Personal boundaries are vital but not always easy to establish. Still, with a few helpful tips, setting and communicating boundaries becomes easier.

Male friends keeping a distanceShare on Pinterest
M Studio Images / Getty Images

From childhood, we’re often taught to bend and mold ourselves to make others comfortable. Sometimes this messaging is implied (as in school dress codes, for instance), and sometimes it is direct (“I don’t’ care if you don’t want to hug your grandfather, it’s rude not to!”), but the one truth is that it’s always there.

So it’s no wonder some of us find it difficult to set appropriate boundaries as we get older. We don’t want to offend or hurt others, even when that avoidance ultimately means hurting ourselves. We’ve been taught from a young age to put the feelings of others ahead of our own needs, to the point that many of us don’t even know the answer to the question, “What are boundaries?” let alone how to set them.

That isn’t a healthy or effective strategy for anyone. Research has found that the violation of personal space can cause discomfort, and personal experience tells most of us that discomfort caused by boundary violations can lead to anxiety and fallout in our relationships — both personal and professional.

Personal boundaries are simply the lines we draw for ourselves in terms of our level of comfort around others.

These boundaries may have to do with:

  • physical contact (not feeling comfortable hugging a person you’ve just met)
  • verbal interactions (not wanting a friend or family member to speak down to you)
  • our own personal space (choosing to not have others in your home when you aren’t there)

These boundaries typically fall into a few specific categories:

  • emotional (protecting our own emotional well-being)
  • physical (protecting our physical space)
  • sexual (protecting our needs and safety sexually)
  • workplace (protecting our ability to do our work without interference or drama)
  • material (protecting our personal belongings)
  • time (protecting the use, and misuse, of our time)

Boundaries can also exist in a variety of situations, including:

  • at work
  • at home
  • when visiting family
  • when out with friends

Really, any time you are talking about engaging with others, you’ve likely got personal boundaries that surround that situation.

And finally, personal boundaries don’t have to be communicated for them to exist. We all have our lines of discomfort — they’re there whether you tell others about them or not. Still, personal boundaries are more likely to be violated if we don’t communicate them.

That’s when problems may occur.

We all have our own personal lines, boundaries we would feel more comfortable navigating life and our relationships with. The thing is, not everyone has the same boundaries, and most people aren’t capable of guessing what another person’s boundaries may be.

This is especially true for people who may have lower emotional intelligence (EQ). And often, they’re the people who benefit the most from having personal boundaries clearly communicated to them.

Setting boundaries is simply about communicating your needs for healthy interaction to someone else. It isn’t always easy. Not everyone may like or understand your boundaries or your reasons for setting them. But if you don’t set those boundaries, you certainly can’t expect them to be followed.

It often takes courage and strength to set boundaries, but when you do so, you can feel comfortable knowing your lines have been set. Your needs have been communicated. And if someone chooses to violate your boundaries after that, you would be within your rights to create further distance between yourself and that person.

No one has the right to tread on your boundaries. (But it’s also good to keep in mind that you — likewise — don’t have the right to tread on someone else’s.)

Boundaries are important, but they aren’t always easy to establish. People often don’t know where to begin or how to communicate their needs to others.

If you’re looking for a way to set your own personal boundaries, it may be a good idea first to consider what type of boundary you’re setting.

Emotional boundaries

Emotional boundaries often have to do with how others talk to and treat us, and they aren’t always things we think to set until after a boundary has already been crossed. This is OK, though.

Let’s say you got into an argument with someone, and they called you an unkind name. Once you have both calmed down, the best way to set an emotional boundary with that person is to:

  1. Approach them.
  2. Ask to speak about the argument.
  3. Own any part you may have played in the argument going awry.
  4. Tell them that you are not OK with name-calling and that you will need them to engage without stooping to that level in the future.

Physical boundaries

Let’s say you aren’t comfortable with shaking hands. While this tends to be a social norm, there are many reasons a person may not be comfortable doing so — especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. The best way to set this boundary is before it even becomes an issue. When you meet someone new:

  • Wave from a few feet away.
  • Smile and say, “I don’t shake hands, but I’m so glad to meet you.”
  • Don’t feel the need to apologize or explain yourself beyond that.

This same tactic of saying something before a boundary is crossed works for other physical boundaries like not wanting hugs (a fairly common boundary) or being touched by someone you don’t know.

Plus, if someone is in your physical space, consider saying, “I get uncomfortable when people are too close to me. Could you take a step back?”

Remember: Boundaries are healthy, and you’re allowed to set your own.

Sexual boundaries

When beginning a new intimate relationship, it’s always a good idea to sit down with your partner first so that you can discuss each other’s sexual boundaries.

This can be a conversation you prompt by saying something like, “I am looking forward to taking the next step in our relationship, but I’d like to take a moment to talk about what that might look like.”

From there, you can communicate things you are and are not comfortable with in an intimate situation.

Workplace boundaries

The best way to establish workplace boundaries is to first set the tone in how you conduct yourself professionally — it should reflect the professional manner you hope others will return when engaging with you.

From there, setting workplace boundaries is often a matter of waiting until a boundary has been crossed before addressing the situation. For instance, if a colleague talks down to you in a meeting, you can approach them afterward and explain to them why that was unacceptable and what you need from them in the future.

If you have a colleague who routinely violates your work boundaries, don’t hesitate to get human resources involved.

Material boundaries

Let’s say you have a camper that a close friend wants to borrow for a trip with their family. You’re open to letting them use it, but you also want to make sure they take care of it the way you would.

In this case, it’s perfectly acceptable to outline your boundaries for care in writing, providing instructions for cleanup and general care. Written instructions placed inside the camper would be simpler for your friend to look back to, and they also help make your boundaries very clear.

Time boundaries

People tend to fall within two categories regarding time: Those who run late to everything, and those who tend to think that if you’re not early, you’re late.

If you’re the latter, you likely feel as though your boundaries are often intruded on by the former. This is actually a very simple solution to navigate, however:

  1. Decide in your mind how long you’re willing to wait beyond an agreed upon meeting time.
  2. Give yourself permission to leave or cancel an appointment if that time isn’t met.
  3. If you’re dealing with someone who is perpetually late, communicate this to them ahead of time — let them know you will be leaving after a certain amount of time has passed. Still, try not to sound accusatory. Consider acknowledging that you two have different personalities. You’re not trying to change them, but you need to set time boundaries for yourself because you can’t afford or don’t want to wait any longer.

Sometimes, no matter how hard you’ve tried to communicate your boundaries, someone may break them anyway. In that case, know that you’re allowed to cut off contact with that person. Anyone who doesn’t respect your boundaries ultimately doesn’t respect you.

Of course, you have to know your boundaries before you can expect anyone else to follow them. So consider sitting down and writing out what some of your boundaries may be.

It may help to work through the categories, considering interactions that have made you uncomfortable in the past and how establishing boundaries may have helped.

The most important thing to remember is that you’re allowed to set these boundaries, and there’s no need to feel guilty about it.

The world is not a better place when we ignore our own needs for the comfort of others — the people who care about you want to know what you need to feel safe. But they can’t help until you know that yourself, and are able and willing to communicate those needs.