Setting boundaries is essential for self-preservation and self-care

‘Setting your boundaries’ is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot, especially now, when home and work life have become so merged. But what does this phrase really mean? How do we practice boundary setting? And how does it translate into a real life conversation?

Personal boundaries are the limits we set in our relationships. They are the lines we won’t let others cross, the set of personal rules that should not be broken in order to protect ourselves and our mental health. Having personal boundaries is the ability to say no to something that others may ask or want from you and will depend on what you value. If your personal time is important to you, then you set limits between your work life and home life. If your privacy is important, you may keep your personal and work life separate. 

Thoughtful Muslim woman calling on smartphone

These boundaries are there to protect our mental health, not to close us off from intimacy and close relationships. It’s all about what you are comfortable with and how your values align with others. Your housemate may want to stay up talking until 2am, whereas you may value your time alone – how do you navigate that conversation? It feels awkward and uncomfortable sometimes to assert our boundaries, but long-term, it is important to be able to say ‘no’ to things that you’re not comfortable with.

In order for people to respect your boundaries however, you must communicate them to people. Knowing your boundaries is important to be able to engage with people in a calm clear way. Approaching the situation as a difference in values, rather than an argument or inconvenience is helpful to prevent it becoming an argument. Often your values may align with people, but in the uncomfortable moment that they don't, it’s important to be able to express what you need clearly.

African American female in casual clothes sitting on sofa with backpack and waving hand for mobile phone during video chat

Our boundaries can be material, physical and emotional. Materials relates to your possessions, physical relates to your body, space and privacy and emotional is our emotional needs. Having healthy boundaries is an act of self-preservation, not a way to isolate yourself. If your boundaries are too rigid, you may be operating against yourself, cutting people off, not opening yourself to opportunities and being unwilling to compromise. No boundaries leaves you involved in other’s business, oversharing and not making time for your own values.

Having boundaries is actually good for your relationships. Being too available to that friend who constantly needs to unload on you can lead to resentment on your side. By having boundaries in place, the relationship is balanced and strengthened instead of strained. Asserting our boundaries can feel uncomfortable, but this doesn’t have to be a confrontational experience. There are key things to keep in mind to keep the conversation as clear and calm as possible. 

Body language

Photo of Men Having Conversation

Whether this is a scheduled conversation or one that’s happening because someone has asked or unintentionally crossed a boundary, it’s important to keep your tone neutral – this is not an argument. Standing over someone or shying away either escalates the situation or doesn’t give it the importance it deserves. Be open, make it a two-sided discussion and explain your side of things is a calm and collected way.

Keep to the topic at hand

Woman Wearing Teal Dress Sitting on Chair Talking to Man

If this is about your friend calling constantly about problems in her relationship, then keep it to that topic. If it becomes an argument, bringing up past hurts and missteps helps no one and draws the focus away from what’s really the issue. Arguing won’t get your point across any better.

Be willing to compromise

Two Women Sitting on Ground Near Bonfire

Shutting your friend out completely isn’t the solution to this problem either. If she feels she can’t talk to you at all about her problems, you relationship will break down. Set some examples out, like no calling past midnight, or asking if you have the mental space for this discussion before she unloads on you. Using language that isn’t accusatory like ‘I’m not comfortable with…’ or ‘When you [action], I feel [emotion]’ can help you to understand each other’s side of things and set in place what works for you both. Listening is key to hear what each of you needs.

Plan the conversation

Photo of Women Talking While Sitting

Knowing what you want to say going into this conversation can be hugely helpful. Gathering your thoughts will help you think more clearly about what you want to achieve with the conversations and ways that you can bring it up neutrally and calmly. Planning can also make it less likely the situation will escalate, and you’ll have exactly what you want to say in mind, Try writing it down beforehand, so the conversation doesn’t go off track.

Fiona Murphy is a freelance writer, specialising in book-related content, fiction and poetry. She can be found drinking tea, craving tapas or attempting to finish her never-ending-novel.

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