Learning to set boundaries made me more uncomfortable than I expected. Much of my identity was unconsciously defined by the desire to be liked, and putting my needs first – and possibly upsetting someone along the way – often didn’t sit right with me. Looking back, I realize that this was a side effect of low self worth. I also knew that if I didn’t learn, the world would eat me alive. In an effort to achieve a healthy balance, I read countless articles on setting good boundaries but for me, most strategies were too aggressive, too woo-woo, or too watered-down.
For many, learning to set boundaries creates a chicken-and-the-egg problem. Setting good boundaries can make it easier to strengthen your self-esteem. Yet, people with low self-esteem often struggle to set good boundaries. In this article, we’re going to tackle the problem by talking about what boundaries are, why we struggle to set them, how to deal with the adjustment period, and 30 techniques to set great ones.
What are boundaries and why do we struggle to set them?
Your experience in life is partially dictated by how you allow yourself to be treated. Boundaries are the rules you set for other people (and sometimes yourself) about their interactions with you.
Boundaries are complicated. They range from the subtle (changing the topic) to the explicit (a restraining order) and morph within the different spheres of your life. You may be unwilling to take a call from your boss on Saturday afternoon, but would welcome one from your brother. To further complicate the matter, boundaries change as our relationships evolve. If someone you just met on Tinder showed up at your office with a big teddy bear, it would be creepy as hell. If your fiancé did the same, it would likely make your afternoon.
But it’s not just the fluidity of boundaries that makes them complicated. Setting a boundary risks upsetting the other person. If you’re struggling with self-worth, the idea of putting your needs ahead of others can be intimidating. Therefore, it’s best to set boundaries in a way that is clear, consistent, and respectful. This can often be done with gentleness and compassion. In some cases you’ll have to be a bit more assertive. Keep in mind that being consistent is critical here. If you’re flakey with your boundaries, it’s not fair to expect other people to be strict with them.
30 ways to set better boundaries in your life
An important note for my fellow recovering people-pleasers: all of the following things are 100% ok. Seriously. They may make you uncomfortable at first because you’re used to letting people ignore your needs, but OMG, I promise you’re allowed to set boundaries. Not only that, but they’ll seriously improve your life.
Keep in mind that you don’t need to use all of these techniques. Instead, cherry-pick the ones that resonate with you. Personally, I tend to start with the more subtle approaches, and only turn the dial up when needed. Here are 30 ways to set better boundaries in your life:
- Prioritize the stuff that keeps you happy, healthy, and sane. Seriously. This is more important than helping your buddy move, talking to your Mom about her tuna salad, or returning your clients email within 26 seconds.
- Say no to the stuff that doesn’t interest you and explain why you’re saying no.
- Or say no and don’t bother offering an explanation. The truth is, you don’t need to explain yourself if you don’t want to. This is one of my favorite moves.
- Or say no but respectfully affirm the other person’s desire. I do this all the time, especially during negotiations. A prospective client recently asked for a payment plan that I don’t offer. I said, “I understand the desire to breakup the payments, but unfortunately that’s not an option. I understand if this is a deal breaker for you.”
- Say no by explaining that you need a bit of time to focus on your physical or mental health. The cool part here is that if you’re ducking out something to avoid a person or situation you dislike, saying no is a form of prioritizing your health.
- If you’re struggling to say no in the moment say, “Let me think about that and get back to you.” Then spend a day or two figuring out how you want to let the other person down, and say, “no.” If the person is particularly aggressive or unreasonable, just send a text.
- Send the call to voicemail.
- Wait for a few hours (or days) before returning a call / text / email. This is especially useful for imbalanced relationships where one person wants to be much closer than the other.
- When dealing with difficult people, inform them of the decision you’ve made instead of asking for permission or input. In other words, say, “Though I’ll really miss you and the rest of the family during the holidays, I’m going to stay in California this year” instead of, “Would it be ok with you and the family if I stayed in California for the holidays?”
- Take a mental health day where you ignore everything you want to ignore (including work) and focus on charming yourself. Personally, I like to binge watch Impractical Jokers, go for a walk without my phone, get takeout for dinner, and then turn my electronics off and read.
- There are a lot of people and activities that are great for an hour but unbearable for a day. Spend time with these people and things for only as long as you enjoy them.
- For people who are particularly difficult and also unavoidable, only agree to hang out with them in the settings where you can tolerate them. This can be a large group, a small group, one-on-one, in places where it’s hard to interact (like a movie), only when they’re sober, whatever.
- If someone is really bothering you, block their email address, phone number, and social media. If that feels too extreme, change the settings on your social media accounts so that you stop receiving updates about them without unfriending them. On the other hand, if they’re really bothering you or making you feel threatened, consider getting a restraining order.
- One of my favorite tricks: when someone does something that you really like, point it out or give them a compliment. For some people, reinforcing positive behavior is deceptively effective.
- This is an important one: when someone hurts you, regardless of their intent, let them know. Say, “Hey, I doubt this was your intent, but when you did x, y, and z, it hurt.”
- Likewise, if something is making you uncomfortable, let the other person know. You can do this by saying, “Hey I know this kinda awkward, and I doubt it’s your intent, but when you do X it really makes me uncomfortable.”
- Just change the damn topic.
- Or, a bit more subtly: refuse to engage with topics you don’t like. Often when people have opinions I disagree with or don’t want to discuss, I’ll listen to what they say, but refuse to respond. I’ll transition into a different conversation by saying, “That’s interesting. On a different note…”
- If that fails, say, “For my own sanity I need to stop talking about this. Tell me about…” and then bring up any other topic or question that is likely to cause less tension. Yes, it may be awkward for a minute or two as you find the groove again, but that’s way better than endlessly suffering in silence. And if the person refuses to change the topic, it’s cool to just get up leave. Seriously.
- Respect other people’s boundaries. More than that, thank them for setting the boundary in the first place. You can do this by saying, “Thanks for letting me know,” when they tell you how they prefer to be treated. Respecting and reinforcing other people’s boundaries is likely to make it easier for you to respect and reinforce your own.
- If something has been on your mind for a long time consider talking about it. I know that leaning into these conversations can be hard. It’s also tends to be worth it. Disclaimer: when you do choose to have a hard conversation, think about your motives. If you’re doing it just to hurt the other person or to play some sort of power game with them, don’t waste your time. More on hard conversations here.
- If you struggle to enforce boundaries for yourself (and lord knows I did… and sometimes still do) ask for help. If there’s a particularly difficult boundary that you need to enforce, ask a friend to be there with you during or right after the conversation. You can also ask friends to help hold you accountable.
- An advanced move: discuss boundaries and expectations ahead of time. This tends to make more sense in some situations than others, specifically: forming new business partnerships, dealing with roommates, starting a project with a new client/boss/contractor, beginning a new phase of life, or the initial stages of love, sex, and romance.
- Simply refuse to share parts of your life with people who you don’t want to be close to. There are whole chapters of my life story that many of the people in my circle will never find out about. The simple truth is that I just don’t want to share certain parts of myself with them.
- Don’t respond to work emails or texts on the weekend unless you really want to.
- Only take unscheduled calls when you’re easily available and excited to talk to the other person. While I somewhat enforce this with my friends and family, I super enforce it with my professional relationships.
- You know those stupid, “Hey we should totally connect! When are you free for coffee?” or “I’d love to pick your brain – what’s your phone number?” type meeting requests from complete strangers? Unless you’re excited to meet the other person, just ignore them. I mean, seriously, has anything good ever come from one of those? A related approach to these issues is to charge for your time. I use clarity.fm.
- Memorize and use the phrase, “I’d rather not answer that.”
- While you’re at it, memorize the phrase, “I’m not ready to talk about that yet,” too.
- After you’ve set a boundary that was hard for you, give yourself a treat. Though it can be something tangible, like a chocolate cake, it doesn’t have to be. I’ll usually go for a walk around the block without my phone to process the conversation and let the good feelings sink in.
What to do when people can’t take a hint…
You’ll notice that most of these techniques are subtle. As long as you’re consistent, you can easily set boundaries for 95% of the people in your life like this. They’ll be able to read the social cues and adjust accordingly.
But then, there’s always that damn 5% who just can’t get with the program. In these instances, I suggest clearly spelling out the boundary and the repercussions of violating it. If they still steam roll you, just let them go.
When I lived in DC there was a guy who used to make inappropriate comments about my girlfriend. No matter how clearly I tried to communicate, he wouldn’t stop.
Then, one day I woke up to a text from him discussing her appearance. I picked up the phone, called him, and said, “I’m fucking sick of hearing your comments about N*. I don’t give a shit about what your intention is. If I hear one more remark from you her, I’m going to stop talking to you entirely and explain to everyone in our circle why I did that. The funny part is that your reputation is so fucked up, I doubt I’ll even have to show people the text you just sent me for them to believe what happened. Do you understand me?” He tried to explain that he didn’t mean anything by it. I kept interrupting him and saying, “No. I asked you a simple question. Do you understand me?” When he finally said “Yes” I said “Good” and hung up.
The next time I saw him, he offered a sincere apology. And while I don’t see him much anymore he’s been nothing but respectful to me ever since.
Expect an adjustment period for everyone involved
I didn’t start setting meaningful boundaries until a bit later in life. When I finally did, everyone – myself included – had to adjust to the new expectations I had for my relationships. For the most part everything was fine. Yeah, there were a few instances where family members hung up on me because they were uncomfortable with the changing nature of our relationship, but they got over it. Today, those relationships are better because I advocated for myself.
Keep in mind that with any new skill, it’s going to be a bit messy at first. That’s ok. It’s also reasonable that some of the people in your life will make a few mistakes as they recalibrate too. The trick here is to be forgiving, both of yourself and others.
Once you get used to setting boundaries, it gets really easy. Almost effortless. Along the way, you create a life filled with people you enjoy who reliably treat you well.
PS A few notes on letting people in…
The beauty of boundaries is that they keep people at a safe distance. But then, the tyranny of boundaries is that they keep people at a safe distance.
From time to time, you’ll want to make a sincere effort to be vulnerable and let people in. Do this gradually, and only with the select group of people who really deserve it.1 Share a small part of yourself and see how it goes. Were they respectful? Curious? Open? Did they share a small part of themselves too? Do you like feeling closer to them? If so, continue opening up. You don’t need to rush this.
Though it may seem counter intuitive or even hypocritical, I have a small inner circle who I allow to bypass my boundaries. These are people I’ve known for years who have repeatedly demonstrated their love and care. I know that if they do violate a boundary, they’re doing it either because it’s in my best interest, or because they really need my attention. In either instance I’m cool with it.
- A really important note: just because the person is a family member, used to be close to you, or happens to like you a lot, does not mean that they are entitled to being close to you now. Who you let in and who you keep at arm’s length is entirely up to you. It is 100% ok to disappoint them. I promise.