How to Set Healthy Boundaries

Setting healthy boundaries can be extremely challenging. It takes a lot of courage to stand up and say no to something that feels wrong or asks too much of our time and energy. Especially as an empath who feels deeply for the troubles of others, putting their hand up often to help out.

Having no boundaries can lead to low self-esteem. Without healthy boundaries, we begin to feel weak. Like we don’t have a voice or say in something that feels wrong or makes us feel uncomfortable.

If we wish to feel confident and in control of our lives, it’s important to learn how to set healthy boundaries. It’s essential for our mental health and wellbeing. Having our boundaries crossed is something we all encounter as we go about our lives and interact with others.

Setting boundaries is something I have struggled with for most of my life. I don’t like to feel like I’m letting others down by saying no to what they ask of me. But as I grow, I realise how necessary it is to develop the skill of setting healthy boundaries. It isn’t selfish to set them. I feel much calmer within myself when I do set boundaries, rather than full of resentment and anger. I feel like I’m the driver of my life, rather than the passenger.

What are boundaries?

Boundaries are our limit to what we feel is appropriate and acceptable behaviour. We set them to protect our mental and emotional wellbeing. Boundaries can be physical–saying no to inappropriate physical contact from another. Or they can be emotional–saying no to what somebody asks of us that feels like more than what we would like to take on.

When a boundary has been crossed we often feel it in our body. I experienced this recently when somebody was talking poorly of those I love and my heart started pounding to the point I thought it would leap out of my chest. Everything inside me said I should say something or stand up and leave.

When we feel like our boundaries have been crossed, it’s important to acknowledge our feelings and decide how we wish to move forward with the relationship of the person who crossed the line. Choosing to keep it bottled up and pushing forward despite what they said or did will leave us feeling resentful and angry, hurt and without any power.

What is a healthy relationship?

It’s important to first understand what a healthy relationship is and what your rights are in a relationship.

A healthy relationship is when:

  • You feel safe with the other person
  • You feel appreciated and respected
  • You feel listened to
  • You say no and the other person understands and respects it
  • You feel validated

When our boundaries are crossed it can swing in the other direction. We might feel that the other person isn’t listening to us and respecting us when we say no to their request. We might begin to feel a little unsafe or uncomfortable in their presence. We might feel used or undervalued for what we do for them.

It’s important also, that we are aware if we cross the boundaries of another. That we pay attention to the body language and words of another. At times we might ask more of another person than they are comfortable with, or we might glaze over something they are telling us that is important to them. Hopefully, they share how they are feeling so we know, but other times it helps to be attentive to their body language or facial expressions.

So how do you establish healthy boundaries? Here are a few steps that have worked for me.

Know what your values are

Our values act as a compass. They are a set of principles that guide us through life–the things we care about. Examples are kindness, courage, honesty, freedom and optimism. Having a clear understanding of our values helps us move closer to those things and people who align with our values, and move away from those that don’t.

If you are someone who values optimism and a friend is always negative and bringing you down, you can reduce the amount of time you spend with them. If you value freedom and a partner demands that you spend every waking moment with them, you can tell them about your need for space and create time alone to do the things you enjoy.

How the other person responds is their choice, and it’s something that we can’t control. But having the courage to stand up and vocalise how we feel and what is unacceptable behaviour gives us strength and gradually increases our self-esteem. It might feel extremely uncomfortable to do initially, but it gets easier as your self-worth and confidence improve.

Pay attention to your feelings and physical body

As mentioned, we can often feel it in our body when the behaviour of another crosses a personal boundary. We might feel our body tense or heart pound, or we might feel anger building up within. It’s important to question what it is that is making you feel this way? What is it about the interaction that is bothering you? Our body gives us clues as to when a boundary has been crossed. It helps encourage us to confront the person who is crossing them.

Be honest and assertive about how you feel

When we feel deep down that a boundary has been crossed, it’s important to respond calmly and with confidence to the other person about how the behaviour or words affected you.

I feel _____ when _____ because _____ .

What I need is _____ .

Being assertive like this shows confidence and establishes clearly how the behaviour or words made you feel. It also makes it known to the other person how you feel, as maybe they don’t realise this about their behaviour or action. The hope is that they respond rationally and acknowledge what they did. But as said, we can’t control others, nor their response.

Practise saying no

It is totally fine to say no to the requests of others. When we feel that a request is impacting our time negatively, or asking too much of what we feel comfortable with, it is fine to simply say “no.” We can soften it and say “no thank you” or “no I’m unable to take that on.” But we don’t need to feel like we need to give a detailed and long-winded explanation.

Set boundaries in our surrounding and schedule

There are ways we can set boundaries in our lives that don’t involve direct contact with others. We can set up our surrounding and schedules in a way that protects us from taking in more noise or requests, or which prevents others from entering our physical surrounding uninvited.

  • Create time in our day when we don’t check or answer emails
  • Set an “out of office” reply to emails when on holiday
  • Create time in your week for uninterrupted alone time
  • Put beloved items away out of sight of others who might be tempted to go through them

Talk with a therapist

Some relationships can be extremely challenging. Especially if they are a loved one who you don’t want to walk away from, but who is making you unhappy. Speaking with a therapist can help.

Many of us shy away or put off speaking with a therapist. But they can help us develop the skills and give advice on how to navigate these more complex relationships. They can help us maintain our relationship with the other person while helping us become more assertive and set boundaries so we don’t feel so resentful and angry.

The resentment that is created when having our boundaries crossed can affect our mood, which in turn can impact other people in our lives–our partner and children. Quite often we will take out our frustration on those we love most.

As we get better at developing the skill of setting healthy boundaries, we begin to feel calmer. We feel more in control of our lives. We no longer feel like a puppet on strings being directed by others.

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