If you’ve ever felt confused or uncomfortable about setting a boundary within a relationship, you’re in good company. We all know that setting boundaries is theoretically a good thing, but it can be challenging in practice. Boundaries offer protection within a relationship, but knowing when to set boundaries and when to compromise can be tough.
I work with millennials who struggle with anxiety, and this topic comes up a lot with clients. If you’re like most of my clients, you want to do what you can to protect yourself without being overly rigid. But how do you decide when to set a boundary vs when to compromise? How do you know whether your boundaries are too rigid or too flimsy? Which relationships or situations, if any, are worth forgoing your boundaries for?
To answer these questions, you have to understand what boundaries are and how to align them with your values. Having a good grasp on what works and feels good within a relationship is the best indicator of which boundaries feel non-negotiable to you and which might be worth compromising on.
A healthy boundary is something you put into place to protect both yourself and the other person or people. You can also have boundaries within yourself. Think of a boundary as a way to honor and celebrate your autonomy, desires, or needs.
Many of us didn’t grow up learning how to set boundaries. Instead, it’s more likely that you were taught to shrink your own needs down in order to stay safe or fit in. Maybe you learned you had to stay small and quiet and passive in order to earn the love of your caretakers or loved ones.
If you grew up with messages like these, you’re not alone. Childhood experiences are deeply ingrained into your habits and thoughts, even if what you learned when you were young doesn’t serve you anymore. As an adult, you may realize your relationships are unsatisfying or that you’re a chronic people-pleaser. These situations are a direct result of how you learned to show up in the world when you were younger, but they aren’t a life sentence. It takes time and effort, but it’s possible to break out of the cycle of habits like these.
In order to live a life that feels aligned with your own values – including having healthy relationships, a job that makes you happy, and feeling like you have purpose in the world – you need to learn how to set boundaries and compromise with others.
There are multiple types of boundaries you can set in your own life. Some may be more or less important to you based on your core values and your deeply held beliefs. They also change based on who you’re with or the situation you’re in. Boundaries with an acquaintance, your sibling, a partner, or your best friend will all likely look very different from one another.
These 6 types of boundaries include:
Physical boundaries revolve around protecting your personal space. They can include things like what type of touch is okay, how physically close you’re comfortable getting, and how much privacy you need.
Emotional boundaries include having your emotions and needs validated and respected, and separating others’ emotions from your own. They also include not discussing things that are uncomfortable or off-limits for you.
Time boundaries protect how you spend your time. They include things like only saying yes to things you have the time and energy for and not overbooking or overworking yourself.
Sexual boundaries protect your physical body, autonomy, and right to consent. They include sexual honesty, safety, and type of sexual touch, if any, you want.
Intellectual boundaries protect your mental and intellectual thoughts. They include things like whether and when to explain things to people, and how much of your intellect you want to share with others.
Material boundaries protect your finances and your possessions. They include freedom to spend your money the way you want and need, employer-employee agreements around pay, and not giving out your money or possessions unless you choose to.
Nobody except you can decide which boundaries aren’t worth compromising on and which are. You get to decide what’s most important to you and then set boundaries around the things you most value. For example, if you value your time and emotional energy above all else, you’ll probably have to set firm boundaries around your work-life balance and your time off to avoid getting burnt out, anxious, and exhausted.
Compromise is an important factor in any healthy relationship, but only you can know which things you’re willing to compromise on. One of the biggest red flags to watch out for is a relationship that revolves around you breaking boundaries that are important to you. If any relationship you’re in requires you to compromise on things that feel non-negotiable, consider why that’s the case and ask yourself what you’re truly willing to give up.
Say your relationship with your parents relies on all parties being willing to stay quiet about conflicting political issues. In a case like this, you need to decide whether the relationship with your parents is more or less meaningful than being vocal about topics that are important to you. Is vocal political advocacy a non-negotiable for you? Do you feel disrespected or unseen when you’re around your parents? Are there other worthwhile aspects of your relationship that are worth saving? Asking yourself questions like these can help you decide what feels right for you. There’s no one right answer, and that’s okay. Your answer also may change over time, and that’s okay too.
If you try to compromise on a boundary that feels important to you, there are usually subtle signs or cues from your body that indicate something is off. You’ll likely feel resentful, exhausted, anxious, or like there’s just something missing. It can be tough to let yourself fully feel and acknowledge those feelings. Getting the support of a therapist can help you feel empowered to embrace your non-negotiable needs and make necessary changes to your life and boundaries.
If you want support understanding how to set better relationship boundaries, consider therapy.
I’m here to help you figure out which of your boundaries feel non-negotiable, which are worth compromising on, and how to take empowered action in the right direction.
I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to schedule a complimentary consultation.
Danielle is an anxiety therapist. 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.