Illustration by Elly Malone.

Have you ever felt like someone is pushing you? Let’s say your friend really wants to go to a party, but you’d much rather have a night in. The friend doesn’t want to go alone, and is guilting you into coming, even though you’ve made it clear that you don’t want to. It may be time to set a boundary, or assert the one you’ve already drawn. Have no fear! This guide should help you better understand the importance of boundaries, how to set them, and why they’re NBD.

What is a boundary?
A boundary is, in a metaphorical sense, a dividing line between two entities; something that separates. Interpersonally, it’s a rule you can create to ensure that your relationships are healthy, not codependent, and allow you to feel comfortable. Boundaries can exist in different types of relationships: with friends, romantic partners, family members, classmates, and colleagues.

Why are boundaries important?
Boundaries outline what you’re comfortable with, as well as your limitations (and it is OK to have limitations!)–making these distinctions clearer to both yourself and others. For example, if you find yourself dropping your own priorities on a daily basis to help a friend, or sacrificing your own needs to keep a romantic partner satisfied, you may want to draw boundaries that allow you to be healthy and human.

Moreover, boundaries allow us to fully commit to the things we want to do, and avoid the things we don’t want to do, rather than half-heartedly going along with things we don’t feel comfortable with while biting our tongues. The other party won’t know they’ve crossed a boundary at all if it hasn’t been established. While it’s impossible to entirely control how much you and another person understand each other, setting boundaries helps create clarity, make space for honest communication, and shows mutual commitment to the relationship.

How do I set boundaries?
Girls and women are often taught that we should be endlessly flexible to accommodate other people, but this can come at our own expense. Setting boundaries is definitely a skill to be studied, practiced, and honed. But it gets easier! Here are some handy tips I’ve picked up from my own experiences:

1. Take time to reflect on your needs.
For those who struggle with setting boundaries, getting in touch with what we need is the first step. We can’t set boundaries if we don’t know what works for us. “But I’m just a really flexible person!” is probably what my younger self would say at this point, but while flexibility is a positive quality, we all have needs that deserve to be met. Try to periodically tap in to how different people, behaviors, and activities make you feel. Did you really want to go to that party, or did you go along because your friends wanted to? Do you actually enjoy parties? Did you want to stay up all night on the phone to your partner, or did you feel like you had to? What if you actually really value sleeping at 10 PM? If you don’t have a clear sense of your needs, it can be helpful to score how different events make you feel after they take place. Try logging how specific activities make you feel on a scale from 1-10 in a journal for a few weeks. It’s OK if they change! You can always refine them, but just trying this exercise will help keep you attuned to your own feelings.

2. Look to your past to set limits on your future relationships.
It can be useful to think back on different types of relationships you’ve had in the past and on how they made you feel. For example, looking back on my first romantic relationship, was I actually okay with having a lack of privacy? Back when I was friends with that person in school, was I okay with her making jokes about me all the time? Did I like her showing up unannounced at my house? Hindsight can be 20:20. Single out the aspects of past relationships that you liked and didn’t like to help set new rules going forward.

3. Spell out your boundaries for yourself.
Now that you feel loosely aware of what you want, it’s time to create rules that reflect those needs. As with ranking your feelings about different experiences, writing down your boundaries will help you internalize how important they are. It can also help to divide them up into different types of relationships. For example:

  • Work: I will respond to emails between 10-6, Monday-Friday, and am not available outside of those times.
  • Friends: I’m fine to hang out if I have at least one day’s notice.
  • Relationship: I want to talk on the phone no more than one hour every day.
  • This list doesn’t have to be definitive, and you can alter it over time.

    4. Communicate your boundaries to others.
    Making the people in your life aware of these boundaries is crucial. It can be scary, but there’s a way of putting a positive spin on them. To the friend who shows up unannounced when you’re busy: “I want to chat but I’m really busy today–let’s schedule a phone catch-up tomorrow, when I can properly give you my full attention.” In the case of keeping a healthy level of separation in romantic relationships, maybe: “I know it’s tempting to spend loads of time together, but I’ve had relationships go badly in the past when they became codependent. I love how things are going so far, so it would be really good if we could maintain our independence so that doesn’t happen.” For every “I don’t want,” there is an “I do want”–so focus on that when expressing your boundaries.

    Also, blanket rules are more effective than case-by-case ones. It’s much easier to point to an existing boundary that applies to your whole life than to create a new one on the spot. Let’s say you hate lending clothes to friends and not knowing when (or if!) you’ll get them back, but a new friend is asking to borrow a dress. You might want to say, “I don’t lend my clothes to friends,” which might sound a bit harsh, but is more kind than, “You can’t borrow that dress, because you might lose it.” If a rule applies to many, and is clearly pre-existing, it’s harder for your friend to take it personally.

    5. Remember that it’s not your job to constantly please other people.
    “But what if I disappoint people? What if I let others down?” It would be a lie to imply that guarantee that others will always understand your boundaries. To friends unfamiliar with the concept, asserting your boundaries may come across as cold.

    But you’re not obligated to please everyone, and diminishing your own boundaries also doesn’t necessarily mean that people will like you more. Everyone is different, and we can’t control other people’s reactions–the point of having boundaries is marking where your responsibility for that person has to end. Certain situations may call for flexibility on your part, but keep an eye out for situations in which your boundaries are repeatedly overstepped. Never forget that your needs are just as important as others’. And if someone feels thrown off by your setting boundaries, remind them (and yourself!) that it’s in the interest of preserving your relationship, and your own well-being. Both of those things should matter to the other person, be they a friend, partner, or boss!

    In the scenario of the friend who’s pushing you to go to the party, take some time to reflect on what you want, craft a rule that works for you, and communicate it . It might feel awkward at first, but you’re doing yourself—and your relationship—a solid. The more open we are with our needs, the less weird, specialized, or selfish they seem. And the more you do it, the easier it gets! ♦