What Is Boundary Setting?

A guide to setting limits with parents, partners, friends, and co-workers

Boundaries protect a person's personal or mental space, much like fences between neighbors. They involve the physical and emotional limits of appropriate behavior between people, and help define where one person ends and the other begins. People typically learn boundaries during childhood within their families.

Research indicates that in families with healthy, flexible boundaries, each person is able to develop into a distinct individual with their own unique interests and skills. This helps foster well-being, self-control, and self-esteem.

Read on to learn more about healthy boundaries and how to set them.

What Is Boundary Setting?

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What Are Boundaries?

One theory suggests that families have three types of boundaries. Families with clear boundaries tend to function better. They may shift between the three main types:

  • Clear boundaries: Clear boundaries are clearly stated, flexible, and adaptable. There is warmth, support, and stability within the family, but each person is able to be assertive, communicate their needs, and develop individual interests.
  • Rigid boundaries: Rigid boundaries are closed and inflexible, much like a wall that doesn't let anything in or out. There is less engagement and more isolation both within the family and in the outside world. It may be more challenging for family members to communicate needs and express individuality.
  • Open boundaries: Open boundaries are not as clear, and might even be fuzzy or loose. It may be hard for individual family members to have their needs met. Families with open boundaries may be enmeshed and exhibit more codependency traits.

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Boundaries

Boundaries can be both healthy and unhealthy. Certain signs can help you distinguish what is a healthy boundary and what is an unhealthy boundary.

Healthy Boundaries

Healthy boundaries allow each person in a relationship or family to communicate their wants and needs, while also respecting the wants and needs of others.

A few examples of a person exhibiting healthy boundaries include:

  • Being able to say, "no," and accept when someone else says, "no"
  • Being able to clearly communicate both wants and needs
  • Honoring and respecting their own needs and the needs of others
  • Respecting others' values, beliefs, and opinions, even if they are different from one's own
  • Feeling free to disclose and share information where appropriate
  • Though they can be flexible, they do not compromise themselves in an unhealthy way

Unhealthy Boundaries

Where there are unhealthy boundaries, safety in the relationship is compromised. This may lead to dysfunctional relationships, where people's needs are not met.

A few examples of a person exhibiting unhealthy boundaries include:

  • Having a difficult time saying, "no"
  • Having trouble accepting "no" from others
  • Not clearly communicating one's needs and wants
  • Easily compromising personal values, beliefs, and opinions to satisfy others
  • Being coercive or manipulative to get others to do something they don't want to do
  • Oversharing personal information

Unhealthy boundaries can quickly turn into abuse. Abuse—whether physical, sexual, or emotional—is a violation of boundaries.

People who have been abused as children may not know healthy boundaries. They often grow up with a lack of control over their personal, physical boundaries. The pattern may repeat with abusive partners because it's familiar and comfortable.

When Unhealthy Boundaries Become Abusive

If you are currently in a relationship where your partner is:

  • Violating your physical safety
  • Exerting excessive control of your life
  • Constantly scaring you
  • Being hyper-controlling and preventing you from doing reasonable things you'd like to do
  • Forcing you to do things you don't want to

This behavior is not healthy and may cross the line into abuse.

If you or someone you care about is being abused, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788.

Types of Boundaries

There are many different types of boundaries, including:

  • Physical: Includes your body and personal space. Healthy boundaries include autonomy of your body. An example of physical boundary crossing is teaching children to automatically hug relatives at family gatherings. This may cause them to have weaker physical boundaries. Offering a handshake or just a "hello" are polite alternatives.
  • Sexual: Includes your sexual self and your intimate personal space. Sexual boundaries include choices around types of sexual activity, timing, and partners. These boundaries are crossed when someone pressures you into unwanted intimate affection, touch, or sexual activity.
  • Intellectual/mental: Includes your personal ideas, beliefs, and thoughts. A healthy boundary respects that others' ideas may be different. These boundaries are crossed when someone is dismissive, belittling, or invalidating your ideas or thoughts.
  • Emotional: Includes your feelings and personal details. These boundaries are crossed when feelings or personal information you have disclosed is belittled, minimized, or shared without your permission.
  • Material/financial: Includes your financial resources and belongings. These boundaries are crossed when you're pressured to lend or give things away, or to spend or loan money when you would prefer not to.
  • Time: Includes how you spend and use your time. When you have a job, relationships, and children or other responsibilities, it's challenging to keep healthy time boundaries. These boundaries are crossed when you have unreasonable demands or requests of your time, or when you take on too much.

How to Set Boundaries

Boundaries can be thought of as stop signs in a person's life. Where you place your stop signs and what you consider crossing the line varies based on your beliefs, values, cultural customs, and family traditions.

When setting boundaries, a few things to consider include:

  • Goal-setting: Ask yourself, what is the goal in setting a boundary or needing to set a boundary?
  • Start small: Setting boundaries may be uncomfortable. The key is to start small and focus on one thing at a time.
  • Be clear: Focus on what you want as clearly as possible.
  • Practice: If thinking about setting a boundary makes you nervous, write out what you want to say beforehand or practice in the mirror.
  • Keep it simple: This is a time when less is more. Rather than overloading someone with too many details, pick the main thing that is bothering you and focus on that.

Benefits of Setting Boundaries

Setting limits can provide balance in a person's life. Some of the benefits of setting boundaries include:

  • Avoid burnout: Doing too much for too many is an easy way to burn out. Setting boundaries can prevent burnout.
  • Less resentment: Giving and helping others is a strength, but when it turns into doing too much for others, you may begin to feel resentful. Setting boundaries around what you are able to do can reduce or eliminate resentment.
  • More balance: Sometimes the boundaries we need to set are with ourselves. For example, while it can feel like a nice escape to binge-watch a favorite show, staying up too late on work nights can lead to exhaustion. Setting a boundary with yourself to go to bed earlier may provide more balance.

Setting Relationship Boundaries

Setting boundaries in relationships isn't about keeping others out; it's about providing an environment where there's a balance among the needs and wants of all involved. Setting boundaries with partners, parents, friends, and co-workers all present their own unique challenges.

Setting Boundaries With Partners

Setting boundaries with your partner ensures a healthy relationship that supports you both. It can also prevent a toxic relationship from developing.

Here are some tips for setting boundaries in an intimate partnership:

  • Resist reactivity: Set the tone for the talk by being calm. If you're angry, upset, and aggravated, it may trigger your partner to become reactive. Pick a time when you're both relaxed and receptive to the conversation.
  • Avoid saying "You": It can sound accusatory and put your partner on the defensive if you start every sentence with, "You did" or, "You do." Think about your choice of words and use a calm, even tone.
  • Put down the phone: Be fully present with your partner. It may be best to put your phones on silent and flip them over for a few minutes. Incoming messages and notifications can be tempting to check. Give your partner your full attention and they will be more likely to do the same.

Setting Boundaries With Parents

Studies show that addressing problems with parents can be stressful. Some suggestions on setting boundaries with parents include:

  • Be respectful: You have the power to set the tone for the conversation by being respectful. Think of it as an opportunity to come to them as a confident adult.
  • Have the discussion to begin with: One study indicated that when adult children took a passive approach of avoiding or accepting a problem with parents, it increased their depression. Instead, sitting down and having a calm, rational discussion helps.
  • Stay cool and calm: Your parents may react or get upset during the conversation. While you can't control the choices they make, you can control your own response. If you stay cool and calm, they may too.
  • Keep it simple: Pick a small number of things to address, such as the one that is most bothering you and focus on that.

Setting Boundaries With Friends

Some ways to set boundaries in friendships include:

  • Set the tone: Stay calm and be kind when communicating. This sets the standard for the conversation and will hopefully lead to positive outcomes.
  • Avoid "ghosting": While it can be hard to deal with something directly, avoiding a friend (ghosting them) prevents them from knowing the issue. Avoiding the issue altogether means they can't grow from the experience, and it doesn't allow you the opportunity to practice healthy boundaries.
  • Avoid gossiping: While it can be tempting to discuss your friendship frustration with mutual friends, this can get back to your friend and potentially hurt them.

Setting Boundaries at Work

When it comes to setting limits with colleagues, managers, or supervisors, here are a few tips:

  • Set a boundaries for yourself: With telecommuting, teleworking, and the use of smartphones, the boundary between work and home has become increasingly blurred. Set a distinguishable stop time, close your computer, and take a break.
  • Chain of command: Be mindful of the chain of command at work. If you are having a problem with a colleague or manager and you can't speak to them directly, look for your organization's chain of command, usually through human resources (HR).
  • Avoid gossiping: It can be tempting to discuss the problem with other colleagues, but this can backfire. It's better to address the issue directly but calmly with the other person. If possible and appropriate, involve a manager or supervisor.

Boundary Exercises

When you set boundaries, you're communicating to others how you want and expect to be treated.

Here are a few exercises that can help when you feel tongue-tied:

Use "I" statements:

  • I feel ______ when _____ is said to me.
  • When this happens______, I feel_____.

When you feel disrespected:

  • I don't like the way I'm being spoken to right now.
  • I would like to talk about this, but now is not the right time.
  • I would prefer to discuss this when we can be calmer about it.

Buy yourself some time:

  • I'm not sure right now. Can I come to you once I've thought about it?
  • I need more time to think, but I will get back to you.

When you want to say "no" with a little more explanation:

  • I would love to, but my plate is really full right now.
  • I would if I could, but I'm unable to help with that right now.
  • I really appreciate the invitation, but I'm not interested in participating.

Seeking consent with sexual boundaries:

  • Are you okay with this?
  • Do you want to continue?
  • Are you comfortable if I____?


Boundaries are the limits of appropriate behavior between people. Personal boundaries define where one person ends and the other begins. Boundaries affect intimate relationships, families, and colleagues in a work environment. Setting relationship boundaries can be challenging, but boundaries ensure the relationship is healthy for everyone.

A Word From Verywell

Setting boundaries is a key part of staying mentally healthy and maintaining positive relationships. You don't have to do this work alone. It may be helpful for you and your loved ones to seek support and guidance on how to set boundaries from a mental health professional.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you know when a boundary has been crossed?

    One of the quickest ways to determine if a boundary has been crossed is to ask yourself how you feel about a particular situation. Pay attention to your gut instincts. Often, our bodies will respond before our minds. If you feel uneasy, or even nauseous, that may be a sign that something has made you significantly uncomfortable.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Coe JL, Davies PT, Sturge-Apple ML. Family cohesion and enmeshment moderate associations between maternal relationship instability and children’s externalizing problemsJournal of Family Psychology. 2018;32(3):289-298. doi:10.1037/fam0000346

  4. Heal For Life Foundation. The effect of trauma on boundary development.

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  6. Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Boundaries in addiction recovery.

  7. Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. 8 tips on setting boundaries for your mental health.

  8. Community Health Systems of Wisconsin. Setting boundaries.

  9. Birditt KS, Polenick CA, Van Bolt O, Kim K, Zarit SH, Fingerman KL. Conflict strategies in the parent-adult child tie: generation differences and implications for well-beingJ Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2019;74(2):232-241. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbx057

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By Michelle C. Brooten-Brooks, LMFT
Michelle C. Brooten-Brooks is a licensed marriage and family therapist, health reporter and medical writer with over twenty years of experience in journalism. She has a degree in journalism from The University of Florida and a Master's in Marriage and Family Therapy from Valdosta State University.