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4 Steps to Setting Healthy Personal Boundaries

steps to setting healthy personal boundaries

Sometimes it just feels easier to please others than to stand up for what we really want. Why? Maybe we don’t like confrontation. Or maybe we just like making other people happy. That’s not a bad thing. It can feel great to give others what they want, but it’s important to recognize when they overstep the mark.

Personal boundaries are how we set our personal limits. They are how we separate ourselves as individuals from the influence and intentions of others. They are an essential tool for communicating our needs, our integrity and our self-worth, both to others and to ourselves.

Without them, negative emotions such as resentment, guilt, frustration or shame could take hold. Your relationships may become frayed, and your self-respect could suffer.

If this sounds familiar, it might be time to set some new life rules in place.

1. Identify your red flag areas.

Take time to define your red flags — the areas in your life that commonly seem to suffer from a lack of personal boundaries.

Here are a few to consider:

  • Money: Are you comfortable lending it? When do you expect someone to return it?
  • Time: How do you like to spend your time? Do some people continually expect you to drop everything for them? When is it acceptable for someone else’s time to take priority over yours?
  • Physical boundaries: Think about what you consider to be your personal space. Do you like receiving hugs? From whom? How do you feel about others touching your personal belongings? For example, in what situation (if any) is it OK for a family member or friend to look through your closet while you’re not there?
  • Emotional boundaries: Accept your emotions. If something makes you feel sad or angry, don’t be ashamed to feel it. Don’t let other people tell you how you feel. Become aware of that internal line between others’ emotions and your own. You don’t have to feel the same way as others do about any given situation. Recognize when people are expecting you to feel or react a certain way, just because that’s how they feel.

2. Write your boundaries down.

Boundaries take courage and will to create. Don’t be vague about them. Just the act of writing them down will force you to analyze your needs and intentions and you’ll be able to clarify exactly what is and is not acceptable in your dealings with others.

It also sends a strong signal to your psyche that you mean business, and you’ll find it easier to stand up for yourself in the long run.

3. Be clear and direct.

It’s your responsibility to communicate your boundaries clearly to others. Remember, these boundaries are personal. And they deserve to be respected. Explain yourself in a neutral, graceful tone. It’s fine to be frank, as long as you keep it respectful. Being direct is not the same thing as being rude.

Some examples of what you might say:

  • When a friend asks you for money: “As a rule, I don’t lend money to friends. Is there any other way I could help you out?”
  • When your relative asks to borrow your car: “I’m afraid I don’t lend anything worth more than $1,000.”
  • When you are faced with anger: “I can’t engage with you if you’re yelling at me. Please speak to me in a different tone of voice.”
  • When your colleague asks you take on an additional project: “I’m sorry, I have to decline. Right now it’s important to focus on the projects I already have. I may have time to help out by ‘x’ date, please do ask me again around then.”

Of course, there will be moments when you don’t know your what your personal boundary is. You don’t always have to come up with answers on the spot. Say something like, “Let me sleep on that. I’ll give you my decision tomorrow.”

4. Stay firm.

Once you have stated your boundary, commit to it. Be consistent. Backing out invites people to ignore your needs. You don’t have to defend yourself. Sometimes the best explanation is, “Because I don’t want to,” or “Because I am not willing to do that.” If someone persists, say, “Please stop asking me about that. I told you how I felt last time we spoke.”

Revisit your written list from time to time, amend or change it if necessary, but take pride in it.

Having personal boundaries is about respecting your own needs. Even when other people’s needs seem more important than yours, remember that you can’t take care of others before taking care of yourself.

Remember: saying no to others is a way of saying yes to yourself!


4 Steps to Setting Healthy Personal Boundaries

Harriet Pappenheim, LCSW

Harriet Pappenheim, LCSW, BCD, has over 30 years’ experience in relationship and couples therapy, helping couples and individuals find a deeper content and personal fulfillment in their relationships. She is a founding therapist of Park Avenue Relationship Consultants (PARC), a group of expertly trained clinicians based in NYC, specializing in couples therapy, family therapy and marriage counseling. Harriet is the author of For Richer For Poorer: Keeping Your Marriage Happy When She’s Making More Money. She has also been featured on national radio, Good Morning America and the Today Show. Harriet can be reached by calling 212.289.0295 or through the PARC website.

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APA Reference
Pappenheim, H. (2018). 4 Steps to Setting Healthy Personal Boundaries. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 25 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.