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Learning to set boundaries isn’t about them, it’s about you

Why setting boundaries is the ultimate form of self-respect

Charlotte Buelow
Mar 10 · 7 min read
Photo by Quang Anh Ha Nguyen from Pexels

There are different ways to say it: “setting boundaries,” “learning to say no,” “placing limits,” and more, but call it what you will, setting boundaries comes down to one thing: being able to say to yourself, “I am going to put my needs for myself above the needs of others in regards to my time and availability.”

Setting boundaries doesn’t mean you are being selfish. It means you are not allowing yourself to become so drained with the needs of other people that you ignore your own needs. Boundaries allow you to replenish your emotions and make you able to help the people you choose to help more fully and satisfyingly.

Knowing your boundaries means being sensitive to your own needs and your own emotional and mental well-being. Just as you take precautions to keep your body physically healthy, having boundaries helps keep you mentally healthy.

Why is having boundaries important?

Above all, setting boundaries establishes the foundation for how you expect to be treated. Certainly, there are different levels of boundaries, for instance, I set a higher level of boundaries professionally than I set for close friends and family. Even within my family, the boundaries between my husband and I are less than those with our daughter.

Being secure in your boundaries helps your relationships remain respectful and appropriate and allows others to know what you consider respectful and appropriate in every realm of your life. For example, by making sure not to blur boundaries at work, you are able to show your example of what a professional relationship looks like to you. At home, a parent can model what a respectful family relationship is.

By remaining true to your boundaries, you eliminate some of the misconceptions others, those with different boundaries may have. When boundaries are blurred, there is the danger of someone overstepping in a way that can permanently damage the relationship.

Why is setting boundaries so hard?

Boundaries look different to each person because everyone has different parts of life that they value. Someone who places a lot of value on their family will have boundaries in place to protect their time with their family. Similarly, someone who values their professional life most will set their boundaries to reflect that.

When the person who puts the most value in their family life is asked by someone who puts the most value in their professional life to do something that may encroach on their family time, they may feel as if they are coming close to the boundary they have in place to protect that.

It isn’t easy, though. Often the people trying to push our boundaries are people we respect such as co-workers, bosses, close friends, and family. It is far easier to say “no” to a stranger, or someone asking you to give your time in an email, rather than face-to-face contact.

Friends and family, especially, can cause us to abandon our boundaries. We want to help our loved ones and often that means sacrificing another area of our lives to be there for them. We have a true personal connection with these people and it is harder for us to do only a little, or say “no” completely because we feel responsible for their happiness.

What having boundaries doesn’t mean

Having boundaries doesn’t mean you can only have one thing that is important to you in your life. You can value your career and also your family. You can value your religion and also your hobbies. You can have many areas that you focus on, it just becomes more difficult to juggle if you prioritize everything equally and becomes even more important to be secure in your boundaries.

Boundaries are not things that can never be bent. Yes, it is important to be consistent in your boundaries to reinforce them to yourself and others, but there are certainly times when boundaries can be relaxed a bit. An example of this could be when someone close to you experiences loss. Or when a coworker is going to be out of work for an extended amount of time and you are trying to lighten the load with the team.

Other times you may need to re-evaluate your boundaries and make adjustments. Professionally, you may receive a new position that requires different boundaries. Personally, your children may be growing up and can have a different level of boundary with you. There are many different instances that could require you to change your boundaries.

What do boundaries look like?

While boundaries are for other people, they are also for you. No one walks around wearing a sandwich board listing their boundaries for their present situation. (But it would make it so much easier, right?) So it falls on you to establish your boundaries in a more subtle way.

Professionally, boundaries can be established by simply saying, “I can’t work late, I have to pick my children up from school.” If other coworkers are talking inappropriately in the break room, you can take your coffee outside or to your desk. Setting boundaries isn’t lecturing others to fit your mold of what you deem right, it is protecting your own line and placing distance when needed.

Having boundaries with close friends can mean not responding to a text message you receive at work because you know you will get sucked into more time than you have to give. Your boundaries with close friends involve a lot of self-control and reinforcing because often you are really interested in what they have going on at the time.

Family is another area where boundaries tend to be more relaxed and lines are crossed. At the end of a long day, husband and wives may not be as respectful to each other, or children may try to cross the line from “child” to “friend.” Simply finding a way to give yourself space will help you rejuvenate and keep your boundaries for how you will be treated in place.

Simple ways to set boundaries

To set boundaries, you first need to know what is important to you and how high you rate their levels of importance. Once you know this, you can begin to set appropriate boundaries for yourself.

  1. Professionally

Establish your boundaries as soon as possible, that way there is no question about them in the future. If you begin a job and you are working late and consequently picking your child up from school late, then suddenly say you can’t it may raise some eyebrows. You can navigate this situation by explaining you thought it would just be temporary, but you are unable to have your child wait for you.

If others in your workplace that have different value sets from you, there is nothing wrong with putting some distance between yourself and them. Yes, you need to be cordial and able to work together, but you don’t have to compromise your own values by jumping in on their conversations if it is not something that makes you comfortable.

2. Close friends
If you know that you could easily spend the day texting with a friend instead of doing the other things you’ve set out to do, reply to their message saying you have a lot you need to get done and ask if they can talk later. The friend will hear that you are interested in talking to them, but you need to clear your plate a bit first.

Another option is just to turn your notifications off during the day and give your work number to family in case of an emergency. During your breaks, you can check your messages that came in on your phone and use that time to respond if you choose.

3. Family
As with professional boundaries, set (and enforce) boundaries with family, children especially, as soon as you are able to. Family often assumes they can have access to you 24/7, and that is often not the case.

Like close friends, family may need to have limited contact with you during the day and just a quick, “I’ll call you when I’m free” message can reinforce that boundary. Family can be especially hard to say no to, but having your boundaries clear and consistent will show what you are able to give of yourself.

4. Others
Others can be people or things. The Internet, for example, is often something that can take our time and needs to have a boundary associated with it. Cell phones put the internet in the palm of our hands but have also pushed the lines of our boundaries more than any other device.

Establish a “no phones dinner” and focus on conversation with one another. Take a “social media siesta” for an hour every evening. Don’t let technology be another thing fighting for your time.

5. Don’t forget your self-care
Self-care is important for our mental and physical health. Setting boundaries to protect your self-care time not only helps you prioritize self-care but also makes you more able to help others.

Self-care does not have to be something that consumes a lot of time. It can be going for a 30-minute jog, listening to your favorite playlist or podcast, or just taking a few minutes to focus on your breathing during the day. Like boundaries, self-care looks different for each person, and the important thing is knowing what works for you and doing it.

Boundaries done right

Boundaries are an important way to show others how you expect to be treated in different situations. While setting boundaries can be difficult, it shows that you value yourself enough to protect your mind and body. Boundaries can be reassessed and changed in different situations and with different levels of relationships.

The most important part of setting boundaries is remaining consistent so others can learn your expectations. As you, and others, become more comfortable with your boundaries you will be able to focus on your own needs before the needs of others and will be able to give yourself more wholly.

Charlotte Buelow

Written by

Mommy. Mental health writer. Champion napper. Coffee drinker and dog petter. Awkward to the max. Let’s be friends.

Charlotte Buelow

Written by

Mommy. Mental health writer. Champion napper. Coffee drinker and dog petter. Awkward to the max. Let’s be friends.

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