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10 Important Boundaries Everyone Should Set In 2019

Having boundaries is important...but how do you actually do it?

Mike Hinson / BuzzFeed

Boundaries. It’s a loaded word. Perhaps you’ve been told you have too few of them, or maybe you’ve even lost relationships due to a mismatch in them. Plenty of people talk about boundaries, and for some just the word itself is a serious, heavy buzzkill. But what exactly do they mean? And how do you set them?

Mike Hinson / BuzzFeed

Boundaries are principles that you establish in order to keep yourself feeling safe and comfortable, emotionally and physically. Healthy boundaries involve giving yourself the interpersonal and mental space to fully be you. They protect you from being unduly pressured into behaving in ways that you don’t want to, or having your own mood, time, or mindset completely and continually drowned out by someone else’s. Establishing functional boundaries means that your connections to other people feel fulfilling and positive: they add to your life rather than encroach upon it. Without healthy boundaries, it’s very hard to be true to yourself and live in accordance with your own goals, values, and desires.

If you have certain relationships or interactions where you consistently feel that your voice is being drowned out, or that you’ve become a performer in a life where someone else is always calling the shots, it could be that you need to establish firmer boundaries. If you frequently leave interactions feeling steamrolled, taken advantage of, or violated, odds are high that you could use some help in this arena. But remember: even though setting appropriate boundaries can be tough for some of us, if we want to live a life that’s truly our own, it’s our right — and our responsibility — to do so.

Some boundaries may be trickier to set than others, but boundary-setting always goes better when you can take a deep breath and be steady, deliberate and firm, rather than acting out in a moment of anger or panic.

Ready to start drawing some lines? Here is a look at some common trouble spots and how to handle them.

1. How to actually say no to things you don't want to do:

Mike Hinson / BuzzFeed

If you find yourself constantly overbooked with things that you wish you hadn’t said yes to (or if you are turning into a known flake because you would rather say yes and ditch at the last moment than dare to say “no”), it’s important to examine the unhelpful and untrue beliefs that may be at the root of this. Common ones are: “If I decline, no one will like me.” “I have no right to say no.” “My time is not as important as someone else’s.”

None of these are rational, and often we recognize that more generally, but can't apply it to ourselves. It may be helpful to think about how you would advise a friend to view the value of their own time. Would you encourage them to be firm about protecting it? If so, then why aren’t you worthy of the same consideration?

Here's what that might look like in action:

• Don’t elaborate. Too often, we trap ourselves by feeling like we need an alibi, or we over-explain ourselves into a corner. Try: “I’m sorry I won’t be able to make it [full stop].” NOT: “Oh, I’m so sorry — I have another thing that day, and it probably won’t end in time, though I guess there’s a chance it will wrap up early, and if it does, then maybe I can…..”

• Don’t apologize. While this does have a general place in polite society, if we make it too extreme a habit, then we start convincing ourselves we are doing something wrong by setting limits. “Oh, I can’t take that on right now, but I hope you’re able to find someone.”

• Suggest an alternative. “It’s too bad I’ll have to miss your big birthday blowout. Can I treat you to lunch sometime instead?”

2. How to set boundaries with family:

Mike Hinson / BuzzFeed

As common as intrusive relatives are, they can be particularly hard to manage, because your family connection to them may make their presence already pretty large in your life. But that doesn’t mean they have a right to know more than you’re comfortable sharing. It’s your life.

It can be helpful to reflect upon their intentions, not only because it will help you empathize and connect with this person, but also because it will help you make your point in getting them to back off: they are defeating their own purpose by being intrusive. Maybe they’re asking when you’re going to get married or pregnant because they want to bond about it, or they’re just excited to have a niece, nephew or grandchild to love. Or they ask financial questions because they want to know you’re doing okay living independently, or maybe because they themselves are feeling very insecure about their place in life.

Sometimes, of course, the intrusion comes from a far less understanding place: they want power over you, they think you don’t deserve privacy, or they want to give unsolicited advice. Still, by giving the intruder the benefit of the doubt, you can more easily nudge them into submission.

Here's what you can say to get your point across:

• Deflection: “I know you seem really interested in that, but I’m not thinking about that right now. So, how about [change of subject?]”

• Humor: “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll be the first to see the ultrasound/next year’s tax returns.”

• Simplicity: “Oh, that’s too personal for me to answer.”

• “I know you’re just asking that because you want me to be happy, but it actually catches me off guard and makes me unhappy. So, I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t ask that anymore.”

• “I understand you want to talk about that to try to connect, and I really do want to connect with you. But that makes me feel farther apart from you because I get frustrated and feel uncomfortable.”

3. How to balance out a relationship with a needy friend:

Mike Hinson / BuzzFeed

Often this dynamic gets established gradually over time, without your even realizing it until it is pretty ingrained. And even if you are strong at establishing healthy boundaries in other areas of your life, you may feel guilty or awkward about this one in particular. After all, you want to be there for your friend.

So it’s important to remind yourself that there are limits to how much you can actually help a friend if things get too off-balanced, and that you’re doing both of you a disservice by letting a relationship get completely one-sided. You simply can’t be your friend’s therapist, or spend all your time with them to the point where it makes you uncomfortable. And if you let them exhaust your own resources, you’re not going to be able to be much help to them anyway. Flight attendants know it well: put on your own oxygen mask first!

Try saying something like:

• “I'm sorry, I know you really want to talk right now, and I wish I could. Can we make plans to catch up at [specific time, specific place that you set aside] so that I can give you my full attention?”

• “I know lately it seems like we’re on different schedules: you’re able to text/call/hang out/invite me to things more than I can manage in my schedule right now. I’m sorry about this, but I also don’t want to be stringing you along. I would love to hang out at [specific frequency/specific context/specific duration] but I have to be honest that I probably won’t be able to talk much/hang out much/text much before then.”

• “I know this issue has been bothering you a lot. And I really do want to listen. But I also feel like sometimes I’m not able to help you in the ways that you need, because things don’t seem to be getting easier for you. Do you think maybe you need something different? Would it be helpful if we looked into finding you a therapist?”

4. How to get space from a partner who monopolizes your time:

Mike Hinson / BuzzFeed

This boundary is particularly important, because in the rush of a new relationship, you may be so scared of pushing the person away that you don’t recognize the warning signs of potentially controlling or worrisome behavior.

Setting a good precedent that establishes your own needs is important not just for its own sake, but also as an opportunity for you to see how your partner responds. Do they respect what you’re saying, and alter their behavior accordingly? Are they responsive to your discomfort? Do they value your viewpoints as much as their own? If you are trying to establish a boundary and a romantic partner is not heeding it, take it seriously. It could be a sign that they are a potentially controlling person, even if it seems rather flattering or seems like it’s part of the “wooing” process.

Here are some options:

• “I like that you want to hang out/text/XYZ so often. But I just can’t really do that right now. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want to ABC, though. Can we make plans for that?”

• “You know, I’ve been thinking: I probably need more alone time/time with my friends/quiet time/work time than you do, and I wanted to say something sooner rather than later. I love seeing you [specific frequency/context/duration] but that’s probably the limits of what I can do during the week.”

• “I really like spending time with you, but lately XYZ hasn’t felt comfortable/right for me. Can we talk about a way to balance both of our preferences about how to spend time?”

5. How to actually talk about what you do and don't want to do in bed:

Mike Hinson / BuzzFeed

This may be among the most uncomfortable of all boundary-setting areas, not only because sex and sexuality can bring up a lot of baggage for many of us, but because we may often feel caught up in the moment and unsure exactly what we’re feeling. We may also be wrapped up in wanting to please a romantic partner. It’s important to remember that certain sexual precedents can get set fairly easily, and if we don’t look out for our own physical and emotional health within a relationship, we are bound to pay the emotional price with discomfort and distress later on.


These might help start the conversation:

• “This is difficult to bring up, but I wanted to make sure that we’re on the same page. I’m not really into XYZ; it’s just not my thing. I want to hear more of other things you like, though — I know there are a lot of ways we can have fun that feel good for both of us.”

• “I was thinking about what we did the other night, and the more time has passed, the less it felt right for me. I wanted to let you know so that it won’t come as a surprise that I’m not up for that again. I do love XYZ, though — and am looking forward to more of that.”

• “I wanted to talk to you about the other night. Something didn’t feel good to me about the way things happened in bed, and I needed to speak up about it. This is difficult for me, but I owe it to us both to start a conversation about this so that we can make sure we both feel comfortable with how things are going.”

6. How to steer clear of awkward personal conversations at work:

Mike Hinson / BuzzFeed

The average American spends so many hours working (90,000+ in our lifetime. Um, yay?) that our coworkers have an almost god-like potential to make our lives miserable. This makes establishing firm and reasonable boundaries even more important. If you have trouble in this area, remember that it’s common for personal/professional lines to get blurred into oblivion, and it’s often not your fault, as long hours and technological advances have made it all too easy for lines to be crossed. Plus, in many cases, your coworkers are true friends — and that can work out beautifully — so it makes it all the more confounding when you have to draw a line. But remember, sometimes that line is extremely necessary.

Use these in response to personal questions *or* oversharing:

• With a polite smile: “Oh, I don’t usually discuss that at work.”

• With a sly grin: “Ooh — but that information is classified!”

• “Oh, Mark, you know it’s so much more fun to talk about these account spreadsheets! Speaking of which….”

• “Sarah, I know this makes me no fun, but I’m not really up for talking about that type of stuff at work. Would you mind if we talked about something else?”

7. How to hold your ground when someone interrupts you:

Mike Hinson / BuzzFeed

Chronic interrupters are often multiple offenders to everyone in their lives across the board. Their behavior likely has little to do with you and everything to do with them: impulse control problems, being a know-it-all, or being desperate for attention or validation. Sometimes they’re just excited to try to relate to what you’re saying. Other times, they want to exert dominance — like a chronic mansplainer.

What’s key here is to not positively reinforce their interrupting. Like a toddler whose tantrum shouldn’t yield candy, an aggressive interrupter shouldn’t be rewarded. If you always immediately stop mid-sentence to let them complete their intrusion, they’ll get what they want and have no reason to stop.

Here's what you can do:

• Keep on talking steadily with polite eye contact until you finish your thought, even if it means you are talking simultaneously.

• If you're in a group, look around at others so as to keep your momentum and not yet acknowledge the interruption, while continuing with what you’re saying.

• State with a pleasant smile, “Just one moment — I wasn’t quite done.”

• Have a more substantial private discussion: “I don’t think you’re aware of it, but sometimes when I’m talking about things that are important to me, you interrupt. It can come across like you aren’t listening — which I know isn’t true, so I wanted to bring it up to you.”

• Try a preventative strike: “Dave, I know you have a lot of thoughts and I look forward to hearing them. But I’d appreciate it if I can finish what I’m saying first.”

8. How to set boundaries with your boss:

Mike Hinson / BuzzFeed

Technology has battered the line between our personal and professional lives in a lot of ways, and one is how it allows your boss to reach you at all times of day. And they may or may not have realistic expectations about how much you should be working outside of your “normal” office hours (as if those exist anymore!). Every workplace and supervisor will vary in their expectation of how much you should be available when you are not at work. But when someone repeatedly creeps over those established expectations, it can be time to nudge back.

Here's what you can say to requests after-hours:

• On email: “Just wanted to let you know I got your email. I will put that first on my list to tackle when I am in the office tomorrow morning.”

• On email: “Thanks for this. Will have an answer for you as the workday begins tomorrow.”

• The assertive out-of-office message: When you are on vacation, make it clear and concrete, listing exactly who they should contact instead and how long it will be before you will respond to emails.

• In person as you are leaving: “I can definitely prioritize this first thing on Monday/tomorrow when I get in. Have a wonderful weekend/evening!”

9. How to protect your personal space:

Mike Hinson / BuzzFeed

Each of us has an individual threshold for personal space, and in broad terms it tends to vary by culture (one person’s warm greeting is the stuff of another person’s nightmares.) It's very important to remember here that seeing to your own physical comfort in your surroundings is nothing to feel guilty about. And in fact, if you can establish a workable boundary about your physical space early on, then there is less chance of you feeling increasingly uncomfortable over time and building toward an escalation — or an explosion.

Here are some useful tactics:

• Play defense through offense: Stave off a hug or a kiss by sticking out your hand confidently and immediately, establishing the handshake instead of the hug.

• Be simple and direct: With a polite smile, say, "Oh, I’m not a hugger."

• Ask for what you need: “Oh, would you mind giving me a little space, please? I get a little claustrophobic.”

10. Setting boundaries for lending money and things:

Mike Hinson / BuzzFeed

In this era of GoFundMe, it is more common than ever to be hit up by friends (and “friends,” and “friends” of “friends!”) to donate to all kinds of causes. Some of these may be more worthy than others, and your own personal finances may be different than your friends assume, which further complicates expectations.

Another related but common trouble is a friend repeatedly wanting to borrow your possessions or cash without being prompt about returning them (if they do at all). But you aren’t doing your friend any favors if you let them do something that will only grow resentment and ruin the friendship over time.

Here are some options:

• The general rule: “Sorry — I made a promise to myself years ago that I don’t lend friends money unless it’s pocket change. I had a bad experience, and our friendship is worth more to me than that. I can help you brainstorm other ways to get it though.”

• The simple, firm decline: “Unfortunately I can’t donate at this time. I will keep XYZ in my thoughts, though!”

• The alternative solution: “I already reached my allotment for charitable donations this month/year, but can I help in another way? I’d be happy to XYZ.”

Mike Hinson / BuzzFeed

Setting appropriate boundaries — like many actions that are healthy for us — isn’t always easy or enjoyable. But it’s a way of taking care of ourselves mentally, physically, and behaviorally that is so very important if we want to be living our best, most functional lives.

All that said, people who don’t respect your boundaries are doing so for their own reasons, which it’s not your job to figure out — but it's not their right to consistently put their needs above yours. A healthy relationship requires respect for each other's line-drawing in ways that protect both individual's well-being. When someone can’t abide by that, it’s time to set the ultimate boundary — by getting some space from them.

As we head into the new year, we're talking about all the ways to make your life and the world around you a little bit better. Read more Do Better 2019 content here.