Relationship Rights

Setting Boundaries

What do we mean by "setting boundaries?"

Setting boundaries is an important part of building healthy relationships, and can be thought of in terms of knowing what you want and do not want (i.e., what your boundaries are) out of relationships with romantic partners, friends, and family, and clearly communicating these expectations to others. Sometimes setting boundaries can feel uncomfortable, as it may require asserting yourself in new ways and letting others know what your expectations of them and yourself are.
Some examples of setting boundaries can include:

  • Telling your romantic partner what you are and are not comfortable with regarding the amount of time you spend together.
  • Explaining to friends that it is important to you to finish academic assignments before hanging out.
  • Letting your family members know that you are not comfortable discussing politics.

Unhealthy Boundaries

Some people may have unhealthy boundaries, where they are not sure about their own boundaries or perhaps they push others' boundaries. Some signs of unhealthy boundaries include:
  • Telling all.
  • Talking at an intimate level on the first meeting.
  • Falling in love with a new acquaintance.
  • Falling in love with anyone who reaches out.
  • Being overwhelmed by a person - preoccupied.
  • Acting on first impulse.
  • Going against personal values or rights to please others.
  • Accepting food, gifts, and intimacy that you don't want.
  • Touching a person without asking.
  • Taking as much as you can get for the sake of getting.
  • Giving as much as you can give for the sake of giving.
  • Allowing someone to take as much as they can from you.
  • Letting others direct your life.
  • Letting others describe your reality.
  • Letting others define you.
  • Believing others can anticipate your needs.
  • Expecting others to fill your needs automatically.
  • Falling apart so someone will take care of you.
  • Self abuse.
  • Sexual and physical abuse.
  • Food abuse.

How can I set boundaries for myself?

It's first important to identify what your boundaries are, as they're different for everybody. In order to identify what your boundaries are, think about what your values are and how you want to live them in your daily life. For example, think about what your values are regarding intimacy, use of drugs and alcohol, family, time spent in relationships, money, or academic responsibilities. Decide what you are comfortable with (i.e., what is within your boundaries) and what you are not comfortable with (i.e., what is outside your boundaries). Once you have identified what your boundaries are you will be able to recognize when someone is pushing them. Pay attention to how you feel when interacting with others; a sign that someone is pushing your boundaries is a sense of discomfort or anxiety.

Once you have identified what your values and boundaries are, and can recognize when they are being tested, it's important to communicate this with others. People won't know what your boundaries are unless you tell them, so speak up! Setting boundaries can be as easy as saying, "I'm not comfortable with that" or using the phrase "Maybe some other time" to deflect a request that pushes your boundaries.

Awareness of Others' Boundaries

An important part of setting boundaries is knowing what others are comfortable with, as well. Although some people may be very straight-forward, other people may not know how to communicate what their own boundaries are. When in doubt, ask! Simple questions such as "How do you feel about that?" or "Is this okay with you?" can be invitations for others to set their boundaries with you. If you have concerns about how to set boundaries, or would like to know more, be sure to use on-campus resources, such as the Counseling Center, to help answer any questions you might have. If you would like some help in addressing some of these issues, the staff at the Counseling Center is also available to help you identify and work through concerns. The Counseling Center is located on the first floor of O'Boyle Hall and appointments can be scheduled by calling 202-319-5765.