We're calling it: Boundaries are the new self-care. Though, as many of us experienced in 2020, it's harder than ever to create them. Pre-pandemic, if we needed some space, we were able to leave home and head to work in an office or go on an outing. Lockdown changed that. Everything happening under one roof made it more challenging to avoid uncomfortable issues in our relationships. It forced us to assess what we really needed and what was no longer working. That's where boundaries come in.
"Boundaries are limits we place on our relationships about what behavior we will and won't accept from other people," explains licensed therapist Kati Morton. Nicole LePera, Ph.D., of The Holistic Psychologist and author of How to Do the Work: Recognize Your Patterns, Heal from Your Past, and Create Your Self, says boundaries are the foundation of every relationship you have, including the one with yourself. She refers to boundaries as "the walls or clear limits that protect you from what feels inappropriate, unacceptable, and inauthentic." In other words, boundaries may be essential for our emotional, mental, and physical well-being.
Ahead, Morton and LePera dive into boundaries, including the different types of boundaries that are important to set and tips on setting and maintaining them.
When to Set Boundaries
First things first, how exactly do you know you need to set a boundary? Morton explains our body is the messenger. For example, if a stranger puts their hand on your back and that makes you feel uncomfortable, that discomfort is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. Similarly, if you feel exhausted, frustrated, or worn out after an interaction with someone, that’s also a sign they may be overstepping. Morton advises paying close attention to how you feel before and after interactions with people or certain types of situations to help you assess where boundaries need to be set to protect yourself.
Types of Boundaries
You can set boundaries in many different areas of your life, including work, technology, and what you're comfortable sharing online. The most common boundaries are in relationships, including romantic, friendships, or work relationships. And there are different types of boundaries you can set, including mental, emotional, physical, and resource boundaries, according to our experts.
- Mental and emotional boundaries, LePera says, can include who you share your thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and emotions with. Morton adds emotional boundaries can also include how you allow someone to speak to you, or how much energy you are willing to invest in a relationship.
- Physical boundaries have to do with how close you allow someone to be to you, physically, and what touch you're okay and not okay with.
- Resource boundaries, which are also important, LePera explains, are about "your ability to choose where and how your time is spent." This could look like asking for an hour to yourself every afternoon or disconnecting from your phone after 8 p.m.
How to Set and Maintain Boundaries
Clarify your needs: The first step in setting any type of boundary is being clear with what exactly you need to communicate to someone and what change that requires of them, Morton says. She recommends writing it out and practicing saying it out loud beforehand, so you don't get off topic during the conversation or forget what you want to say in the moment.
Find the right time: Next up is actually communicating your needs and boundaries with the other person. LePera suggests choosing a time when both parties are not in an emotionally reactive place. For example, Morton shares, after a stressful day or when the other person is in a bad mood is not an ideal time.
Start with a compliment: If you're not sure how to kick off the boundary conversation, Morton says beginning with a compliment can go a long way in setting the tone. "I like to enact what I call the hug and roll technique, where we start the conversation off by complimenting them or thanking them for something, and then move in with the change we hope to see," Morton says. "By starting with kindness, they are more likely to hear us mention the boundary and hopefully be open to the change." Focus on how you will respond in new ways.
Be clear: When setting boundaries, LePera recommends not focusing on changing the other person's behavior, but instead making a clear statement about how you will respond in new ways if the person continues the behavior. For instance, you can say something like: "I no longer wish to discuss my food choices. If they are brought up again, I will remove myself from the conversation." LePera adds when you communicate your boundary, do so in a "calm, clear, and assertive way."
Be gentle with yourself: For many people, setting and maintaining boundaries wasn't the norm growing up. So when you begin to set them, it can bring up feelings of guilt, and the other party may not always respond like you hoped they would. "Some people may challenge or push back against your boundaries if you've never set them before," LePera says, and that's okay. "As you continue to practice, you'll begin to feel less resentment and more confidence."
Remember, it's a process: Boundaries are not often a one-and-done type of deal. Morton notes you'll often find yourself having to remind the people in your life of the boundaries you've set, your needs, and why they're important. "Be patient, understanding, and offer some compassion as we all learn new ways of interacting with each other," she says. We're all still trying to navigate new normals.
Be mindful: That said, Morton adds it's also normal to fall back into old ways of engaging in relationships. The reason? It's easier and comfortable because we're used to it. Nonetheless, Morton encourages you to continue pushing yourself to maintain your boundaries. "It will take some time and practice, but it will get easier, and we will all feel better as a result," she says.
Be open to compromise: The people you live with are often the people you spend the most time with, especially during a pandemic, and crossing each other's boundaries is practically inevitable. Morton’s advice: lots of communication and compromise. Communicate your needs to the people you live with and what's okay and not okay with you. Then, be open to compromise to ensure their needs and boundaries are also met. For parents with children, for example, one way to compromise and honor each other's needs can be to take turns letting each other have an afternoon off for alone time.
Set boundaries with distanced relationships too: Boundaries are not just reserved for the people we live with. Distanced relationships can also benefit, and discussing it over Zoom, FaceTime, or a phone call may actually make it easier. “Being distanced from our friends and loved ones does have its advantages when it comes to setting up boundaries for the first time,” Morton says. “We can space out our online hangouts to give ourselves time to decompress. We can prepare what it is we want to say and how we want to say it." For instance, let’s say a friend or family member only calls to talk about their lives without giving you any time to talk about yours. This is something you can set a boundary around so you both have enough time to share and feel good about the interaction.
The Bottom Line
Allow your boundaries to shift and change. As we continue to live through this pandemic and enter post-pandemic life, LePera notes that our needs and limits may change, and that's okay. She advises allowing yourself to continue to shift and change your boundaries around your space, time, and relationships as needed in an intentional way so you can continue to feel a sense of self.