How to Set Boundaries and Build Better Relationships

If you feel like you don't have any more to give, it might be time to learn how to set boundaries at work, at home and in your relationships. Here, experts explain the steps to take.

We’ve all experienced an overbearing friend, a super-demanding boss, overstepping in-laws or significant others who seem to make our decisions for us. But instead of accepting many of the annoying behaviors that often make us unhappy, we can learn how to set boundaries to better communicate how we feel and take more control over how we’re treated in our relationships. Although it may sound like boundaries keep people out, it’s actually the opposite.

“Many might think boundaries are limiting to building connections, but they empower authenticity from both parties,” says Helene Lerner, author of Time for Me: Self-Care and Simple Pleasures for Women Who Do Too Much and founder of WomenWorking.com. “Boundaries create a relationship that is truly shared—it’s not just one person catering to another but an exchange, with two people having their needs met.”

Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, many people have a hard time setting boundaries and an even harder time keeping them. “It takes courage for many of us to set healthy boundaries, because we may be afraid that if we do, we’ll lose someone we care about,” Lerner says. Then, if someone crosses our boundaries after we’ve communicated them, it can be difficult to stick to them because of this fear. “If we are used to people-pleasing, or acquiescing because of the fear of loss, then what were we really getting out of that relationship? Not a whole lot,” Lerner says. “Do we really want someone who doesn’t respect our needs?”

How to be happy often depends on facing this fear of loss or rejection by learning how to say no, how to create work-life balance and how to stand up for ourselves and our identified non-negotiables. “We should set boundaries with family, at work, in romantic relationships, in friendships and with technology,” says licensed therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab, the New York Times bestselling author of the inspirational book Set Boundaries, Find Peace and the upcoming Drama Free: A Guide to Managing Unhealthy Family Relationships. “These areas are the top places most people struggle.” Read on for tips from our experts on exactly how to set boundaries.

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What are boundaries?

“Boundaries are expectations and needs that help you feel safe and comfortable,” Tawwab says. “It’s knowing when to say no and when to say yes. Creating healthy boundaries leads to feeling calm, loved and respected.”

If you’re always feeling like others ask too much of you and you’re reaching a breaking point, you’re not alone: According to a 2022 YouGov survey, 49% of Americans (including 56% of women) identify themselves as people pleasers who have a hard time saying no and instead put others’ needs ahead of their own. These are signs it’s time to think about how setting boundaries might help you feel more empowered.

Consider boundary setting your new self-care routine: Putting yourself first can help you maintain your identity, ensure you’re in healthy relationships and prevent others from taking advantage of you. “Boundaries are an essential part of any kind of relationship,” Lerner says. For example, after we’ve grown up, setting boundaries with parents often becomes necessary; so if your nosy mother is always in your business, let her know you need her to back off. “Relationships change, and if your mother wants you in her life, she needs to respect your autonomy and what you need,” Lerner says.

Setting boundaries in relationships is also part of learning how to create a positive attitude for yourself, clear your mind to live more intentionally, set goals for what you really want, have better time management by sometimes saying no and better enjoy spending time with family by making your connection healthier.

Types of boundaries

If you’re wondering how setting boundaries can do all that, it’s because there are so many types of boundaries to set. “There are six types of boundaries,” Tawwab explains. They include:

  1. Physical: Standing too close or unwanted hugging, handshakes or other touch
  2. Sexual: Molestation, assault or sexual jokes
  3. Intellectual: Name calling, yelling or ridiculing someone for what they believe
  4. Emotional: Oversharing, gossiping or invalidating someone’s feelings
  5. Material: Borrowing and not returning an item or returning borrowed items in worse condition
  6. Time: Asking for free help, calling or texting too late, or overcommitting

Each type of relationship may deal with varying boundaries. In exploring how to set boundaries with friends, for instance, you may need to create time, emotional or material boundaries. Setting boundaries at work may involve creating time, physical and emotional boundaries with colleagues.

“When something doesn’t feel right, create a boundary and communicate that boundary with others,” Tawwab says. Learning how to set boundaries in the different areas of your life can give you more agency and control, improve your mental health and self-confidence, and lead to more moments of joy instead of the dread of obligation.

One little green ball within a wooden box, many pink balls outside the box on yellow surface, view from directly abovePM Images/Getty Images

How to set boundaries

OK, so how do you put those boundaries in place? Here are some specific steps and tips from our experts on the best ways to set boundaries.

1. Think about where to draw the line

Before you talk to the person you intend to set boundaries with, determine what you are no longer able to put up with. “Be honest with yourself. What are you willing to tolerate?” Tawwab says. “Setting successful boundaries begins with you. Learn your capacity.”

This might mean setting a time by which you absolutely need to leave work (forget quiet quitting—you need to state your boundaries out loud to your boss) or after which you won’t answer phone calls from that friend who always wants to discuss the latest drama at midnight. Ignore any guilt about what the other party might feel—this is about you and not being taken for granted.

2. Practice out loud

You’ll need to have an honest conversation with the person you’re setting boundaries with, and this can be scary at first, especially for people who tend to avoid conflict. “If you are not used to setting boundaries, role play with a trusted friend or practice in front of a mirror,” Lerner says. “When you do it out loud, it lessens the discomfort of a new behavior. You may feel less uneasy going into the real conversation.”

Still need a mental push? Try creating a goal-setting vision board that celebrates your plan to put your foot down.

As you learn how to set boundaries and get more adept at it, the need for this practice will lessen. “Like any other muscle, the boundary muscle gets stronger the more you use it,” Lerner says. “Enjoy your inner gym!”

3. Have the conversation

The time has come to say it loud and clear. “Verbally communicate your needs. Assertively state what you expect. This way, there is little room for misinterpretation,” Tawwab says. As tempting as it is, never do this over text message.

This conversation may feel intimidating, but that’s normal. “Step out of your comfort zone and do it!” Lerner says. “Yes, a new behavior doesn’t feel comfortable, but the reward after a hard-fought battle with fear is a new sense of self-respect.”

But don’t go into it with guns blazing—if you approach it as a discussion, not a tirade, you’ll lessen the chance that the other person will go on the defensive. “We must speak up and be brave enough to let the people closest to us know how we can be better for each other,” Lerner says.

4. Tell the truth

You may have been holding in all your gripes for a long time, so you don’t want to leave the boundary-setting conversation thinking about what you should have said. You don’t want to waste time beating around the bush, but you need to respect the other person’s feelings by saying things in a gentle manner while still being up-front and truthful about your needs.

“When we tell the truth to the people in our lives, we allow them to know the ‘real you,'” Lerner says. “If we hold things in, we start resenting the people we care about the most, so it is better to take the risk and draw clear lines when we feel they are necessary or beneficial.”

5. Use “I” language

During the conversation, your language should reflect the fact that these are your own, personal feelings. “Talk in the first person, rather than putting the onus entirely on the other person,” Lerner says. “This will minimize feelings of defensiveness while ensuring that your priorities are being fully vocalized.”

She offers a few examples of using “I” language while setting boundaries: “When [blank] happens, I feel uncomfortable,” “I am proposing we do [blank] this way,” “I don’t think this is feasible, because [blank].”

6. Set priorities

Although you should have a clear idea of your boundary, you can leave yourself some leverage if you think you’ll get pushback. “Figure out what your priorities are and find clarity on what is important to you: what you must have, what would be nice to have and what doesn’t matter that much,” Lerner says. “Must-have is non-negotiable. Would-be-nice can be negotiated, but stay true to yourself! Doesn’t-matter-that-much is exactly as it sounds; that’s your currency to ensure you get all your must-haves.”

So when setting boundaries at work, if you tell your boss you’re doing a digital detox and no longer want to check emails on the weekend, you might be able to negotiate a one-time check-in if you’re OK with it—but that’s it. Or if you’d like to be more involved in making the plans with a friend or partner who often shuts you out of decision making, let them know you’d like to give your input too, and then you can make the choice together. In doing so, “you’ve created a collaborative discussion,” Lerner says.

a yellow smiley face ball surrounded by traffic boundary cones on pink background; one cone has fallen over onto its sideTMB Studio

7. Be flexible

Having flexibility refers to your own needs, which may alter over time. After all, your boundaries aren’t set in stone. “Flexibility is important when deciding where our boundaries are placed, with the understanding that people change,” Lerner says. “What was good for you yesterday may not be good for you today; people who truly grow together know that.”

You can communicate to your overbearing mother that weekly visits are all you can handle right now while understanding that in the future, you might adjust the frequency. You can tell your nosy siblings that single women can be perfectly happy and that you’d like them to stop insinuating it’s time you marry—all while understanding you might find The One next year.

8. Decide what happens if someone crosses your boundary

If setting boundaries is hard, sticking with boundaries can be even harder: Your boss may ask you to stay late even though you said you wouldn’t, your friends might ask you for money when you told them you simply can’t give loans anymore or your partner may continue belittling something you’re passionate about after you’ve told them not to.

“When someone violates your boundary, you get to decide what happens next,” Tawwab says. In some cases, you may want to consider ending a toxic relationship or getting out of your toxic workplace for good.

9. Learn to let go

As we’ve discussed, “fear of how others may respond to our boundaries can keep us from setting them,” Tawwab says. In facing this fear, you also have to come to terms with the fact that your boundary setting may mean the relationship cannot continue as it is. But if that’s the case, it means the relationship was not healthy to begin with.

When you stand up for yourself and learn how to set boundaries in a relationship, “some people will not like this—they may feel like they are losing control of the relationship,” Lerner says. “But they never really had control over you! Their insecurities are none of your business. Keep your focus on yourself and what you need.”

Stop trying to be happy by only focusing on other people’s happiness. Repeat after us: You are not responsible for how others feel, and you don’t need to apologize for telling them how you feel.

How to communicate boundaries

Still unsure of how to set boundaries? Our experts have some specific language you can use to communicate good boundaries with others.

“I know you love me and want the best for me. I would like it if you supported me by listening instead of offering feedback.”

Boundary Relationship What to say
Emotional boundary Friend “We always go to restaurants that you want to go to, but you never ask me to choose. Why don’t we have Italian food tonight? We can work together to pick a restaurant.”
Emotional boundary Family “Mom, you are always asking me way too much about my personal life! I love you, but I’m not a little girl anymore. I will fill you in on my latest partner when I am ready.”
Emotional boundary Partner “I know you love me and want the best for me. I would like it if you supported me by listening instead of offering feedback.”
Time boundary Partner “I work full-time like you do, yet you expect me to make dinner and take care of the kids without much help. You can do the dishes, take out the garbage and drive the kids to school tomorrow.”
Intellectual boundary Partner “It really upsets me when you yell at me. If you’re unhappy with something I’ve done, please communicate that to me in a calm way.”
Time boundary Work “Bob, I don’t mind working overtime, but three days a week is too much. Let me know what day your priority is, and I will make it happen. If there is an emergency, I’ll be there, but I need to spend time with my family.”
Physical boundary Work “I know you’re a hugger, but I prefer to keep things professional and offer a handshake instead when we meet.”
Material boundary Friend “I know we’re roommates, but I’d appreciate it if you would ask me before borrowing my clothes.”

These discussions aren’t always easy, but they’ll set you on the path to healthier relationships, better work-life balance and a happier life.

Sources:

  • Helene Lerner, author of Time for Me: Self-Care and Simple Pleasures for Women Who Do Too Much and founder of WomenWorking.com
  • Nedra Glover Tawwab, MSW, LCSW, author of Set Boundaries, Find Peace and Drama Free: A Guide to Managing Unhealthy Family Relationships
  • YouGov: “Women are more likely than men to say they’re a people-pleaser, and many dislike being seen as one”
  • Cleveland Clinic: “How to Set Healthy Boundaries in Relationships”

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Tina Donvito
Tina Donvito is a regular contributor to RD.com’s Culture and Travel sections. She also writes about health and wellness, parenting, and pregnancy. Previously editor-in-chief of Twist magazine, Donvito has also written for Parade Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Parents Magazine online, among others. Here work was selected by author Elizabeth Gilbert to be included in the anthology Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It: Life Journeys Inspired by the Bestselling Memoir. She earned a BA in English and History from Rutgers University.