How to set healthy boundaries — and what to do if people keep crossing them

How to set boundaries — and stick with them, according to experts. (Design by Quinn Lemmers/Yahoo Life)
How to set boundaries — and stick with them, according to experts. (Design by Quinn Lemmers/Yahoo Life)

No in the New Year is Yahoo Life’s series about the power of saying no, establishing boundaries and prioritizing your own physical and mental health.

When it comes to personal boundaries, you may not intentionally set them, but you know when someone has crossed them — whether it's the relative who makes unwelcome comments about your weight at family gatherings, the boss who expects you to answer his emails on weekends or the friend who assumes you’ll drop everything when she needs you.

Scenarios like these make it clear that setting boundaries is important. But how, exactly, do you set them? And what should you do if someone keeps testing your boundaries? Yahoo Life spoke with Sharon Martin, therapist and author of The Better Boundaries Workbook, and Andrea Bonior, psychologist and author of Detox Your Thoughts, to get their expert take on setting boundaries — and sticking with them.

So why do we need to set boundaries?

As Bonior puts it: "Boundaries protect our mental and physical health." They help us stay "true to ourselves and our values, and help us make sure we're not being taken advantage of, or getting into situations that will take a toll on us or send us into burnout," she tells Yahoo Life.

However, "many of us don't set boundaries," notes Bonior. But it's important to have them in all types of relationships because "they help us set clear expectations, and when we have clear expectations we have fewer conflicts," Martin tells Yahoo Life.

Boundaries also help us develop trust in our relationships, says Martin. "We obviously need boundaries as a form to be safe and feel safe," she says. For example, "putting physical space between us and something that's dangerous or recognizing that someone is mistreating us or is excessively critical or yelling at us" — what Martin calls an "emotionally unsafe" situation.

Martin adds: "We can set limits there with boundaries so we don’t subject ourselves to mistreatment. Boundaries help us be safe in the world."

What are the signs you need to set a boundary with someone?

Feelings of resentment or anger are clear signs that you need to set boundaries, according to Bonior. "Oftentimes, resentment may be building up — like you haven't adequately said 'no' to someone or explained what you're not comfortable with, so now you're secretly frustrated and feeling taken advantage of," says Bonior.

Another red flag is looking at different relationships in your life and noticing "a similar pattern — people all flaking out on you at the last minute without apology, for example," says Bonior, "or saying things around you that you don't agree with but they assume you do."

If you feel "chronically misunderstood, or feel like many of your relationships are imbalanced and aren't respectful, empathetic, trusting, or reciprocal, that is a sign that boundaries may not have been established in healthy ways," says Bonior.

Another telltale sign: feeling exhausted. "That’s a sign you're overextended," says Martin, and likely saying yes to things to please people rather than prioritizing your own needs. Whether you’re dealing with resentment or burnout, Martin says: "Those feelings linger if we don't do anything about the situation."

Why is it hard to set boundaries?

Even if you know you need to put some boundaries in place, it isn't necessarily easy to establish them. That’s because "boundaries are a skill," says Martin. "If you didn't learn the skill, then it's different. Just as if you didn't learn to cook or drive a car and did those things without training or preparing, doing those things is going to be difficult."

It's also hard to set them "if someone didn’t specifically teach us or model that for us," says Martin. Growing up, "were there boundaries? Were they consistent? Were they rigid? It becomes the template we work off of."

Martin also points out there’s "a lot of messaging in the world to do more, say yes all the time, always be available," particularly for women. "Even though there's a lot of talk about self-care, it's really juxtaposed against that message," Martin points out. "Traditionally, women have gotten a lot of those messages that it's not OK to say no to people, that you're supposed to be self-sacrificing. It feels bad or that you're letting people down" by saying no.

How to set clear boundaries

"Clarity, consistency and respect" are key when it comes to setting boundaries, according to Bonior. Martin suggests thinking through what you want to say, "rather than just blurting it out in the moment," and making a plan. "When is a good time to have that conversation?" suggests Martin. "And explain what it is you would like that person to do differently."

How you deliver the message matters, too. As Martin points out: "If you're going to ask someone to change their behavior, like 'Stop making comments about my appearance,' you want to be thoughtful about how to deliver that message so most likely they’re going to receive that well."

Bonior suggests using "'I' statements — the old cliché of couples' therapy — to put the person less on the defensive. For instance, 'I don't feel comfortable with that kind of language in my house,' versus 'You always say such inappropriate things!'"

It’s important to not make it personal. "In other words, take feelings and judgment out of the equation, like 'I have decided I won't be gathering indoors with unvaccinated people' rather than 'I can't believe you think it's OK to go to that!'" says Bonior.

While you need to be "firm and direct" when setting a boundary, Martin says that "doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s mean or confrontational." She adds: "Boundaries are conversational."

What should you do if someone keeps crossing your boundaries?

Along with setting boundaries, one of the hardest parts is actually sticking with them — particularly if someone keeps crossing those boundaries. While "some of our boundaries do need to be flexible," says Martin, "we need to distinguish what are the things we can’t compromise on."

Bonior agrees, adding that "any time you let a boundary get steamrolled for someone else's reasons rather than your own, you're just setting a precedent that gives that person permission to keep doing that in the future. And that's not helpful to them either, because it teaches them that they can treat people this way and that it's not a problem."

That said, Martin suggests being realistic when it comes to what you can — and can’t — control in a situation. "Most of us can make a reasonable assessment about whether another person is trying to change that behavior," she says. 'Hey Dad, remember I asked you to not bring that up?' If he says, 'Sorry, it's an old habit' and that seems genuine, versus someone who brushes you off and doesn't make that effort to change or not."

You may need to remind people about your boundaries a few times. "But once it's clear this person is not motivated to change or if it's a situation that it doesn't make sense to make the request, or sometimes you know by making the request it's going to escalate the conflict and make things worse and set them off, then you want to think about what changes can I make to take care of myself in that situation?" suggests Martin.

In other words, if you're trying to get someone to respect your boundaries and that's clearly not going to happen, "you don't want to think boundaries don't work and I just have to suck it up and live with his criticisms," says Martin. "That's not a healthy way to go about life or a fulfilling relationship."

Instead, Martin suggests asking yourself what you can do to take care of yourself in this situation, such as, "'I'm not going to have dinner with Dad' or 'I'll spend less time with Dad,' or 'I'll make sure I sit at the other end of the table so he’s not going to comment on what I'm eating.'"

Ultimately, it's about figuring out what would be the healthiest outcome for you, says Bonior. "Is it to not see them for a while?" she says. "Is it having one final conversation with them that gives them one last clear chance?"

Bonior suggests not treating it "like an ultimatum — which can sometimes seem manipulative or threatening to people — but rather a cool-headed decision about what your own behavior will be in response to someone else." For example, "'Mom, we've talked for years about how I am uncomfortable with your comments about my weight,'" suggests Bonoir. "I have decided that if it happens again, I won't subject myself to it anymore, and am going to leave in order to protect my mental health.'" And then follow through."

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