundaries. If someone crosses a physical boundary, making a statement such as “please do not touch me that way, it makes me uncomfortable” is an entirely valid way to communicate your boundary without sharing more sensitive information or disclosing past trauma.

  • Set a consequence- What will happen if someone does not respect your boundaries? If the answer is ‘nothing’ then there is no reason for the other person to respect the boundary that you worked so hard to set. Examples of consequences for repeated boundary violations include that you will no longer make plans with that person or decide to not participate in a specific discussion with them (think conflicts over politics or disrespect of your gender identity or sexual orientation). Do you have a family member that can never seem to respect your boundaries when you visit? Then maybe the next time you visit you stay at a hotel instead of their home. Consequences are ways that help you re-establish the boundary on your own terms when it becomes clear that the other person is unwilling or unable to respect them on their own.

  • Stick it out! – When you identify a boundary and go through the process of setting it do not turn back. It can be difficult to maintain boundaries if there are people in our lives who try to push them. However, being firm with your boundary shows how important it is to you and that you are not willing to let others change them. If you alter your boundaries under pressure, it will show others that they can push you to change your views as it serves them. Once you go back on a boundary it will become more and more difficult to re-set it in the future.