I used to be a full-time nanny. If you know anything about nannying or childcare, you know that sickness spreads easily. It felt like a different illness was passed around every couple of weeks.
There was one particular time period when I convinced myself to keep working, even if the kids or I were sick. But being ill so frequently started taking a toll on me, not only physically but mentally.
I struggled to communicate with my employers when I needed to take time off to care for my health. As a nanny, I had a responsibility to the family and didn’t know if I had a right to set a boundary when they were depending on me.
I felt stuck.
It’s difficult to know what to do in this type of situation. You don’t want to come across as rude or selfish by speaking up. But on the other hand, you feel uncomfortable and want to be honest about your needs. And communicating how you feel is necessary to take care of yourself and avoid resentment.
That’s why learning how to set boundaries and stick to them is key. But first…
What are boundaries and why are they important?
The American Pscyhological Association defines a boundary as “a psychological demarcation that protects the integrity of an individual or group or that helps the person or group set realistic limits on participation in a relationship or activity.”
Creating boundaries doesn’t mean telling other people what to do; instead, boundaries communicate what you will do (or won’t do). They allow you to be honest about your needs, express what you are and are not comfortable with, and pave the way for healthy relationships.
Boundaries are not restrictive—they’re meant to protect your time, energy, and resources. They can help carve out personal space and prevent overwhelm.
In relationships, thoughtful boundaries prevent conflict, as well as set the stage for more honest and fulfilling interactions.
TLDR: Boundaries are at the heart of a healthy and balanced life.
Types of boundaries
There are all sorts of boundaries you can set in your life, and each one serves a different purpose.
Physical boundaries are any barriers established to protect ourselves and our personal space. They’re often based on our beliefs, values, past experiences, and even social norms. They can change over time as we grow and learn more about ourselves and the world around us.
Physical boundaries vary from person to person, but are also different based on the nature of the relationship. Your physical boundary with a close friend will likely look different than that of an acquaintance or how you interact in a professional setting.
Even interactions with strangers may require boundary setting. Maybe someone is sitting next to you on the bus and crowding your personal space. Setting a boundary in this case could be making them aware (they might not realize they’ve inched too close) and asking them to move over. Or, it could be as simple as getting up and choosing another seat.
Social boundaries are the limits we set for ourselves in order to maintain healthy relationships with others.
Here are a few examples:
You’ve learned the hard way about sharing too much too soon in a new relationship, so you’re conscious not to overshare on a first date.
You build rapport with colleagues but keep the primary focus of your discussions on work.
You love to be there for your friends, but realize answering texts or calls anytime isn’t healthy. You let your friends know that your phone will be set to “do not disturb” after 10 p.m.
Everyone’s social boundaries will be different depending on both personal preference and the environment/situation; it’s all about knowing yourself and what is right for you.
Emotional boundaries are the limits we set with others in order to maintain our emotional well-being.
I’ve always been someone who takes on other people’s troubles. I have loads of empathy and because of this, I often let others’ emotions affect me too much.
This leaves me exhausted. As I’ve grown, I’ve realized that I can be there for someone who is going through a hard time without taking on their problems as my own and trying to fix them.
These boundaries are key to keeping our emotions in check and preventing us from getting overwhelmed or taken advantage of.
Financial boundaries are the limits that you set on your spending in order to live within your means. This might look like setting a budget and sticking to it, only using credit cards for emergencies, or anything else that helps you stay out of debt and keep your finances under control.
You guessed it—a time boundary is any limit we set on our time. This type of boundary helps us prioritize and manage our time effectively. We all have the same 24 hours in a day, but we don’t all use that time in the same way.
Time boundaries help us to make the most of our time. For example, you might set a boundary that you will only work on your side hustle for two hours each day after work.
This boundary ensures that you’re still making time for other important things in your life, like your family and friends.
Why do we have a hard time setting boundaries?
Why do we have a hard time setting boundaries? Because we’re afraid of being seen as rude, cold, or weird. We don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings. And sometimes, we just don’t know how. But the truth is, boundaryless living leaves us feeling drained, resentful, and taken advantage of.
It’s not always easy for me to say no to an esteemed work colleague, to ask my husband for alone time, or to tell my parents, ‘I won’t discuss this with you further.’ But what’s both uncomfortable and damaging is reaffirming the story that someone else’s feelings are more important or worthy than your own—which is what you do every time you swallow your healthy boundary in an effort to keep the peace.
—Melissa Urban, author of “The Book of Boundaries”
Here’s how to push through those awkward or uncomfortable conversations and set the necessary boundaries in your life.
6 tips for setting boundaries
It can be tricky. On the one hand, you don’t want to be too restrictive. On the other hand, you don’t want to let people walk all over you.
So how do you find the middle ground?
Know your limits
It’s easy to take on too much at once without thinking about your mental, emotional, or physical capacity. The next thing you know, you’ve spread yourself way too thin and you’re exhausted.
Take work for example. Blurry boundaries can lead to burnout because you’re never really sure when you’re “off the clock.” It’s important to know what you can handle and what you can’t. What’s reasonable considering the job, and what isn’t. Know your limits, and communicate them through healthy boundary-setting.
Maybe you need to set a rule about not checking work emails or taking calls after 6 p.m. Or say no to taking on another project because you have too much on your plate.
Lean on your core values
These are the life principles that you feel most strongly about. These values guide your decision-making, behavior, and overall view of life.
Core values are a helpful tool when setting boundaries because they represent who you are and help you stay true to yourself. When you know what you value, it’s easier to set and communicate boundaries to protect yourself.
For example, if one of your core values is honesty, then you might set a boundary that you won’t tolerate being lied to. If another is respect, you might set a boundary that you won’t continue relationships with people who are regularly passive aggressive or rude.
If you haven’t already, take some time to reflect on what matters most to you. If you need some inspiration, check out the article below:
Identify your needs
Be honest. What do you need right now?
If you’re like me, you may struggle to come up with an answer. Do you give yourself the space to think about your deeper needs?.
When you aren’t sure what you need, here are a few questions to consider:
How are you really feeling?
Is someone or something causing you unnecessary stress?
What would make you feel safe, secure, and comfortable?
Is there something you need to communicate to someone in your life?
Are you taking care of yourself? If not, what can you do to help yourself?
What boundary would be most helpful to set right now?
Identifying your needs helps to prioritize what’s most important and determine what boundaries are needed. Your feelings are great indicators of problems that are waiting to be solved. What action can you take to protect yourself emotionally, mentally, or physically?
Learn from past experiences
Think back to a situation where you didn’t set a boundary and how your lack of action backfired.
Has it changed your perspective? Did it reframe your response to similar situations today?
Think about what didn’t work in that scenario.
If you attempted to set a boundary, did you lack confidence and firmness in your delivery? Did you let your emotions get the better of you? Did you follow through with what you said you would do when your boundary was crossed?
Past experiences can help us better understand ourselves and what we need. They can either hold us back or help us make positive changes in the future.
Talk to someone
In our attempts to set boundaries, sometimes we start to overthink if a boundary is actually necessary or if we’re overreacting.
Talk to someone you trust and who knows you well. Oftentimes, you’ll leave with a better sense of what’s right for you and how to best communicate your needs. Plus, it can be really helpful to have another person’s perspective on the situation. They may be able to offer some insight or advice that you hadn’t considered before.
And don’t hesitate to seek professional help if you’re having trouble setting healthy boundaries. A therapist can work with you to identify the root causes and develop tools for speaking up more effectively.
Trust your gut
Our gut instinct is often a more reliable indicator of what we’re truly feeling than our conscious mind. That nagging feeling is likely there for a reason!
How to communicate and enforce boundaries
Be honest and clear
It can be difficult to openly and firmly communicate with others about our needs. We don’t like to say no or hurt others’ feelings. But like any skill, you’ll get better with practice.
For example, I can be pretty grumpy after I come home from work. My boyfriend and I usually cook dinner together, and sometimes I’m just not in the mood to talk. In the past, we’ve gotten into arguments because I didn’t communicate that I needed a couple of minutes to decompress before jumping into conversation.
I’ve learned that I need to share how I feel so he knows what I need in those moments. Now that he understands this personal boundary, we’re able to skip over the arguments all together.
So, once you’ve set a boundary, stick to it. If someone tries to push against your boundary, don’t give in. Remind them politely but firmly of what you need.
Distance yourself when necessary
If someone is repeatedly crossing your boundaries, consider distancing yourself if possible.
These situations can be extremely frustrating and overwhelming, so don’t feel bad if you need some space. It’s perfectly acceptable and healthy.
That doesn’t mean you have to remove the offending person from your life completely. Take whatever amount of time you need to reflect and heal. Then you can determine how to move forward.
In some situations, the person may genuinely want to understand where you’re coming from and be eager to make amends. Repeat your boundaries and explain how you felt when the person didn’t respect them. Be firm.
In other cases, you may not even hear from the person. At that point, you’ll need to decide if it’s a relationship worth keeping (an easy decision if you’re ghosted indefinitely) or if it would just be better to move on.
Stand up for yourself
When it comes to setting boundaries, you’ll likely experience internal conflict. Self-reflection and self-awareness are key. Boundaries require us to be thoughtful, intentional communicators who value our own needs as much as we value the needs of others.
It’s not easy to navigate, but your well-being is absolutely worth it.
Speak up when you’re uncomfortable. Say no if you want to. Honor yourself.