How to Set Boundaries 5 Steps to Establish Healthy Emotional Boundaries
Mental Health

How to Firmly Establish and Enforce Healthy Emotional Boundaries?

Boundaries are limits that bring order to our world.

We initially learn boundaries from our parents or caretakers.

We learn how to apply boundaries to our lives by watching the way our parents and caretakers apply boundaries to theirs.

As we move through childhood stages of development, our boundaries develop in a healthy manner.

If our parents have a weak boundary system, chances are that we will too.

In this article, you’ll learn how to set healthy boundaries that will help you thrive.

Ready? Let’s get started!

Healthy Emotional Boundaries

Emotional boundaries are the protective emotional limits that we use to define how we regulate our acceptance of how others treat us.

Boundaries keep us from being needy, overly empathetic, controlling, or overly pleasing and protect us from emotional abuse or manipulation by other people.

Boundaries are not emotional walls to keep the pain out or to hurt, control, change, manipulate or fix others.

Boundaries are limits that define where we end and others begin. They protect us from abusers and keep us emotionally safe.

In other words, boundaries are not about forcing others to change. they are about deciding what you will and will not tolerate.

4 Types of boundaries

1. Material boundaries

Material boundaries refer to sharing your possessions and belongings.

Healthy material boundaries involve defining what you share and with whom. For example, it may be appropriate to lend a car to a family member, but not to someone you just met.

2. Physical boundaries

Physical boundaries refer to how, whom, and when you allow someone to enter your space or physically touch you.

For example, when you’re in public, you may decide that it is okay for you to hold hands with your partner, but not kissing.

3. Mental boundaries

Mental boundaries refer to opinions and beliefs, and whether you can hold on to your own when challenged, without becoming rigid.

4. Emotional boundaries

Emotional boundaries define your emotional rights and responsibilities and separate you from those of others.

People with poor emotional boundaries may feel responsible for, and at times, even guilty about other people’s problems or pain.

Unhealthy Emotional Boundaries

1. Enmeshment: Weak Boundaries

Enmeshment is a description of a relationship where the boundary between you and someone else doesn’t exist or is very blurry.

People with weak boundaries may fear being alone and seek close relationships where they lose themselves.

When you’re enmeshed, you feel responsible for your partner’s needs, but don’t take responsibility for your own needs. This leads to conflict and sometimes abuse.

2. Rigid boundaries

When your boundaries are rigid, you may be afraid of getting close to others because you haven’t allowed yourself to learn how to protect yourself.

You may isolate socially, or remain distant in your relationships, which only creates problems for others who aren’t allowed to get close.

You may use silence, anger, or distrust as protective mechanisms.

3. Broken and mixed boundaries

When your boundaries are broken, you may have limits in certain situations, some of the time, or with certain people.

For example, you may lose your boundaries under stress or set limits with family, but not with friends. Your boundaries may also go from weak to rigid after being hurt or when you feel afraid of intimacy.

What Boundaries Sound Like

It is my responsibility to make myself happy and figure out what brings me joy

It is not my responsibility to make sure everyone is happy

It is not my job to rescue people

I do not have to anticipate other people’s needs

It is okay to say No

It is okay if other people get angry

It is okay to spend time alone without having to explain myself

It is okay if the other person didn’t agree with me

It is okay to be myself and not what others want me to be

No one has the right to abuse me or disrespect me in anyway, including my family, friends, partner, coworkers, or employer

Why Setting Boundaries Is Hard?

1. We’re Not Always Taught This Stuff

We’re rarely taught how to take care of our emotional health or that we can indeed say no without dire consequences.

It’s never occurred to some of us that we have the choice to set limits for ourselves and those around us.

In our formative years, if the people around us don’t understand boundaries and don’t set examples of their limits in a clear and consistent way, then as adults, we have a lot to unlearn and relearn.

2. We Fear Rejection

Fear of rejection is also responsible for preventing up from speaking up, becoming an expert at people-pleasing, and in general, avoiding any situation or conversation where we might be judged or rejected.

Every time we give in to the fear of rejection, we’re reinforcing the story we tell ourselves about how we will only be accepted by pleasing others – that is masking our true feelings and desires, and behaving how we believe people want us to.

3. Boundaries Themselves Are Misused and Misunderstood

Boundaries can be misused as a means of manipulation and control, or to build walls around us.

Experiences such as having our privacy constantly violated, being lied to, encountering people with a strong sense of entitlement, etc can impact our sense of boundaries.

4. Boundaries Can Feel Like Rejection

Although other people’s boundaries have nothing to do with us, we can’t help but feel rejected and as if they do not hold in as high esteem as we hold them when they are not available.

This is especially true when we don’t have healthy boundaries set and we would jump to meet other people’s needs and do whatever we can to help them.

5. We Confuse Assertion with Aggression

Setting boundaries requires us to stand firm and be willing to follow through on consequences when these limits are not respected.

If we haven’t had much practice in asserting ourselves, setting boundaries can feel aggressive when we do it.

But there’s a big difference between assertion and aggression. We can stand up for ourselves and do so respectfully, honestly, and calmly. When we’re asserting ourselves, we aim for affirming our beliefs and opinions rather than trying to control the other person.

How to Establish Healthy Boundaries?

#1. Recognize The Difference Between Self-Love And Self-Worship

If you have suffered emotional abuse, you might have been programmed to feel guilty about loving yourself and were told that it’s selfish to think of yourself at all.

The line between self-love and self-worship becomes blurred.

Self-worship is selfish and egotistical.

Self-love, on the other hand, is our way to show appreciation for the gift of life. It is only when you love yourself, that you can truly love others.

But self-love isn’t possible without a healthy boundary system.

Related: Self-Loathing: How to Stop Self-Hatred and Start Loving Yourself?

#2. Get Back in Touch with Yourself

Not setting healthy personal boundaries can result in losing touch with ourselves and our identity merging with the identities of others.

We’re not sure who we are, what we like or dislike, and what lifts us or deflates us, and instead borrow other people’s preferences.

We can end up feeling too dependent to be able to stand alone.

Exploring who you are

Our identity is made up of different elements: personality traits, qualities, beliefs, what we look and sound like, how we express ourselves, our preferences, our culture, etc.

These elements change and evolve as we grow, that’s why it’s important to stay in touch with ourselves.

Start reflecting on the question “Who am I?”

You might find it easier to flip the question and start with “Who am I not?” if you’re not an outgoing, extrovert, then you’re probably an introvert who prefers chilling at home.

Related: 72 Journal Prompts For Self-Discovery and Self Connection

#3. Identify and Honor Your Own Needs

The first step to set healthy emotional boundaries is to identify, acknowledge, understand, and honor your own needs.

Before you can decide what treatment you will and will not tolerate from others, you need to start treating yourself the way you wish to be treated.

It is your responsibility to show others how to treat you and you do that by acknowledging and honoring your own needs.

Determine Your Core Values

Life can be so hectic that we don’t have time to think about our values and we often end up only think about what others tell us to believe or value.

To determine your needs, you need to identify your core values, and for that, you need to set aside all that you’ve been told to believe in and concentrate on what you really esteem and value.

For example, someone who is financially responsible, wouldn’t say yes to an invitation to a fancy restaurant.

Take a situation in your life, and think about how you act in it, and try to relate it to values you have.

List of possible positive characteristics and values

Appreciation of others · Artistic ability · Awareness of environment · Assertiveness · Balance · Being part of a community · Being in a team · Capacity to change and develop · Chilling out · Collaborating with others · Connecting with people · Creativity · Excitement · Financial management · Family commitment · Freedom · Friendship · Fun · Generosity · Helping others · Honesty · Honour · Humour · Independence · Individuality · Intelligence · Integrity · Intimacy · Kindness · Learning from experience · Looking after myself · Love · Musical ability · Networking · Not taking myself too seriously · Organizational skills · Physical health · Physical fitness · Relaxed approach and attitude · Reliability · Religious lifestyle · Risk-taking · Self-awareness · Self-expression · Sensuality · Sexuality · Sharing · Solitude · Social conscience · Standing up for rights · Spirituality · Stability · Success · Understanding

Related: 21 Days to Grow in Self-Love

How to Set Boundaries 5 Steps to Establish Healthy Emotional Boundaries

#4. Get Clear And Specific On What Your Boundaries Are

You’re the only one who decides what you will tolerate and what you will not tolerate.

When dealing with other people, you need to be as explicit and direct as you can about your boundaries.

For example, if you don’t like it when people call you late at night, how will they know that if you don’t tell them?

Your boundaries will have different levels of flexibility and will be different for different people in your life. It is one thing when a family member asks to drive them somewhere, but it’s quite another when a casual buddy from work does so.

Clearly Communicate Your Boundaries To Others

Make sure everybody’s very clear on what your limits are.

Some people will get it if you just drop a slight hint. Others aren’t quite as intuitive and you will need more explicit and direct ways to communicate your boundaries.

If someone asks about a personal matter you don’t feel comfortable discussing with them, you can communicate your wish, implicitly by responding, “Why do you ask?”

If the person didn’t pick up on that clue and back off, you can try more explicit ways by responding, “I don’t like to discuss that,” or “Please stop asking me about this topic.”

Related: 4 Keys To Communicate Effectively With Anyone

#5. Set The Consequences

Consequences should be established to reinforce your boundaries and let the other person know that you mean business.

When someone violates your boundaries or trespassed into your personal space, you are entitled to stand your emotional ground and protect your personal space.

This is done by letting the other person face the consequences.

These consequences can be anything as long as they’re not “doing nothing.”

For example, if someone is bullying you on social media or continuing to be disrespectful despite pointing it out, you might un-friend or block them, or if someone keeps coming late, you tell them that you’ll wait 10 more minutes and leave, and if they don’t show up by then, leave.

You can expect these people to react unfavorably, and call you judgmental, or irrational. Simply see it as part of the process of setting the consequence.

#6. Stop People-Pleasing

People-pleasing makes it almost impossible to set healthy emotional boundaries in our lives.

When we are overaccommodating, take responsibility for how other people feel, avoid arguments, don’t speak up when we feel hurt— we grow out of tune with ourselves and begin to feel unheard, unseen, and resentful.

But no matter how hard we try, we can never keep everyone happy all of the time—nor is it our place to take responsibility for the happiness of others.

1. Practice speaking your preferences aloud

When asked for what you want to do, rather than saying, “I don’t mind, what do you want to do?” start speaking your preferences.

Choose what you’d like to drink, eat, listen to, watch, or do.

2. Think of the no to someone else as a gleaming yes to you

Instead of worrying about how disappointed the other person will be, start thinking about the freer time and energy you’ll have and what could you do with it.

Come up with a list of books, films, DIY projects, and other self-care activities you’d want to do more of.

3. Remind yourself that it is okay to set boundaries

Boundaries are essential for our mental health and it is okay to disappoint others as long you’re not disappointing yourself.

#7. Be Compassionate and Forgiving With Yourself When You Falter

Setting boundaries with an abuser for the first time might not come easily and might make you feel uncomfortable

You’re bound to make mistakes and you are likely to slip back into old patterns for a while. That is perfectly fine. It’s part of the learning process, just keep practicing.

Setting boundaries with an abuser is the first step in rebuilding your self-esteem and regaining your personal power. These boundaries will protect you from further abuse and change the way you view yourself.

Related: Raising low self-esteem: 18 Ways to Build High Self-Esteem

What If Others Don’t Accept Your Boundaries?

Some people might not understand why you’ve set up certain rules or boundaries. That’s perfectly fine. They don’t have to. These boundaries are your decision and you have every right to set them up. You don’t owe any explanation.

You don’t have to justify a thing or to describe your reasoning or what caused you to make that decision.

A boundary is set to protect you and protect what’s important to you, and that is all you need to be concerned about.

“No” is a perfectly complete sentence.

Struggling still with people pleasing, check out this article to find out How to Overcome People Pleasing for Good?

How Do We Convey Our Boundaries In a Relationship?

Why Boundaries In a Relationship Are Important?

Boundaries harness intimacy, trust, and honesty.

When boundaries in a relationship are too loose, we build our identity around our relationship to someone else. We become somebody’s partner, which diminishes the potential of who we are and who we might grow into.

We convey our boundaries in a relationship by clearly communicating what we’re willing to tolerate and what we’re not willing to tolerate, our likes and dislikes, what’s right and wrong for us.

There will be endless opportunities to assert and adjust these limits.

#1. Communication

We often underestimate communication.

We forget that other people can’t read our minds in the same way that we can’t read theirs. Unless we’re willing to verbalize our needs, they won’t be able to know what they are.

We might say yes to a request when really mean to say no. This comes at a cost to our time, energy, but also to our relationships as we often end up feeling resentful and frustrated.

But communication doesn’t just involve the words we say. It is also nonverbal – our facial expressions, body language, tone of voice – that really helps when we’re asserting our boundaries.

Related: How to Be More Effective in Relationships (Effective Communication)

#2. Take Responsibility, but Not for Everything

When we blame other people, we’re handing over our self-control, choices, and decisions – we’re disempowering ourselves.

The truth is, we don’t live a life that someone else has decided for us. We have a say in what we do and how we do it.

Boundaries help us to take responsibility for ourselves and our lives. They also encourage other people to learn to take responsibility for themselves.

Related: 5 Steps to Take Back Your Power And Start Loving Your Life

#3. We Can’t and We Don’t Have to Fix Everything and Everyone

When our happiness stems from how happy or unhappy the people around us are, it’s natural for us to want to fix their problems.

It’s easy to figure out the solutions to other people’s problems because we are looking at them with less emotion.

But the truth is, it’s not our place to do so and it’s not always helpful or kind – it’s an infringement of boundaries that might leave these people resentful.

Related: Healing From A Codependent Relationship: 7 Ways to Conquer Codependency

#4. Expect Resistance

We naturally resist change. We prefer things to stay the same. For many of us, change can evoke a fear of uncertainty.

So it’s only natural for you to experience inner resistance as you set down this path of boundary work.

You may experience this as self-doubting thoughts: “Am I hurting other people?” or, “Am I being selfish?”

The best way to deal with this inner resistance is to clarify your “why” — understanding the need for the change.

Remind yourself that boundaries are there to harness intimacy and honesty and not to push other people away.

Related: 10 Proven Ways to Make Any Change Quick and Permanent

#5. Do Take No for an Answer

“No” is a complete sentence that should require no explanation.

For some people it’s being on the receiving end of a “No” can be more challenging than saying no to other people.

Although learning to assert our no, no matter the consequence, is important, learning to receive a no is equally important.

#6. Be Straightforward With Your No

A yes can also be a “maybe later,” or, “I don’t know.”

Although not being straightforward, usually stems from our fear of hurting other people’s feelings, being honest can be more important in maintaining healthy, balanced relationships.

People who really care about us would rather we were straightforward and honest, which begs the question: If people in our lives would rather we were burned-out keeping their needs met, then why do we keep giving away our yeses to those people?

Your yeses represent your valuable resources – time, energy, and sometimes money – don’t scatter them around.

Related: Recovering People Pleaser: 5 Ways To Stop Being The Nice Guy (And Get What You Want In Life And Love)

What About Compromise?

Relationships require us to compromise, but that doesn’t mean we have to compromise ourselves in the process – we don’t have to give up the things that are most important to us.

Compromise also requires mutuality and reciprocity. Healthy relationships value mutual benefit, equity, and fairness, and support what’s important to each person.

Walking Away Is Sometimes Your Only Option

Although walking away requires less time and energy than trying to fix a relationship, sometimes it’s tough, especially when we’re experiencing shame and guilt.

We can reframe walking away by considering what we might be walking toward – peace, freedom, better emotional health, etc.

How Do You Know If a Relationship Is Toxic?

You know you are in a toxic relationship when you feel as though you’re walking on eggshells with all the compromises that are involved.

Some signs of a toxic relationship include: constant criticism and judgment, constant belittling, guilt-tripping, withdrawal of affection, a lack of trust, endless disagreement, perpetual lying, gaslighting, conditional love, disrespect, isolating you from friends and family, and attempts to control and manipulate you.

When no amount of communicating or boundary-setting seems to address unhealthy issues in a relationship, walking away could be our only option.

Related: 10 Steps to Heal Your Broken Heart and Move On From a Relationship

How Setting Boundaries Can Improve Your Mental Health?

1. Stress Is A Boundary Issue

Limiting stress is about creating personal space to recharge and keep up our energy levels. It’s about considering the demands on our time, accepting that we’re not limitless, and choosing our priorities wisely.

2. Boundaries Impact Sleep Quality

Sleep and mental health are strongly related. We perform better when we’re rested and refreshed.

Setting boundaries begins with the things that might be preventing us from having a good night’s sleep and then creating a routine that will help us get the sleep we need.

We can create bedtime routines, limit caffeine, or remove as many electrical appliances as possible from our rooms.

healthy sleeping habits (4)

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Did I miss anything?

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How to Firmly Establish and Enforce Healthy Emotional Boundaries?


  • Portions of this article were adapted from the book Close Encounters of the Worst Kind, © 2017 by Randi G Fine. All rights reserved.
  • Portions of this article were adapted from the book Making Space, © 2019 by Jayne Hardy. All rights reserved.
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