Psychology and Relationships

Setting boundaries in your daily life can protect you from 'harmful experiences': Here are 3 tips to get you started

Illustration by Gene Woo Kim.

"It's okay if you text me, but I can't respond until after work."

"I just need 30 minutes to complete this task, and then we can talk."

"I know I said I was available tonight, but I think I do need a quiet night at home."

If saying any of this scares you, you're not alone.

For many, the idea of setting boundaries with people you love and work with can feel mean, says Nedra Glover Tawwab, a licensed therapist and author of Set Boundaries, Find Peace. However, there are tons of psychological benefits to drawing lines in your personal and professional life.

"Anxiety and depression are just some of the mental issues or concerns that arise when boundaries are not present in relationships," she says. "The lack of boundaries can make people feel powerless and hopeless."

And setting boundaries with friends, family, and partners can actually help strengthen those relationships.

"People want to feel seen and being unable to have your needs met equates to you not being seen in relationships," Tawwab says.

Setting boundaries can also shield you from damaging experiences at work, says Lisa Bobby, psychologist and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching in Denver, Colorado.

"Setting boundaries means knowing your own limits about what you will and won't tolerate," she says. "This is important because it is the first step in protecting yourself from experiences that would be harmful to you if you allowed them."

Telling people what you need can also lead to "increased feelings of empowerment and control over your own life experience," she says.

If you have trouble setting boundaries in your life, there are ways to talk to yourself and others that might ease the process.

3 tips for setting boundaries in your daily life

Unlearn self-neglect

Taking care of your own needs before or in tandem with those of your loved ones can often be painted as "selfish," but it's not. "Unlearn that you shouldn't have boundaries," Tawwab says.

"Self-neglect is not a way to show how much you care for others. In relationships, both parties can choose what they want and need."

Start to tell yourself that you deserve to have preferences, she says: "This can be a helpful step toward speaking your needs and desires."

Self-neglect is not a way to show how much you care for others.
Nedra Glover Tawwab

Think about time as "finite"

Saying "yes" to everything a boss, friend, family member, or even partner asks you to do leaves very little energy for you to pursue what makes you happy.

"Boundaries around how you spend your time and allow others to use it are essential," Tawwab says. "Thinking about time as finite, not infinite, can make people more aware of how important and impactful their time is."

Remind yourself that you only have a limited amount of hours in the day. Then, you'll be more likely to say "no" to experiences that don't serve you.

Use 'I' statements

When it's finally time to draw the line, make the conversation about your actions, not the other person's. "Keep it clear and concise without overexplaining yourself," Tawwab says. "Your boundaries are about you. Communicate in 'I' statements instead of 'you' statements. Instead of explaining the problem, focus on what you need. That's the boundary."

For example, instead of telling a friend not to talk about a specific topic in front of you, communicate that it's unhealthy for you to participate in conversations about that topic.

A boundary could also be about a specific tone or attitude, Bobby says.

"Healthy boundaries are not saying, 'you can't talk to me that way," it is saying, 'if you talk to me that way I will remove myself from this conversation.'"

Stress that this is meant to improve your relationship, not stifle it, Bobby says.

"Find a special time to have a serious conversation that is not on the fly or during an argument," she says. "Use 'soft startup' skills that emphasize your good intentions, and desire to have a better relationship."

If the lines you've drawn are crossed

It's important to keep in mind that not everyone will respect your boundaries, even if communicated compassionately, Bobby adds. Anyone who is angered by your boundaries might be "toxic," and you'll likely want to rethink to what capacity you want them in your life.

"People will either come to understand that being in a relationship with you requires a certain level of respectful behavior from them, or those relationships will end and you'll have space in your life for healthier ones," Bobby says.

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