Setting healthy boundaries isn’t something we all know how to do. When I talk with my clients about boundaries, many of them clam up. They often know they should set boundaries, but feel selfish or uncomfortable doing so. But boundaries are crucial for our sense of well-being, mental stability, and resilience. So what does setting healthy boundaries mean, and what do boundaries and respect have to do with people-pleasing? Let’s take a look.
Boundaries are anything that lets other people know how to treat you. They can be emotional, physical, or even digital. One common misconception is that enforcing boundaries is mean or rude. People assume that others should automatically know how they want to be treated. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – it’s called following the Golden Rule, right?
But making the assumption that others know how to treat you is a mistake. People aren’t mind-readers, and even those with the best intentions won’t always know what you need or what makes you feel good. It’s not rude to ask for what you need; it’s a sign of maturity. And when you don’t set boundaries, you might find yourself feeling resentful, tense, and angry with the people around you. Boundaries are important in all relationships – romantic, work, platonic, and, yes, yourself.
Some examples of personal boundaries in a relationship might be: “I'm cool with following each other on social media, but not with sharing passwords.” Or maybe “I'm comfortable kissing and holding hands, but not in public.”
An example of a work boundary might look like not checking work email or taking work calls outside your regular working hours. Or maybe you are assigned projects that continually fall outside the scope of your job description. Asking your supervisor to reassign these projects can set the stage for a healthy work atmosphere.
You can even set boundaries with yourself. If you are struggling with doomscrolling or online impulse shopping, you might limit yourself to 30 minutes of screen time at night before an app or timer reminds you to put the phone away. Or you can delete your credit card information from your phone and computer so it doesn’t autofill when you go to check out. This adds an extra step to making online purchases, which can slow you down just enough to deter you from impulse shopping.
The thing is, many people assume you have to announce your boundaries, and that can feel scary and confrontational. But you actually don’t always have to speak boundaries aloud. You can just stop doing things that make you uncomfortable or taken for granted. For example, instead of declaring to your boss you’re not going to stay late after work anymore, you can just leave on time. Instead of confronting someone about their creepy comments, you can just walk away from them.
Setting boundaries can bring up a lot of anxiety. It’s hard to ask for what you really need, because it requires trust and vulnerability. It’s a practice that requires constant effort and attention. And capitalism doesn't help. It feels like we constantly have to do more, which means there’s an entire system testing our boundaries. We’re continually told that if we don't cave on our boundaries we're not valuable or worthy enough.
Plus, setting healthy boundaries doesn’t mean you set them once and you’re done forever. You have to reinforce them and maintain them again and again. If the thought of this makes you want to swear off all human interaction for the rest of eternity, you’re not alone. And odds are you’re also a people-pleaser.
People-pleasers have an especially hard time setting boundaries. People-pleasers often grew up with few or no healthy boundaries modeled for them, and so they never learned to set any themselves. They were taught early on that if they acted a certain way and avoided expressing their true emotions, they might be able to “keep the peace” or lighten the mood.
People-pleasing is a result of fearing uncomfortable emotions or situations, especially those involving relationships with others. And unfortunately, setting boundaries can bring up plenty of difficult emotions, especially at first. People-pleasers need to learn that uncomfortable emotions are actually okay to feel. Once they have some practice feeling uncomfortable, some of the terror of setting boundaries usually disappears.
If you’re a people-pleaser, you probably already bend over backward to avoid disappointing or upsetting anyone. So the thought of setting boundaries with others can be downright terrifying for people-pleasers. What if you finally spit out your boundary and you’re met with anger? Or worse, what if it causes you to lose a friendship or a relationship? What if it causes you to lose your job?
These are all valid worries. I’m not going to lie to you – it is possible that any of these things might happen. But think about it this way: if you ask someone to treat you with respect and they shun or shame you as a result, did you really want to be involved with them anyway? The more you show up as your real authentic self, the more you’ll attract people who will enthusiastically respect your boundaries. And the more you attract these kinds of relationships, the happier you’ll be.
Boundaries are a way of telling others how we want to be treated, and they also indicate respect. They communicate to others what we need to feel safe, cared for, and respected. This can mean respect for our time, our personal space, our bodies, our mental health, or any number of other things.
It’s perfectly fair and reasonable to ask others for respect. Wanting boundaries and respect in your life doesn’t make you selfish or mean. It doesn’t make you weak. It just makes you a human who deserves to be treated with respect and care.
Ultimately, being able to set boundaries and say no leads to a healthier, less anxious life. And I get it – it’s really tough. But you need to be able to advocate for yourself in this way and embrace imperfection in order to see that it’s okay to live in a messy world. It’s okay to be messy. You’re only human, after all.
If you’re looking for help figuring out how to set healthy boundaries and stop feeling guilty about it, I can help. Together, we can investigate your people-pleasing habits and think about boundaries in a healthier way. If you’re asking yourself “why do I feel guilty when I set boundaries?” this is something we can explore together.
During our work together, you’ll learn where your fear of boundaries comes from, how to address uncomfortable emotions that pop up around boundaries and respect, and how to set healthy boundaries.
I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to get started.
Danielle is an anxiety therapist and perfectionism coach. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.