How to Set Boundaries

~4 minute read

In many ways, your boundaries define who you are, your values, and what you are comfortable with. At this stage in your life, your boundaries are constantly being pushed and tested by new friends, new life choices, and new experiences. Sometimes stepping out of your comfort zone and pushing your boundaries can be a good thing. Sometimes, however, you might feel pressured to push your boundaries in a way that violates your values or, you might find yourself trapped when someone else violates either spoken or unspoken boundaries. Often, you might not even realize you have a certain boundary until it has been crossed. 

Why do we cross our own boundaries?

There are many reasons we push our boundaries. Often, healthy curiosity for new experiences causes us to explore boundaries. We want to fit in with friends or teammates and we feel like we will be missing out if we don’t participate. Due to peer pressure from friends, family, teammates, or partners, we might feel like we need to do certain things or act a certain way. Many of these causes relate to the tendency to people-please. We all desire to feel accepted, loved, and valued. We also often want to fit in and gain the approval of people around us. For people-pleasers, there is often the desire to avoid conflict or to feel needed through helping others or prioritizing another’s needs over their own. These feelings and desires aren’t problematic in and of themselves. However, when the desire to fit in, avoid judgement, or please others causes us to ignore our values, neglect our needs, or put ourselves in risky situations, that’s when the need for boundary-setting comes in.

How can you set boundaries?

When in a situation where you are testing your boundaries, try using the four steps below to ensure that you are setting thoughtful, healthy boundaries that you will feel good about in the moment and afterwards. You can use these steps to set boundaries in a number of situations, such as if a friend or family member is asking for too much emotional support from you, if a friend or teammate is encouraging you to drink or do drugs, or if a friend or partner is pressuring you to be more intimate than you feel comfortable with. 

1. Label your feelings

When confronted with a situation (new or recurring) that you think might push your boundaries, the first step is to label your feelings. Before you can effectively set limits, you need to know what you are feeling. Are you feeling nervous or uncomfortable? Are you feeling confused or pressured? Are you feeling excited but afraid? Are you feeling emotionally or physically exhausted? 

2. Listen to your feelings and intuition.

If something feels wrong, or feels like it’s violating a boundary, it probably is. When you need to decide what to say or do, trust your instincts and identify the change needed to ensure that you and whomever is with you are respecting your boundaries. Staying in tune with your feelings also means tuning out FOMO or peer pressure. 

3. Consider the impact on yourself and others.

What are the possible consequences of pushing your boundary? Will pushing this boundary improve your life or provide you with a meaningful, positive experience? Will this decision have potentially negative effects on your friends, teammates, or family?

4. Communicate your boundaries.

The easiest and most straightforward way to communicate your boundaries and ensure that they aren’t violated is to simply say no in a neutral and calm tone. People will often accept your decision without pushback if you respond with a neutral tone of voice and body language. If you seem anxious or indecisive, people might feel they will be able to pressure you into something you aren’t comfortable with, or they might mistake your feelings of nervousness as judgement over their actions and could end up responding with anger or defensiveness. If saying “no” outright is too uncomfortable, try deferring. Tell your friend, “not feeling it today,” that you need to check your calendar, or that you’ll get back to them. Then follow-up ultimately declining. You could also try offering an alternative, suggesting something like, “nah, wanna check out this new movie tonight instead?” 

5. Ignore guilt and FOMO.

As you assert your needs or set your boundaries, guilt or FOMO might set in. Over time these feelings will subside as you follow through on your boundaries and live according to your boundaries. Remember that good friends will respect your boundaries. If they don’t, put pressure on you to join them, stop talking to you, or guilt you and talk about how much you missed out, you should evaluate your relationship. Taking care of yourself and your boundaries is not selfish, it’s a necessity. People often engage in peer pressure when they feel nervous about their own actions, so there’s a good chance they’re having second thoughts, too. If they can recruit someone to join them, they’ll feel less isolated and less vulnerable. Move at your own pace and don’t let others’ needs and fears come before yours. When it comes to FOMO, remember that there will be other opportunities to try new experiences or test your boundaries. “No” doesn’t have to be forever, it can be a “no” for right now.

6. Hold yourself accountable.

There are other ways to set boundaries such as deciding to spend less time with a friend, deciding not to stay out late with a friend, or deciding not to spend too much alone time with a friend or partner. Reflect on situations where your boundaries might be tested and decide if you can or should opt out of that situation altogether. You can always reconsider and reset your boundaries. Just because you did something once doesn’t mean you have to do it again. As you define and communicate your boundaries, remember to respect the boundaries of those around you in the same way you hope yours will be respected. 

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