When it comes to creating and enforcing boundaries, one of the first things I want to say is that you are valid to have boundaries whether they are physical, emotional, sexual, intellectual, financial, etc. Having boundaries does not mean you do not love or care for someone, but are actually key in developing and maintaining healthy relationships. People may try and convince you that if you really love someone, you won’t have boundaries because you’d do “anything” for someone you love. This may be a sign that they have bad boundaries themselves and is not necessarily them intentionally being manipulative (though that can happen). Some people do believe that if you love someone then you’ll be there for them because someone else has convinced them of that. It’s important to be aware of and recognize that you can still love someone and have boundaries. Having boundaries can also decrease stress and anxiety. Challenging your thoughts that boundaries are selfish and something to feel guilty about is important.
It is common to have difficulties setting and enforcing boundaries, especially if you’ve survived trauma, had people in the past react badly to you setting boundaries, or experienced others refusing to respect your boundaries. Sometimes it may be hard to determine whether our boundaries are being crossed and for that, I recommend trying to stay in tune with your feelings. If you’re feeling uncomfortable, stressed or anxious, it’s possible someone is crossing a boundary or a new one needs to be established.
It’s possible to violate your own boundaries if you’re not in tune with your own needs and limitations, too. If you find yourself frequently offering things, and then later feeling drained, resentful, or burned out, you may need to set better boundaries for yourself.
When it comes to setting boundaries, one of the first things to do is think about what your limits are right now. Your limits will change over time, and it’s important to pay attention to that, too, and to communicate them when you notice limits changing. Your limits may also be different with different people, or under different circumstances. Does your friend always hug you when they see you and you feel uncomfortable? It’s okay to talk about these things and set boundaries in a healthy way. For example, you might say, “This is not a reflection of you, but I feel really uncomfortable when you hug me. Could we fist bump instead?” You might also tell your friend that you’d appreciate being asked before being hugged, if your limit is something that is affected by your mood and changes from day to day. Perhaps you have a friend that only messages you to rant and you’re finding it emotionally draining. In this case, you may say something like, “I really care about you, but I’m feeling really overwhelmed, could you please ask me before venting to me?” It would also be valid to ask your friend to not vent to you at all for the time being, talk about some positive things in between vents, or avoid venting about certain topics.
I also want to point out that the statements I used as examples are more gentle than you need to be. You are well within your rights to be more assertive by using statements like “I feel ___ when you ___. I need ___.” You also do not need to give an explanation if you do not want to. “No” is a complete sentence whether that is to being hugged or doing a task you don’t want to do. The other person is not entitled to a reason, although you may choose to offer one to help them better understand what the boundary is, or to preserve a friendship.
Setting boundaries can be scary because we’re afraid of what may happen to our relationship with that person. While it’s not something we like to think about, someone that doesn’t respect your boundaries or reacts poorly to you setting them may be a person you consider limiting or cutting contact with. Your friend, or whoever you’re setting boundaries with should respond in a way that validates you and shows understanding. However, accepting other people’s boundaries (especially if they are very unexpected or unusual) takes a fair amount of emotional maturity to know that boundaries aren’t a personal attack. For more difficult boundaries, it may take them some time to emotionally process it, so if they don’t react immediately with validation and understanding, it may be worth walking away from the conversation for a bit to give them some time to process on their own. People are human and will have their own complicated feelings and reactions to things changing, and that’s okay. They should eventually reach a point of validation and understanding, even if it doesn’t happen right away.
If they don’t or are unable to respect your boundary, then you may need to consider being more assertive with the boundary (if you think they just didn’t think you were that serious about the boundary), communicating about what you mean (if you think they are struggling to understand what you need from them), problem-solving (if there’s something that’s making it hard for them to respect the boundary and you want to help them work through it), or considering cutting off contact (if you think they won’t/can’t change, or if you just don’t care enough about your relationship with them for it to be worth the effort). If someone knowingly oversteps your boundaries, you are well within your rights to limit your contact with that person or not engage with them at all. It’s important to note that setting boundaries suddenly in a relationship may involve unintentional slip ups by the other person, and in this case gently but assertively reminding them may be better than getting upset with them, cutting off contact, or letting the boundary slide. Letting boundaries slide does not benefit you or the other person and does not help cultivate a healthy relationship.
It’s been said before, but having boundaries is not something to feel guilt for. It does not make you a bad person, a bad friend, etc .You can still be supportive, and caring while having boundaries. It’s hard to take care of others when you aren’t taking care of yourself by advocating for your needs. It’s also important to point out that boundaries can and should exist in romantic relationships. A significant other does not get to demand that you spend all your time with them, give up your passwords or anything like that. You are well within your rights to have time alone or with friends/family. You also have the right to privacy in a relationship. Your responsibility is to communicate the boundary in a healthy manner. You are not responsible for how the other person reacts to boundaries. It’s possible that the boundary may be a dealbreaker to the other person and that it will mean the end of your connection with them. This is often the case in romantic relationships. For example, if one person needs to set a boundary to have more alone time and the other person needs more quality time, then it may be a serious compatibility issue. That doesn’t mean you were wrong for setting the boundary or that the other person is wrong for their needs not being able to accommodate the boundary. It just means you’re not compatible as people, and knowing that earlier allows you to both move on and find more compatible people.
If you are having a hard time setting boundaries, it’s okay to reach out for support from another trusted individual. Finding validation, and knowing that others set boundaries as well can be helpful in learning that we can as well. Setting boundaries is also a learned skill that takes practice. If you have struggled with people-pleasing in the past, it may take a lot of practice to be able to set boundaries. You can start with easier softer boundaries like “can we meet on Wednesday instead of Tuesday?” and work your way up to scarier boundaries like “I cannot lend you money.”
Setting boundaries can actually help you and the other person. Boundaries may be seen as putting up walls, but boundaries can actually be seen as solidifying a foundation of a relationship. They prevent resentment from building. Often when someone asks you to do something, they’re not all that invested in the outcome, they’re simply making a request. If you engage in people-pleasing behaviour and don’t communicate your boundaries properly, you may end up being burnt out or developing resentment against your friend for being overly demanding, when in reality they didn’t even care that much about what they asked for. Also, if you burn yourself out doing things, then when your friend really needs you, you’ll be less able to offer help, as you can’t pour from an empty cup. By clearly communicating boundaries and needs, you can prevent those problems from happening. Also, setting healthy boundaries can make it easier for other people to feel comfortable setting boundaries and knowing they will be safe in doing so.