How to set boundaries in relationships

A young person is setting boundaries by drawing a circle around themselves with a giant pencil. The background is ornage and their are stars and hearts in the background

(T/W) Article contains references to gaslighting and emotional abuse.

Hi! I’m Janet – a Mental Health Nurse and Mental Health Awareness Blogger. I’m passionate about mental health in the Black community. I hope my writing is able to challenge stigma and discrimination, change the narrative surrounding mental health and recovery, and encourage others to live a happy and healthy life.

Why setting boundaries is important

Setting boundaries in relationships is important to keep your relationship healthy. Without clear boundaries, it can be easy for one person to take advantage of the other, which can lead to relationship breakdowns, abuse and/or negative mental health outcomes. Although this can be particularly evident in romantic relationships, where emotions, intimacy and vulnerability are often involved, it is important to focus on all types of relationships, which can include:

  • Friendships
  • Relationships with family (siblings, parents, etc.)
  • Professional relationships (academic relationships, relationships at work, relationships with colleagues, etc.)

Setting boundaries in relationships means identifying ground rules for what is, and isn’t acceptable. This may include things like: respecting personal space, communicating effectively, honesty, and avoiding harmful behaviours like gaslighting, manipulation and emotional abuse

Prioritise your mental health

Setting boundaries can be difficult, especially for people with mental health challenges, so it’s important to discuss the subject of boundary-setting with care and understanding, in a way that will allow you to communicate your boundaries positively, respectfully and without confrontation. Remember, your mental health is an important aspect of your life, which should not be compromised in relationships.

What are your boundaries?

Identifying your boundaries can be difficult, but it’s important that your boundaries are identified so they can be put into place to encourage healthy relationships.

This can be done by:

  • Tuning into your thoughts and emotions 
  • Reflecting on your values, beliefs and personal limits
  • Being honest about behaviours that make you uncomfortable

Once you have a clear idea of what your boundaries are, when you feel comfortable to do so, communicate your boundaries effectively. This will hopefully provide an open and honest conversation of what is expected from you and why your boundaries are important to you. Make sure you are assertive, clear and confident when sharing your boundaries and how you want to be treated.

Examples of boundaries

  • Emotional – consent being respected, saying “no”, sticking up for yourself, respecting your mental health needs, etc.
  • Physical – protecting your physical space, asking for space, your right to privacy, your right to material items, etc.
  • Sexualnot engaging in sexual acts that cause you to feel uncomfortable, communicating discomfort, etc.

Tip: if boundaries are not communicated, you can’t expect your boundaries to be respected.

How to set boundaries with someone who has mental health issues

Mental health issues can be challenging for both you, and your loved one. It can be difficult to support someone with their mental health challenges without feeling overwhelmed and feeling like you may not be offering the right support. It’s important to find a balance between wanting to be supportive and having your boundaries upheld; this will ensure your mental health is prioritised and your loved ones expectations are considered.

When setting boundaries with someone with mental health challenges, it is important to be clear and direct. You can start by identifying specific behaviours that you may find difficult, triggering or upsetting and use these to communicate your boundaries effectively. For example: “I understand that you’re going through a tough time, but I would like you to stop raising your voice at me”.

By being clear and direct in your communication, you can create a healthy and safe environment for both you and your loved one. Remember that boundaries are not about controlling others, they are about empowering yourself and your loved ones to maintain healthy relationships.

How to set boundaries with parents

Setting boundaries with your parents can be challenging, but very rewarding for your mental health and emotional wellbeing. It may be difficult setting boundaries without feeling guilty or responsible for their wellbeing, but prioritising your mental health is just as important. 

The first step in setting boundaries with parents is to identify behaviours that you find distressing or triggering. For example: manipulation, emotional and physical outbursts, criticism, etc.

Once this has been identified, to communicate your boundaries, you might find it helpful to say something like: “I love you, but I find it distressing when you criticise me because it makes me feel like…”.

Always ensure your boundaries are being understood – you can do this by saying: “I need you to respect my boundaries and allow me to make my own decisions”. 

Remember, boundary-setting with parents is not about disrespecting your parents, it’s about ensuring you are maintaining your own mental health and wellbeing to help support your relationship with your parents.

If your boundaries are not being upheld

Healthy boundaries can help establish mutual respect in partnerships, so if your boundaries are not being respected, this can cause resentment and/or a relationship that is not built on mutual respect, trust and understanding.

If you feel your boundaries are not upheld, it may be time to take action in various ways:

  • Effectively communicate – you may have unknowingly set a vague boundary instead of a clear boundary which can be easily misunderstood. It could help to ensure that you effectively communicate your boundaries clearly and specifically. For example: “I need some space today” can be clearly communicated as “I need 3-4 hours of alone time today”. 
  • Be persistent – Stand firm when you feel that your boundaries are not being respected. Be persistent in expressing that you feel your boundaries are not being upheld and allow time for discussion on why and how your boundaries have not been upheld.
  • Consequences – Take action! If you feel that your boundaries are not being respected after effectively communicating, you are well in your right to set clear consequences. Ultimately, boundaries are put in place to teach others how you wish to be treated. If someone is ignoring your boundaries, consider letting them know the consequences of this. Consequences don’t have to be drastic, they can simply be taking a step back, limiting your engagement, or removing yourself from the situation.

Tip: Setting healthy boundaries should benefit you and your relationships.

Finally, remember that boundary-setting is a process, and it is ok to make mistakes. If you find that a particular boundary isn’t working effectively, you can always communicate this to find a solution that is fitting for your partnership. Remember, boundary setting is not selfish, it is taking positive steps to manage and maintain your relationships which will ultimately benefit you and your relationships in the long run.

Next Steps

By Janet Adebodun

Updated on 24-Jul-2023

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