Learning other people’s boundaries can take time, but you can get better at it. Here’s how.
Have you ever over-shared with someone you’ve just met, were repeatedly late for meet-ups, or messaged a colleague after work hours about a project you’re working on?
Or maybe you’ve pushed a friend to hang out even though you knew were tired or shared an opinion on something even though you weren’t asked?
Maybe you downplayed a friend’s feelings because you didn’t understand them?
If the answer to any of these is ‘yes,’ then you may have violated someone else’s boundaries, even if you didn’t mean to.
“Boundaries are the emotional, mental, and physical ‘fences’ that we erect in order to protect and maintain our psychological and physical needs,” says Carla Marie Manly, PhD and clinical psychologist from California.
In other words, they’re the limits we set to define what we will and won’t accept from other people.
There are different kinds of boundaries, of course. We can set the following:
- physical boundaries: how we’re okay or not okay with being touched
- sexual boundaries: similar to our physical boundaries but related directly to sex
- emotional boundaries: how we’d like to be treated by others
- mental boundaries: how we protect our own beliefs, ideas, and dreams
- time boundaries: how we set limits on our time
- energetic boundaries: related to our energy levels are affected by others or activities
- material boundaries: which often include our financial limits
“In general, healthy boundaries are appropriately flexible to a situation,” Manly says. “They are porous in healthy intimate relationships and firmer with those who do not have good boundaries and the outside world.”
Healthy boundaries can include saying ‘no’ when you’re too busy to do something, asking not to be touched in a certain way, declining to talk politics at family dinners, or not answering work emails after hours.
While it’s relatively easy to understand our own boundaries (after all, we made them for ourselves), not everyone shares the same boundaries as we do. This may mean that someone won’t react in a certain situation as you would — or they may say ‘no’ to something you think is no big deal.
And sometimes hearing that ‘no’ from another person can be confusing or make us feel uncomfortable or rejected. But no matter how we feel, respecting that person’s boundaries is still important.
If you’re worried that you don’t know how to respect someone else’s boundaries, here are some tips to consider to get better at respecting their boundaries
1. Get curious about the other person’s needs and boundaries
In other words, don’t be afraid to ask them what they need or whether something is okay to do around them. Sometimes a simple question, like “Is it okay if I do this?” will help you better get to know their boundaries.
2. Watch for non-verbal cues that someone is uncomfortable
Sometimes the other person might be struggling to stand up for their boundary. But if they’re uncomfortable, there might be other ways for you to tell that you’re pushing a boundary.
“Learn to pay attention to others’ body language, silence, facial expression, hand gestures, and movement,” suggests Smith.
3. Be empathetic
You may not understand someone else’s emotions or reactions to certain events, but chances are, you’ve felt similar emotions for different reasons. So try to remember what that feels like — even if the circumstances are different — to be more kind and empathetic to what the other person is experiencing right now.
4. Be receptive
In other words, if someone tells you no or states their boundary, try not to push back or diminish their line.
5. Learn about other people’s experiences
This can help be more mindful of how different people have different experiences than you do on a day-to-day basis.
“For example, if you’re a [cis] man, learning about women’s experiences and social issues will help you understand what your female coworkers might need to feel respected in the workplace,” explains Kara Nassour, licensed professional counselor. “If you’re white, learning about microaggressions faced by Black people can help you avoid repeating those behaviors.”
6. Acknowledge and reflect on the boundary someone has said
“This minimizes the chances of a misunderstanding and assumptions that can lead to a boundary violation,” explains Stacey Sherrell, a licensed marriage and family therapist from California.
To do this, acknowledge what the person asked for when stating their boundary, then reflect — or restate — it back to them before you take any action.
7. Apologize when you violate someone’s boundaries
In other words, if you inadvertently violate someone’s boundaries, apologize quickly and say you’ll do better next time. “When the error is acknowledged, and responsibility is taken, safety and trust are often restored quickly,” says Manly.
8. Forgive yourself for making mistakes too
“You’re not a mind-reader, and even the most observant people accidentally violate boundaries sometimes,” says Nassour. It won’t help you get better if you’re constantly beating yourself up for being “bad” at boundaries though.
9. It’s OK to ask for help
If you’re finding that people are accusing you of violating their boundaries a lot, consider seeing a therapist. They can help work with you to better understand people’s boundaries and why you’re struggling to identify or respect them.
In short: it shows that we respect the other person.
“Respecting someone else’s boundaries is an act of love,” explains Cristen Smith, LMHC, LPC, in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. “When we can respect and listen to someone’s boundary, even if we don’t agree with it or understand it, we are saying ‘you matter to me.'”
It also lets the other person know you’re trustworthy and safe. That you understand they have their own autonomy and that you don’t know better than them what’s good for them.
Respecting boundaries helps build trust and intimacy because you’ve created a “safe space” for the people around you. In this safe space, everyone feels respected and valued, and it will allow you both to lower your guard and lessen anxiety and tension.
This will allow you to build a healthier relationship, whether it’s a working relationship, friendship, or romantic relationship. And it will support their mental health and yours because there won’t be toxic dynamics between you too.
Respecting your significant other’s boundaries is just as important, if not more so if you’re going to continue to have a healthy, trusting, and intimate relationship.
“Pushing at someone else’s boundaries creates stress, discomfort, and potentially resentment in the relationship,” explains Nassour. “It can lead to arguments or even the end of the relationship if the boundaries are repeatedly violated.”
When you’re in an intimate relationship, though, there are more boundaries at play, especially when it comes to physical, sexual, and emotional boundaries. And since we spend more time around each other, there’s more opportunity to violate those boundaries.
Keyasia Downs, a social worker and mental health therapist says, “respecting boundaries with your partner may require more patience, time, and vulnerability from each person.”
Learning each other’s boundaries takes time and it can be stressful, embarrassing, vulnerable, or even heated.
“You and your romantic partner will discover many of each other’s boundaries over time,” says Nassour. “Sometimes, this will be stressful, embarrassing, or create arguments but these experiences are normal.”
“It can be challenging, but as long as you and your partner sincerely respect and care about each other and are committed to making it work, you almost always can find a way,” she adds.
Remember too in romantic relationships that some boundaries may be on how much you two can rely on each other. “We tend to put too much pressure on romantic relationships to fulfill all our emotional needs which are often not useful,” says Kimberly Perlin, a licensed clinical social worker from Maryland.
Just as it’s important to respect other people’s boundaries, it’s also important they respect yours.
The good news is: if you do a good job at respecting theirs, chances are, they may try to respect yours better too.
If this isn’t the case, though, here are some tips to help stand up for your own boundaries:
- be self-aware of your needs, desires, and boundaries. If you’re more aware of your needs, you’ll be better at stating and standing up for your boundaries.
- state the boundary clearly so there is no room for misunderstanding
- enforce your boundary, even if the other person pushes back or gets upset at you.
- avoid people who repeatedly violate your boundaries or consider ending the relationship
- see a therapist who can help you be more assertive when it comes to stating your boundaries
Boundaries are important because they help us stand up for ourselves, our needs, and what’s important to us. Sometimes, though, those boundaries are different for other people, leading to conflict or resentment.
It’s important, though, that we identify and respect someone else’s boundaries, even if we don’t understand them — otherwise, it can lead to unhealthy relationships or resentment.
When we respect everyone’s boundaries, it can help create a safe space for those around us and help everyone feel more comfortable.