Good boundaries are important for healthy relationships, but when it comes to our online lives, we rarely think to create clear-cut borders. The most important reason to set boundaries online, according to psychologist and coach Dana Gionta, Ph.D, is for your “safety and protection.” Personally, you don’t want to give out private information to the world, and professionally, you don’t want to compromise your credibility and reputation, she said.
So whether you’re using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or any other social media website — or just writing email — it’s important to proceed thoughtfully with your time online. Here, Gionta doles out key advice on devising and defending your boundaries.
1. Give yourself permission.
Many people think that they don’t deserve to set boundaries in the first place. We think we should automatically accept anyone who wants to befriend us on Facebook or go out of our way to help a colleague of a colleague with a recommendation on LinkedIn. Give yourself the permission to set boundaries and say no, Gionta said.
2. Consider your purpose.
According to Gionta, what helps when setting boundaries is thinking ahead about how you’d like to use social media. Ask yourself: What purpose does social media serve for me?
Are you using Facebook to keep in touch with friends, to network professionally or both? “What would make you feel safe in terms of how many people you allow [as your friends]? Do you want an open or closed profile? [Are you going to] not put up much personal information and limit access?”
Remember that if you’ve got 800 friends on Facebook — many of whom, it’s safe to say, are acquaintances, at best — all 800 are privy to your personal facts. And that can be risky, Gionta said. So consider what kinds of information you want out there.
3. Set boundaries surrounding time.
Let’s face it: Sites like Facebook can become a black hole, sucking your time into its abyss — if you let them. It’s easy to feel powerless, especially if you’re using social media sites professionally and want to build a supportive circle. The Internet is like a moving target, and with that comes the expectation that we need to respond to people’s comments right away, return email within a day or even hours and stay plugged in so we’re continuously in the know.
But remember that you do have a choice, and “there is no requirement,” Gionta said. Rather, figure out what works best for you. Blocking out 15 minutes a day for catching up on comments and your community can still help you make and maintain connections — without feeling stressed and overwhelmed, she said.
Interacting with others
Interacting online can get tricky. Below, Gionta offers additional tips specifically for interpersonal communication.
4. Take things slow.
Relationships on the Internet move fast. And we’re not just talking romantic relationships, but interactions of all kinds. When you’re chatting away on your computer in the comfort of home (or the nearest Starbucks), particularly with like-minded people, it feels like you know them intimately. But take your time.
It takes about six to nine months to get to know someone’s character, Gionta said. Since people usually want to present themselves in a positive light — as Chris Rock famously joked, “When you meet someone for the first time, you don’t meet them, you meet their representative” — it takes time to see their true personality. That’s when you see red flags or inconsistencies in their character.
In online interactions, you might get to know the person faster, but either way, “it’s generally better to take it more slowly and approach [your relationships] in a thoughtful and careful way.” Give yourself time to get to know the person before revealing too much about yourself, she added.
5. Ask for clarification.
Without verbal cues, it’s easy to misinterpret a person’s message online, Gionta said. If you’re iffy about someone’s comments, simply “respond and ask for clarification.” You could say, “It’s my understanding that this is what you meant. Is this correct?” Or “Is this what you meant when you said that?”
6. Be honest about your feelings.
If the person’s comment is loud and clear and you’re clearly upset by it, move the conversation over to email or the phone (depending on your relationship), Gionta said. “If they say something inappropriate or hurtful, let them know how you felt about it.”
Sometimes, people just don’t realize that they’re crossing your boundaries. Gionta told the story of someone who was sharing things that made her circle feel uncomfortable. They brought it up to her directly. She didn’t realize that she was infringing on others’ privacy. But once the group explained, she changed the way she communicated. Even in social media, “it’s easy to forget [and] think that it’s more of a one-on-one conversation,” Gionta said.
“Letting them know authentically and honestly how it made [you] feel is very helpful and positive in maintaining the relationship and getting to know one another,” she said.
7. Practice the three-strikes-you’re-out rule.
Give a person 3 chances to set things right.
If you’ve asked the person three times to refrain from making certain comments (or if they’ve crossed another boundary of yours), it’s time to take “some type of action that limits their contact with you,” Gionta said. That might mean defriending them on Facebook or blocking them altogether from your account — or even your email.
8. Give them the benefit of the doubt.
Keep in mind that everyone has different comfort levels, Gionta said. With so many different personalities, temperaments and cultural backgrounds, what offends one person may never give another one pause, she said. “Generally, there are some clear ways of communicating [where] everybody would be offended. But there’s a gray area.”
So if it’s the first time someone offended you, give them the benefit of the doubt, and avoid jumping to conclusions, Gionta suggested. They might’ve had positive intentions but it regrettably came across the wrong way.
9. Honor your feelings and comfort level.
At the end of the day, boundaries are about how something made you feel, Gionta said, so pay attention to your own emotions and comfort level—and proceed from there.
10. Be thoughtful in your own responses.
In online communication, Gionta said, “our words and language [tend to] come across more powerfully and bluntly. When we just see the written word, it has more of an impact on us psychologically.”
So when making or responding to comments, take a moment to think through what you’d like to say, and ask yourself “How might this come across?” Gionta said. In general, you never want to “respond in anger or in impatience.”
Overall, remember that your offline life isn’t the only one that requires boundaries. Creating margins around your comfort level is equally as essential for your time online. In fact, it makes sense: Both make up your world just the same.