Knowing how to set boundaries is an important, yet often overlooked skill. Boundaries are the physical, emotional, and mental parameters we all set to help keep us focused and avoid burnout, stress, or illness. They allow us to foster healthy relationships with the people and environments around us.
Setting boundaries is a form of self-care. It helps to create a clear guideline for how you would like to be treated and lets others know what is and is not acceptable for you. It honors our needs and wants so that we feel respected and safe.
What Types of Boundaries Are There?
Whether you are a student or a working professional, it is important that you set clear and defined boundaries. While specifics vary by person, boundaries can be placed in five different categories:
- Physical: This refers to your personal space, your privacy, and your body. You might be comfortable with a personal touch or you might be someone who prefers not to be touched in public. Physical boundaries can be something as simple as preferring at least a foot of space between you and others.
- Intellectual: These boundaries concern your thoughts and beliefs, including spiritual. Although you may agree to disagree it is sometimes better to have clear boundaries with people you disagree with. You may be able to have a constructive conversation with some people, but it may be more beneficial to avoid certain topics with others.
- Emotional: This refers to a person’s feelings. You might not feel comfortable sharing your feelings all at once, even with someone you are close to. Instead, you prefer to share gradually over time. You do not need to feel obligated to share everything about yourself with everyone. There may be situations or people that you are more comfortable opening up to.
- Financial: This boundary refers to money. Some people are more open with their spending while others are more frugal. You may also not feel comfortable lending money even to your closest friends.
- Time: Your time is something that you must be protective of, especially as it begins to stretch across your personal, family, and professional obligations. You are the only one who can effectively judge what amount of your time should be dedicated to each part of your life and creating boundaries is one way to ensure no part gets lost or ignored and all areas of your life are properly cared for.
Not only are setting boundaries beneficial for defining our identity, it also limits our exposure to stress, as well as protecting our mental well-being.
As you work to balance home and school, plus professional responsibilities, here are a few ways you can stay grounded by developing the boundaries to best manage your world.
1. Start Early and Start Small
As the saying goes, “you give an inch, some people take a mile.” By setting boundaries and expectations from the very beginning, everyone knows where they stand, and feelings of hurt, confusion and frustration can be reduced. It may feel challenging or even unfair to set boundaries with people right away, but it is easier to create these boundaries early in a relationship instead of trying to set them after unacknowledged boundaries are crossed later.
If you haven’t set many boundaries currently, don’t feel overwhelmed by the prospect of introducing them. This doesn’t have to happen overnight — take your time and start small. For example, you may realize that you don’t like working in the evening since it leaves you feeling drained. Instead of cutting off all contact after 6:00 PM, you may consider not answering phone calls or only answering emails or only prioritizing specific people or circumstances from your work life to blend into your personal time.
2. Be Consistent
The way you set boundaries with your coworker will be different from the boundaries you would set with your teacher, spouse, or best friend. It is okay to have different boundaries for different people. However, if you find it helpful, there’s no reason not to have a few basics in place that can be adapted accordingly. If you are an introvert, you may set aside specific times to be alone or have quiet time. If you are an extrovert, you may want to prioritize opportunities to go out and have fun, refueling yourself after a long day.
Try keeping things consistent and steady. This helps to reinforce your original boundaries and it ensures those lines remain established.
Communication is critical to maintaining effective boundaries. In some aspects of our lives, there are boundaries already in place, but you may need to raise your concerns with an individual to reiterate or reinforce your boundaries. You need to be comfortable and open about discussing your boundaries. No one can read your mind or guess what makes you uncomfortable.
The nature of boundaries is that they are personal to you and you do not need to justify them. If your teacher or boss asks you do something that makes you uncomfortable or feel like you are being stretched to take on work or hours beyond what is in your normal role, be willing to share. In most cases, people respect boundaries and in the cases that boundaries aren’t respected, that is also good information for you to have as you work to determine what is important and healthy in your life.
4. Practice Self-Care
To know your boundaries, you need to show yourself some love. You need to have self-awareness of your physical, emotional and social well-being. It is okay to sometimes be perceived as a little “selfish” to protect yourself. Having boundaries doesn’t mean that you are only thinking about yourself and never factoring in other people, what it does mean is knowing where the line is drawn. Remember, you can’t fill someone else’s cup if yours is empty. Be confident in where your needs rank to say no to the things that take too much of you.
5. Respect Other’s Boundaries
Remember the golden rule, “treat others how you want to be treated.” As you know from personal experience, repeatedly violating boundaries can make you feel unappreciated and disrespected and can cause people to withdraw and not want to work or interact with you. There’s no harm in taking a moment to think before you act or even directly asking people about what they feel comfortable with. Most people will feel heard and valued if they are asked "what are your limitations on this” or “how do you best like to have someone reach out to you after hours" or “when are the regular times where you’d like to separate work from personal life?” The rule of communication applies here as well, if you are not certain, just ask.