Sometimes I feel like I let people walk all over me. Sometimes I feel like I let work accidentally leak into other areas of my life. Sometimes I feel stressed or guilty about disappointing people. Sometimes I feel just plain frazzled because somehow I’ve gotten so busy that I barely have time to breathe. Any of this sound familiar? If so, you might need more boundaries in your life, or maybe you already have some, but like me, you struggle to assert them.
That’s normal. Being uncertain about your boundaries and how to enforce them is something we all struggle with at one point or another, but luckily it’s something we can learn and practice over time. We need boundaries in all of our relationships, it’s just a matter of learning how to manage them. Once you get really good at it, it’ll feel like a breeze and you’ll notice that you’re feeling much more in control.
For me, work is perhaps the easiest of boundaries that I’ve had to set.
I’m lucky to have a job where it is literally impossible for me to take work home because I need my work desktop computer, which obviously stays at the office. Some you, though, might not be so lucky.
Work boundary #1: Working hours
Even if I can’t bring work home, this is a boundary I’ve had to set. It’s easiest to start from the very beginning. When I first started at my job, I set the precedent that I will show up at 9 a.m. and leave at 5 p.m. After about a year and a half at my company, my boss knows I’m out of there by 5:30 p.m. at the latest and he tries to accommodate my schedule if there’s something we need to work together on during the day. He got used to the pattern of my time schedule and since I’ve been so consistent, he’s pretty lenient if I need to move things around once in awhile.
If you have one of those jobs that you can take home, and you have a habit of doing so a little too often, try disconnecting your work email account from your phone so you’re not tempted to check each time a notification pops up. The work-email-during-personal-time fiasco is where I see most of my friends struggle, because they feel pressured to answer messages as soon as they come in.
But hey, it’s like magic: If you don’t see that email from your boss, you won’t feel guilty for not answering it during non-working hours. Let’s be real –– you spend most of your time during the week at work, so why spoil your time off by not disconnecting?
Work boundary #2: Relationships with coworkers
I’m talking friendships, romantic involvement, rivalries, superiors, all of it. This is going to be different for everyone, because each workplace dynamic is different.
For example, I’m pretty close with my colleagues who are on the same level of the food chain as I am. We can rant to each other about work because we know we’re on the same team and no one will snitch, or vent about our personal lives because we know we hardly ever see each other outside the office.
For me, others in my position are my safe zone, but I am in a job with a very low level of competition internally. We all work together to accomplish the same goal, so I’m lucky not to see much rivalry. As a result, I have not found a need to set and enforce strict boundaries with my coworkers of the same level.
Some of you, though, might be thrust into highly competitive work environments, and I used to work in them as well. In these scenarios, you might feel more reserved about the topics you discuss with your equals. It might be best to keep your winning ideas to yourself until you speak directly with a boss, in case someone tries to steal your thunder. Try not to complain too much about the job if you know it might somehow travel up the food chain. You might not want to discuss your personal life, in case it can be used against you and if you need to dodge questions, it’s completely acceptable to say you don’t feel comfortable speaking about the topic in a professional setting.
Then there are superiors of all kinds. For example, I have two “task managers” or people I call “supervisors.” We are friendly and polite and I feel comfortable telling them my concerns, but personal lives do not get discussed outside of small talk and plans for the weekend.
Then there’s my direct boss. We are polite and friendly while at work, but there is no other interaction. While it’s true that gossip can travel throughout an organization, whether there are rivalries or not, it’s best to let the news slide off your back and keep your input as simple and vague as “ooohs” and “ahhhs” so your words can’t be twisted and used against you.
And lastly, romantic relationships in the workplace. These are always sticky and there’s honestly no right answer. This is an open-ended one that only you know the answer to based on how your organization and how you individually operate. But please––if you do decide to enter a workplace relationship, keep it professional at the office. No one else you work with should be able to tell you’re dating.
Friendships are a tough one because every friendship dynamic is different. Some friendships will have strict boundaries and others won’t, and some will start out with ones that will get broken down mutually over time.
For example, my college roommate and best friend of six years now have boundaries that happened to stick from when we first met. And I have new friendships that don’t have nearly as strict of boundaries.
The most important thing with friendships is that neither party feels uncomfortable or taken advantage of. While this seems like a simple thing to accomplish, it can be surprisingly difficult to set these boundaries even with close friends.
Ever encountered a very needy friend who gets upset if you can’t come over right away when they call you out of the blue? Ever feel guilty for saying no when you’re actually not terribly interested in going out to dinner for the fifth time that week? Because I have. And I needed to set some boundaries.
Don’t be afraid to tell your friends you’re busy or tired sometimes. If you’re like me, you spend so much time with them anyway that they will have to understand, because they are probably tired and need some time to nurture other areas of their lives as well. Feel out your friends too and see how they react as you gradually test out what works for you. If they don’t like your boundaries, they might not be a good friend to you.
Friendships are all about sharing, right? Sometimes this aspect of friendships can get tricky, too. If they’re constantly borrowing money, or even other items like clothes, and not returning said items, it might be time to gently confront them, or stop lending things to them.
Same goes for information––no one wants a friend who spills their secrets to ears that weren’t supposed to hear them. Everyone’s standards are different here, so just make sure that you know how you’d like to be treated by a friend, and don’t be afraid to speak up when there’s something you’re not willing to deal with.
Romantic relationship boundaries
Boundaries with significant others are almost always a source of anxiety. We tend to hesitate to voice our concerns, especially at the beginning of relationships, because of our fear of rejection.
We worry that if we’re too strict about the lines we don’t want crossed then we could come across as a prude, crazy, demanding, etc. But the reality of the situation is that in order to get our needs met and feel respected, we need to be vocal about what we want and need. Our partners aren’t mind readers, after all.
As time goes on, you’ll have less and less boundaries with a romantic partner, but there are some––mostly physical and emotional––that no one should ever cross. Sometimes setting these boundaries can be similar to setting boundaries in platonic friendships: making sure they’re not betraying your trust, making sure they’re respecting your property, etc.
But sometimes it can be more complicated because your significant other is most likely the person you’re going to be most intimate with and share most of your feelings with. And as a result, they will inevitably have the power to affect your feelings and emotions. If they’re blowing off dates with you to hang out with their friends and you’re feeling disrespected, they need to know.
As a personal rule, I’ll give a pass once or twice because I realize shit happens sometimes. But if it becomes a pattern that feels toxic to me, I’ll speak up at the first opportunity and see if things change after that conversation.
Sometimes, the person doesn’t even realize how their actions or words have affected you. Other times, people can just be manipulative.
Don’t make a habit of putting up with things that make you feel bad. Be vocal and when you say something, mean it. Be firm about your expectations, even if it’s scary at first. If your needs still aren’t getting met, it might be time to move on.
Either this person will realize they’ve made a huge mistake in not respecting your boundaries and this will motivate them to change, or you’ve got a person more compatible with you waiting just around the corner.
When you set your boundaries and stick with them in this situation, you always win.
This is a tough one for some people, myself included. You might have boundaries about topics you would rather avoid talking about, toxic behavioral patterns you don’t want to participate in, or just overall anxiety when dealing with your family dynamic.
While I love my family to pieces, I must admit that at some point or another, I’ve had to set boundaries about all these things and more.
Within a divorced family like mine, your parents may sometimes want to use you as a sounding board for their negative thoughts about each other. Twenty years after their divorce, I’m still shutting down these conversations with a firm “I’m sorry, why are we talking about this? This isn’t a topic I’m comfortable discussing with you.”
Sometimes parents also like to over-parent, especially as we grow up. As we both age, our relationship with them will inevitably change. At some point, we can stop asking our parents for permission to leave the house and we’re able to do things and support ourselves independently, but they need some time to adjust.
Break things to them gently but firmly, and let them know where you stand on their involvement in your life. Of course there’s nothing wrong with being close to your family, but you don’t want them meddling in your personal relationships or even in your room without asking you first anymore. With your parents, firm but gentle honesty is almost always the best policy––it will make life for both you and them much easier and more enjoyable in the long run.