Healthy boundaries: Do you need to set relationship limits?

Setting rules around what you will and won’t accept is easy, but communicating them can be a trickier beast. Here’s how to draw the line.

Within my friendship group, it’s come to be known as The Visit (capital T, capital V) – a period of time when my friend’s mother-in-law came to help her son and daughter-in-law with their first newborn.

“At first I felt grateful, but then I realised she had no problems with taking over and doing things her way,” my friend recounts.

Could she have said something long before the six-week stay ended?

Probably, but as Dr Rebecca Ray, clinical psychologist and author of Setting Boundaries explains, emotional boundaries can be a little tricky for many of us.

“Most of the time, people understand physical boundaries: don’t touch my body unless I give you consent, don’t take my stuff unless I give you consent,” Dr Ray says.

“It’s emotional boundaries that are generally a little less tangible for people, and therefore, harder to identify and uphold.

“It’s common for people to only realise they have some boundaries when they are crossed by others, which creates emotional discomfort.”

The most common struggles are how to communicate and uphold boundaries.

Dr Ray says, women tend to struggle with boundaries more than men.

“I believe this is because women are socially conditioned to shrink themselves to be acceptable, while men are rewarded for the opposite behaviour,” she says.

“If a woman sets a boundary, she risks being labelled unattractive, a manipulator, high maintenance, a ball-buster, diva, etc.”

The importance of setting boundaries

RiSe Women confidence coaching agency founder Jodie Bruce-Clarke says boundaries ensure we are treated right, not taken advantage of, enable us to say no and allow us to uphold our values.

“When we set and uphold proper boundaries we feel good about ourselves and this helps to increase our confidence,” Jodie says.

“Setting boundaries also helps us with decision-making and we have more of a sense of control over the direction of our lives.”

Examples of healthy boundaries include:

  • Not answering emails after work hours.
  • Saying no to things you don’t want to do.
  • Valuing your own time and not overcommitting to things.
  • Communicating your needs to loved ones.
  • Walking away if you find someone’s behaviour unacceptable.
  • Refusing to take responsibility for someone else’s actions or feelings.
  • It could even be something as simple as notifying friends and family not to drop in during work hours when working from home, Jodie says.
  • Work-life balance: 5 great jobs for optimal mental and physical health

How to set healthy boundaries

Before you jump in, follow the lead of hostage negotiators everywhere and buy time as needed.

“There’s so much power in, ‘Can I get back to you on that?’,” Dr Ray says.

“It gives you space to reflect on your resources, your willingness, and even to phrase your response in a way that feels good for who you want to be and what you want to stand for.”

Need to practise saying no? Jodie recommends starting with something small.

She adds that the next step is to then have a set of rehearsed statements you can use when you’re learning to set and uphold the new boundary.

“It could be things like, ‘Thanks for thinking of me but I won’t be available’, ‘I’ll need to say no for now but I’ll let you know if something changes’, or ‘I’m really overcommitted at the moment so I won’t be able to help you’.”

Dr Rays says practising what you’ll say it in a psychologically safe relationship can help you land on the words you need in more challenging relationships.

You also need to be consistent, says Jodie.

“Letting things slide will create confusion,” she says.

“I always find it powerful to remember the saying, ‘You teach people how to treat you’.”

Written by Dilvin Yasa.