How to Set Boundaries in Your Relationships

Most of us, at some time or another, have been coaxed or nudged into doing something we don’t want to do. That could mean adding another project to an already jam-packed schedule, agreeing to attend a social function we’d rather skip or taking on more than our fair share of household duties—all for the sake of pleasing the person who’s doing the coaxing or nudging.

"Boundary comes from the word for ‘limits,’" notes psychiatrist Dr. Sudhir Gadh. "Boundaries, like all limits, are designed to ensure balance. In regard to relationships, healthy limits on time and space will ensure a balanced lifestyle where career or education, health and connection to family, friends and self are also attended to."
The first step is learning to spot those situations when boundaries are off-kilter—or even nonexistent.

5 Signs of Skewed Boundaries

If you find these types of scenarios are causing friction, tension or resentment in your relationships, it’s probably time to set or reinforce some boundaries.
  1. You feel mistreated. Dr. Jeff Nalin, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of the Paradigm Malibu Treatment Center, notes that failure to set proper boundaries can open the door to various types of abuse and mistreatment. "When people realize you are willing to accept all kinds of behavior, they are more likely to take advantage," he says. "They may give you more than you can handle or blame you when something doesn’t go as planned. If you consistently feel victimized by others, it may be a sign that you need to rethink your boundaries."
  2. Your life is filled with drama. "Those who don’t have boundaries in their lives often attract toxic individuals who add to the chaos," warns Dr. Nalin. "In both romantic and platonic relationships, this pattern creates unhealthy, co-dependent relationships that thrive on drama."
  3. You say "yes" to everyone. When you find yourself saying "yes" to unwanted requests and then feel resentment as a result, boundaries are likely getting crossed, says marriage and family therapist Lisa Bahar. "There is a tendency to give in to a request to avoid conflict, but that ends up creating conflict in the long run, either by trying to gain control in another area of the relationship or subconsciously picking a fight after an extended period of saying 'yes' when you really want to say 'no,'" she says.
  4. You have feelings of insecurity. Some people may refrain from setting boundaries out of fear that it will drive people away. "This deep-rooted fear of abandonment often stems from past trauma or modeled behavior," says Dr. Nalin. "Those who struggle with this fear usually equate love with people-pleasing; they are rewarded by the attention they receive from going above and beyond, and don’t recognize that real love is based on compromise and mutual respect."
  5. You feel frustrated or angry. You can’t betray your own goals and standards without eventually feeling frustrated and resentful, Dr. Nalin notes. "Sacrificing your desires can trigger deep-rooted anger that permeates every aspect of life, perhaps causing you to snap at strangers or lose your temper with loved ones," he says. To regain your joy and motivation, he says it’s important to identify where those feelings of resentment are coming from and then take back control by setting healthy boundaries.

5 Tips for Setting Clear, Healthy Boundaries

  1. Define your limits. From work to family life, start by outlining what you will and won’t accept. Dr. Nalin says it’s important to establish clear rules that you can follow when confronted with a particular situation. "If your guidelines are vague, your reactions will be the same—you won’t know whether to welcome the behavior or walk away, so boundaries should always be well-defined."
  2. Be diplomatic. When communicating your needs and reinforcing your boundaries—whether it’s in the spoken word, email or text—choose words that convey diplomacy, kindness, confidence and self-respect. "In most cases, people will respond better if you express yourself in a kind yet firm manner," says Dr. Nalin. He suggests taking a neutral approach, refraining from using aggressive or accusatory language such as "You didn’t ask me" or "You always…." Strive to remain calm, cool and collected.
  3. Don’t make excuses. It is your right to set limits for the way people treat you, so resist the urge to justify or make excuses for them, says Dr. Nalin. "Doing so will only encourage others to challenge and destabilize you," he warns. Never apologize for enforcing your boundaries.
  4. Stick to the rules. When a boundary is crossed, it is best to address the issue and react immediately, says Dr. Nalin. Don’t waver! "If you start making exceptions, that teaches people that you can’t be taken seriously," he says. "If you truly want others to respect you, you must establish consequences if your rules are broken."
  5. Sugarcoat it a little. When refusing to over-extend yourself, you can soften it a bit by expressing interest and disappointment, says Dr. Gadh. "Offering an alternative choice or the possibility of one in the future can also alleviate the guilt of saying no now," he notes.