Setting boundaries is hard work, but they are essential to healthy relationships – this includes relationships with others, with ourselves and with work.

We often don’t set them because we fear what others will think of us. We fear missing opportunities, we want to be seen as ‘yes’ people, we fear rejection and abandonment, we fear confrontation and conflict, and we dread feeling guilty.

If we set boundaries little and often, positive habit-forming around setting them can feel much more everyday than the mountain they can sometimes seem.

We cannot expect people to place value on us if we do not demonstrate that we value ourselves enough to hold uncomfortable boundaries. The way you treat yourself is a marker for how others treat you.

Why we need boundaries

If you value yourself, your energy, time and love, then others are more likely to. If others watch you placing value over your energies and time, being considerate to yourself in how you make your decisions, they are less likely to take advantage of you, and more likely to respect the regard you hold for yourself.

We consider setting boundaries as a ritual. Setting boundaries takes daily practice; being repeated often makes it more likely this will become a positive feature in your life. If we leave setting boundaries to only times of overwhelm or crisis, or times that are emotionally charged, we might find we aren’t as good at it or it feels too scary.

You cannot beat being well versed at setting and maintaining boundaries. It will only serve you for the better.

What are boundaries?

If you feel like you often betray your own needs for others, over-listen to other people’s beliefs or ideas, worry about being criticised, feel afraid of feeling guilty or falling out, feel like others are treating you disrespectfully or without compassion and not saying anything, it’s probably time for you to think about your boundaries.

Boundaries don’t have to be barriers or brick walls. They can be pliable, meshy membranes that compassionately mark out the edges of our capacity while letting others see how we like to be treated.

Don’t use the idea of a boundary to reinforce your own resistances. Use them to deepen relationships, to show up more authentically, help you have control over what matters in your life, and contribute to you feeling less violated or used up.

Boundaries are complicated, particularly if we are new to them. They might sound like:

  • I would really like to be there, but I can’t this week.
  • This is how I can be most helpful, these are the limits of what I can do.
  • It makes me feel uncomfortable when you…
  • Can I have some space to think about this and get back to you?
  • I’m going to voice this because I don’t want to hold onto a resentment.

How to set your own boundaries

Start by defining what is most important to you: time, energy, rituals, relationships (if so, which ones?).

  • What are you losing to lost boundaries (that exercise class, a book that needs reading, that walk in the park)? What impact does this have on you?
  • Look at the bigger picture. What do you see as common themes in your life which look like you are not holding boundaries (overspending, late nights, saying yes and meaning no, agreeing to do things you do not have the capacity for)?
  • How does that make you feel?
  • If you feel confused about when to introduce a boundary, buy more time (‘Let me think about it and get back to you’, ‘I’m not sure I can let you know now, I just need to check about that and I’ll get back to you’).
  • Practise saying no. Notice any grief, fear or anxiety that saying no brings up for you. Try to live through that experience to what’s on the other side. Doing this and surviving and showing up as ourselves in relation to another, often gives a more secure sense of our worth, for example, ‘I am not just loved for doing what they want/need/ask. I’m still lovable when I am not in service to another.’
  • Know that holding boundaries sometimes does not immediately feel good. You might feel unsafe, anxious, confused or alone at first. This is the jumping from one lily pad to the other moment. Where are you going to land? Mostoften it is closer to where you want to be, so let the period of uncertainty breathe a little and sit with the discomfort.
  • Know that just because a boundary is set once, it doesn’t mean it’s done and dusted – you might need to return to it over and over with the same person. Habits are hard to break.
  • As painful as it is coming into contact with our limitations, sharing them with others only strengthens relationships.
  • If your boundaries cannot be respected or regarded by others, try to understand why, and then make a decision about what that means for your relationship.

However, if you have an ulterior motive other than your own self-preservation to saying no, then try to own that.

For example, withdrawing your love or time as an act of punishment or for attention is not ‘setting boundaries’ – it’s more likely avoiding conflict, triggered behaviour, or something else playing out. Don’t mistake misdirecting anger, rage or meanness with boundaries.

Written by:

Chance Marshall


Chance is Founding Partner at Self Space and Head of Written and Digital Content. He has a grounded, creative and empathetic approach in working with clients towards self-awareness and real, lasting personal and interpersonal change.