4 Ways to Set and Keep Boundaries

Emily Boynton Fact Checked
Woman drawing a line in the sand
Ada Love

There’s a lot of buzz about boundaries — and it’s not hard to understand why.

From late-night work requests to nosey relatives, it can help to set some restrictions around what behavior you will and won’t accept from others (and from yourself).

While sentiments like “no is a complete sentence,” can be empowering, setting a boundary is often more complicated than a one-time or one-word response. 

Want to set some limits that last? Here’s how to create, communicate and maintain boundaries.

What are boundaries?

“Typically, when we talk about boundaries, we are referring to the behavior you will and will not tolerate in interpersonal relationships, and the consequences you will enact if that line is crossed by another person,” says Julia Kocian, a licensed clinical social worker and UW Medicine Graduate Medical Education mental health counselor. 

You can set boundaries around your personal space, time, energy, emotions, items, beliefs and more. This may look like telling your co-workers you won’t be checking email after 6 p.m. or letting extended family members know you aren’t a hugger. 

You can also create these parameters for yourself. 

“Boundaries can be a helpful framing device that keep you grounded in your core values and goals,” Kocian explains. 

For example, if you have a core value of sobriety, you might set a boundary for yourself to not drink or use drugs. This could mean you choose a mocktail when out with friends or call a sponsor if you are craving alcohol and need some additional support.

Why are boundaries important?

Setting boundaries for yourself and others helps you determine how you want to act in difficult situations. These limits can help you feel safer and more comfortable and prevent you from feeling steamrolled by others. 

“In ourselves, it’s a commitment or intention in how we want to live and make choices. Interpersonally and with ourselves, it’s thinking about what is meaningful to us and drawing a line in the sand,” Kocian says. 

Say for example you’re not comfortable shaking hands with or elbow bumping others. A boundary around personal space can help you feel safer by clarifying that while you’re happy to say hello, you aren’t comfortable with touching — even via toe taps or elbow bumps — during the pandemic.

When you set a boundary with yourself, you can guide your actions so that you are living in alignment with your values. If you value health, this may mean you set boundaries around sedentary behaviors or mindless munching.  

Ultimately, boundaries provide a way for you to advocate for yourself and communicate what you need.

How do you create boundaries?

Creating a boundary is similar to setting an intention: You determine what is important to you and make a commitment to stand by it. 

You likely already have a sense of what your boundaries are. If you feel anxious talking about your religious beliefs with co-workers or used when a friend asks to borrow your car for the third time this week, your emotions might be signaling that you need to create some boundaries.

Once you’ve determined what your boundaries are, it’s time to decide how you would like to communicate them to others.

In some cases, you may not need to tell others at all. If your boundary is to not drink, you could choose to tell others, or you could simply decide to not attend events where drinking is involved, attend and order a nonalcoholic beverage or order an alcoholic beverage but not drink it, Kocian says. 

However, in situations where your boundary will change patterns of behavior that are already established in your relationships, you might need to let other people know. Think of the friend who continuously borrows your car. If you previously allowed them to do this, you will likely now need to let them know that you aren’t comfortable handing over your keys. 

“You can set a boundary that’s meaningful to you, and you don’t need to explain it or convince anybody to agree with you — but it’s OK if you want to,” Kocian says. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to sit down and tell someone why you want to make a different choice.”

How do you maintain boundaries?

“It’s the nature of boundaries that they’re easy to set and hard to hold,” Kocian says.

While we can create boundaries, we can’t control how others will react to them. And even if you know a boundary is good for you, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to maintain. 

Try these tips for setting boundaries that stick.

Flip your perspective

Because drawing boundaries can cause conflict with people in your life who are not used to these changes, they sometimes get a bad rap.

“When there’s a conflict or pushback, you can flip your focus from what you stand to lose to what you stand to gain,” Kocian says.

Try to remember the overarching positives. There is a reason you are setting boundaries in the first place, and it’s often that the previous circumstances were harmful to your mental or physical health and well-being. 

Grounding yourself in your values also strengthens the foundation of your boundaries.

Take for example a case where you won’t allow family members who discriminate against the LGBTQ community to be around your transgender child. Even so, it can still be painful to say no to attending the big Thanksgiving meal. In these complicated cases, reminding yourself that you are following your core values (in this case being a protective and nurturing parent) and focusing on the benefits (the well-being of your child) can help you hold that line.

With parameters in place, you can build healthier relationships where you are able to feel safer and more comfortable and show up as yourself.

Be firm but kind

To maintain boundaries, you have to be willing to stay true when someone else crosses a line. 

“The key moment is when someone else or yourself approaches or crosses the line of a boundary. That’s when you have to determine what you will do to hold the boundary or deliver consequences for those actions,” Kocian says.

If you tell your friend that you aren’t able to continue to lend them money if they won’t pay you back, but their behavior doesn’t change, you have to make a choice. At this point, you either decide your boundary around lending money is not as important as your desire to support your friend or you need to change your actions and no longer provide your friend with funds.

“You can tap into compassion for others, so you stand firm in your boundary while communicating with kindness and recognizing it might a hard change for them,” Kocian says.

Keep your communication clear and simple. In the above case, remind your friend of your boundary and let them know you aren’t able to continue to lend them money. If you’d like, you can offer to help support your friend in other ways, like searching for other means of income or alternative solutions that could help them with their financial situation. 

Leave room for flexibility

It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the most important factors in maintaining boundaries is being flexible. 

This is because we often hold conflicting values. Instead of chucking out a boundary altogether when you face internal conflict, being flexible will help you navigate different situations and decide what is best for you in each scenario. 

Kocian gives the example of someone who values health and has a boundary around eating sweets on weeknights. On Wednesday night, if your child brings a bowl of ice cream for the two of you to share, it’s OK if you decide to grab a spoon. You can honor your value of quality time with your child and simply choose to relax your boundary on weeknight desserts for this occasion. 

“We think boundaries are firm lines in sand that never change over our whole lives but that’s just not how they work. We are human beings, and we have different needs at different times,” Kocian says. 

Learning how to flex and return to your boundaries not only gives you freedom, but it can also strengthen your boundaries in the long run. Remember that these are your parameters to set, so you get to decide if they are working for you and if you want to make exceptions. 

Give yourself compassion

Maintaining boundaries with yourself and others is hard. 

Sometimes it means having tough conversations with loved ones, and other times it requires you to be honest and vulnerable with yourself. 

When setting boundaries, Kocian stresses the importance of self-care, giving yourself grace and reaching out for support if you need it. And if you do slip up, try to avoid being hard on yourself or falling into self-criticism.

“Take responsibility to get back on track but be gentle with yourself,” Kocian says. “Self-compassion is what helps us hold our boundaries.”