The Importance of Setting Boundaries for Mental Health

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Setting boundaries aren’t always easy. The process itself—letting people know where your needs and limits are—can often be stressful, especially for those who aren’t used to it.

When people are used to relationship boundaries that are at a certain point, they can put up a fight if you try to change your boundaries with them, and people (like children) often try to test boundaries among one another. This can all be stressful, especially when you take into account the toll of conflict on stress levels.

However, the end result can be well worth it: relationships that involve greater levels of mutual respect, that meet the needs of all parties involved, and that create much less stress for everyone.

The first step in setting boundaries is to gain an understanding of where your own personal boundaries lie. How comfortable are you with people getting close to you and taking certain liberties with you?

Often, your first clue is the feeling you get when your boundaries have been violated. Because different people have different boundaries, something that bothers others may not bother you, and vice versa. Therefore, it’s important to communicate to others where your comfort levels (and discomfort levels) lie so that people with different boundaries may be able to keep from violating yours.

The following are general guidelines to help you to become more aware of your own personal boundaries.

Signs You Need to Work on Boundaries

  • You feel resentful of people asking too much of you, and it seems to happen often.
  • You find yourself saying yes to things you’d rather not do, just to avoid upsetting or disappointing others.
  • You find yourself feeling resentful because you are doing more for others than they are doing for you.
  • You tend to keep most people at an arm’s length because you are afraid of letting people get too close and overwhelming you.
  • You find yourself feeling that most of what you do is for other people—and they may not even appreciate it that much.
  • The stress you feel from disappointing others is greater than the stress of doing things that inconvenience or drain you in an effort to please them.

Questions to Ask Yourself

There are additional questions you should ask yourself when you are looking at specific choices you can make, rather than your feelings in general, that can help you to decide whether or not a boundary needs to be set.

The following questions can help you to clarify your boundaries in specific situations, and navigate through future ones:

  • If nobody would be disappointed, would you prefer to say yes or no?
  • Looking at all the benefits and costs of this situation (both tangible and intangible), is it worth the effort to say yes?
  • Would you feel comfortable posing the same request to someone else?
  • If people would be upset with you if you said no, do you truly feel that they are coming from a respectful, reasonable place? (And, if not, might it be time to start setting some limits?)
  • Is this a precedent you want to set? (And, if not, where would be a reasonable place to draw the line?)
  • Think of someone you feel has very healthy boundaries—the kind you would like to emulate. How do you think they would respond in this situation?

Once you’ve determined how you are feeling, you can decide if you do indeed wish to set a boundary. In a perfect world, once we are aware of where our personal comfort zones lie, we need simply to communicate that information to others, and a relationship boundary is set.

However, quite often in the real world, boundary-setting involves some negotiation, and it doesn’t always go smoothly. People have boundaries of their own that may not match, and they may push for greater distance or closeness for their own reasons.

Changing boundaries from the status quo can also cause people to react by trying to reinforce the previous or existing boundaries, sometimes in ways that make us uncomfortable. In this way, setting boundaries can be a struggle.

Because we need to think of our own needs as well as the needs and reactions of others, it’s important to be circumspect in setting boundaries.

The questions you ask yourself when discovering where your personal boundaries lie are different from the questions you may ask yourself when deciding where to actually set your boundaries.

When you set your boundaries in specific situations, you need to take into account practical factors like the “cost” of setting boundaries. They also allow you to be clear on issues such as guilt (should you feel guilty?) and motivation (is it worth it?), so you can move forward with the least amount of stress.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What is fair here?
  • If you were in the position of the other person, would your solution still appear to be fair?
  • Have you committed to this, or is this an expectation that the other person is placing on you?
  • Is there another solution here that could be more win-win?
  • Does the act of making a change or setting a boundary create more stress than it might alleviate in the long run?
  • When you imagine the results a year from now, do you get a sense that this would be a better solution than what you have now?
  • If you are setting a boundary and feel the other person is unreasonable in fighting the boundary, are you willing to let the relationship go rather than feel hurt by the boundary mismatch?

It is important to note that you will likely be weighing your own feelings more heavily than the feelings of others because you must live with the consequences of your decisions.

You are also the one who will have to live with the consequences of your choices. Ultimately, we all have our own comfort levels for boundaries, but these questions provide food for thought.

Although this may be stressful in the moment, once you decide to set boundaries and/or put the boundaries into place, it minimizes some of the stress. Working on boundary-setting strategies and assertive communication techniques can bring some positive results to your life.​

Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares tips on setting healthy boundaries featuring therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab.

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By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.