Setting boundaries at work and in relationships: A how-to

July 30, 2021 - 18 min read

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What is setting boundaries, and why should you care?

Why do some people struggle with setting emotional boundaries?

What boundaries are and what they aren’t

How to find and define your boundaries

7 ways to set your boundaries

Setting boundaries with family

Setting boundaries in relationships

Setting boundaries at work

How to recognize other people's boundaries: 3 steps

Setting boundaries is a journey

We’re told regularly that setting boundaries is important.

But what we don’t often hear is a convincing explanation for why we should set boundaries.

Perhaps more crucial, how do we actually go about finding, defining, and setting our boundaries?

Today, we're going to talk about:

  • Why you should care about boundaries
  • How to define and set your own boundaries with family and friends, in romantic relationships, and at work

We’ll also teach you how to recognize and respect the boundaries of others.

What is setting boundaries, and why should you care?

When you set a personal boundary, you’re essentially saying, “This is what I’m okay with, and this is what I’m not okay with.”

Effective boundaries protect our personal space, our physical and mental health, and our safety and security.

Setting boundaries, then, is the process of determining any nonexistent or unhealthy boundaries. It's also about exploring your comfort level in specific situations with the goal of setting better boundaries.

Such situations and types of boundaries include:

  • Physical boundaries
  • Sexual boundaries
  • Intellectual boundaries
  • Work boundaries
  • Emotional boundaries
  • Financial boundaries

Boundary setting is an important exercise. When our boundaries are crossed or violated it often results in intense negative emotion, such as:

Understanding your boundaries and being able to communicate them helps you form a healthy, sustainable relationship with others and reduces the likelihood of your boundaries being crossed.

Of course, for some, setting good boundaries is easier said than done.

Why do some people struggle with setting emotional boundaries?

Some people have a hard time creating strong boundaries. For them, setting boundaries is often a source of great stress and leaves them feeling frustrated and overwhelmed.

Let’s examine five reasons why.

1. They aren’t sure how to set a healthy boundary

The number one reason some people struggle with this concept is they simply don’t know how to go about setting a clear boundary.

They may not be in touch with their feelings, making it tough to understand what a reasonable personal limit would be.

For others, it might not be so much a case of being disconnected from their feelings. Instead, they may lack an understanding of how to communicate their interpersonal boundaries to others.

2. They are too agreeable

People who are high in agreeableness often struggle to set boundaries.

High in agreeableness? What does that mean?

One of the most well-documented and empirically relevant measures of psychological traits is The Big Five. This is a set of five personality traits that are relatively stable across time in an individual. One of them is agreeableness:

  • Extraversion
  • Conscientiousness
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism 
  • Openness

Agreeableness is the tendency to be kind, cooperative, and considerate. Unfortunately, it can also mean you too often do as others please rather than acting of your own volition.

Those high in agreeableness are sometimes described by others as ‘pushovers.’

People high in agreeableness often struggle to set firm boundaries. They feel uncomfortable standing up to others or not meeting others’ expectations.

3. They have low self-esteem

People who have a low sense of self-worth may feel that they don’t deserve to enforce their personal boundaries on others.

This can lead to feelings of guilt and, if left unchecked, it can develop into depression.

Fostering a mindset of self-acceptance can help with this.

4. Their boundaries have been disrespected previously 

If someone has had an emotional or physical boundary disrespected in the past, they may struggle to see the point in setting boundaries.

After all, they’ve set them in the past, but someone in their life has crossed them anyway. This leads us to our next point.

5. They don’t respect others’ boundaries or don’t see the value 

Some people choose not to set healthy boundaries because they simply don’t see the value in them. 

These tend to be the kinds of people who disrespect the mental boundaries of others. They can also exhibit manipulative behavior such as gaslighting

What boundaries are and what they aren’t

Personal boundaries can be hard to understand sometimes. Let’s look at a few common characteristics of boundaries and bust some myths that confuse the concept.

5 characteristics of boundaries

Here are some common characteristics of boundaries and how they help improve our lives and relationships:

Boundaries let us conserve emotional energy

Constantly dealing with situations you’re uncomfortable with can be incredibly draining. Setting and communicating boundaries allows us to minimize this drain and conserve emotional energy.

Boundaries make for better relationships

Well-defined boundaries improve interpersonal relationships of all kinds. Each person learns more about the other and shows respect to their personal limits.

Boundaries can be flexible 

Boundaries can flex and change as you do. You might find that over time, your preferences will change, and you’ll need to reassess the boundaries you’ve set.

You also have the right to break out of your comfort zone when you wish to, so don’t be afraid to try pushing past those boundaries. Just make sure it’s a situation where you have full control, and you can go back to your safe zone if you feel uncomfortable.

Boundaries allow us space to grow as a person

Personal growth thrives when we feel comfortable in the world in which we live. 

When we feel like others are constantly crossing our boundaries, we can enter a sort of defensive survival mode. This is true even if we haven't defined our boundaries.

Boundaries help us manage our lives better

When we’ve set boundaries that we’re happy with, we’re able to more efficiently manage our:

  • Time 
  • Relationships 
  • Worklife

We’ll have fewer concerns that we’ll encounter uncomfortable situations. 

4 common boundary myths 

Now, let’s take a look at some common myths about boundaries:

Boundaries make you unhappy

Boundaries aren’t supposed to be a negative thing. Sure, you’re setting a limit, beyond which you’re saying, ‘This is what I’m uncomfortable with.’

But this doesn’t limit the amount of joy you can experience. In fact, rather than limiting your experience, boundaries help you protect your joy and thrive doing things that actually bring you pleasure.

Boundaries are set in stone

Your boundaries aren’t a set-and-forget kind of deal. You’ll probably continue reformulating different kinds of boundaries throughout your whole life.

People change, and so do their personal limits.

Boundaries are just about saying no

You’re saying no to some things when you set a boundary. But you’re also saying yes to a whole lot of other things!

Boundaries aren’t just about saying, ‘I don’t like this.’ It’s more a case of saying, ‘I like this, I’m okay with this, and I’m not okay with this.’

Boundaries are about right and wrong

Though boundaries often feel tied to emotional and moral judgments, they aren’t about right and wrong. What’s right for you is probably wrong for someone else, and vice versa.

That’s a big part of why good boundaries are necessary, so you can navigate this big wide world of diverse and interesting people.

How to find and define your boundaries

Finding and defining your boundaries is most often about long-term progress rather than being a short-term process. It's all about finding the right balance.

People who set boundaries that are too rigid tend to:

  • Avoid forming close relationships
  • Become detached in relationships and friendships
  • Keep a distance between themselves and others
  • Have few close relationships

On the other hand, those with boundaries that aren’t well-defined or are too open tend to:

  • Share too much personal information with others
  • Have a hard time saying no to coworkers, friends, and family
  • Spend too much time and energy trying to please others
  • Get unnecessarily involved in others’ problems

Here are four simple tips to keep in mind when finding and defining your boundaries:

  1. Spend time exploring your limits so you know where they are.
  2. Notice how you feel when a boundary is broken. This can help you to determine how firm your boundary needs to be.
  3. Write your boundaries down. You don’t have to show them to anyone, but putting your ideas into words can help you describe exactly where your boundaries lie.
  4. Be assertive. When you’ve set a boundary, stick to it, and don’t let others cross it.

7 ways to set your boundaries

Still wondering how to set boundaries at work and in your relationships?

Just follow these seven steps:

1. Start off small 

If you’re new to setting boundaries, the best way to familiarize yourself with the process is to start off with something small. 

For example, you might wish to define physical boundaries regarding hugging and kissing before you move into setting sexual boundaries.

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2. Get started early 

It’s always best to have boundaries in place at the beginning of a relationship (romantic or otherwise), rather than to enforce them in retrospect.

3. Begin with a bit of self-reflection 

The best place to start when forming boundaries is to spend some time reflecting on the area of your life where you’re looking to set the boundary.

Grab a pen and paper (or your iPad), and write down what comes to mind. Think about:

  • Times when you felt safe
  • Times when you felt unsafe
  • What led to these feels
  • Others in your life that feel deal with this issue well
  • Ways you’ve dealt with it in the past

4. Explore how you feel about each boundary

When you’ve decided on a personal limit, spend some time reflecting on how that boundary makes you feel. 

Do you feel safer or more content knowing where your limits are? Do you feel concerned that the boundary might be too loose or too rigid?

5. Understand what the boundary brings to your life

Boundaries should be about personal empowerment

Setting boundaries can be a little uncomfortable. To counterbalance, spend some time thinking about how the boundary you’ve just set is going to improve your life.

6. Learn to communicate effectively

Setting boundaries is one thing. Communicating them to others is something else entirely. Others won’t know where your boundaries are if you don’t tell them.

Here’s a brief framework for how you can successfully communicate your boundaries:

  • Highlight the problem or potential problem
  • Describe how you would prefer others to act instead
  • Discuss what this means for you personally and why you’ve set that boundary

7. Practice consistency

Part of communicating your boundaries is enforcing them. It means being confident enough to draw a line when your boundary is crossed and to bring it up with others in your life.

If you don’t, you risk blurring the lines of your boundaries. This can put you at risk of future situations where others cross your personal limit.

Setting boundaries with family

Setting boundaries with family members can be incredibly difficult. There is often a lot of love and emotion involved and a history of close personal connection.

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Here’s how to set limits with a family member:

  1. Understand that your needs are just as important as theirs.
  2. Let them know that this is an important issue for you.
  3. Find the right balance between firmness and kindness.
  4. Try to keep realistic expectations of change.
  5. Be willing to walk away if they continue to break your boundaries.

Setting boundaries in relationships

Learning how to enforce boundaries in relationships is one of the keys to a successful partnership. 

Here are five kinds of boundaries to set in relationships to ensure a healthy and long-lasting union:

  • Physical boundaries regarding harm or violence
  • Emotional boundaries, such as how to (and how not to) discuss grievances
  • Sexual boundaries (what you’re comfortable with, and what you’re not)
  • Intellectual boundaries, such as topics you’re not willing to discuss
  • Financial boundaries (how you’ll share money and make decisions on what to purchase)

Setting boundaries at work

Learning how to set boundaries at work is important for ensuring that you enjoy your time in the office each day.

Here are a few examples of boundaries at work:

How to recognize other people's boundaries: 3 steps

Understanding and respecting the boundaries of others is equally important in interpersonal relationships. Let’s take a look at three tips for recognizing the boundaries of others.

  1. Watch them. Observing how others act, particularly around areas that typically involve boundaries (such as physical touch), is a good initial way to understand the limits that others have.
  2. Notice how they respond to your boundaries. When communicating your boundaries to others, notice how they react and respond. This can give you an indication as to whether they have a similar boundary or have set something entirely different.
  3. Ask them. The best way to recognize others’ boundaries, though, is to simply have a conversation with them. You can start by sharing your own boundaries and then asking how theirs compare.

Setting boundaries is a journey

By now, you’ve probably come to understand that boundary setting is not an activity that happens just once in your life. Rather, it’s an ongoing process that requires lifelong attention and tweaking.

If you’re struggling to set boundaries in the workplace, check out BetterUp’s approach to organizational health and mental fitness.

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Published July 30, 2021

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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