Having and holding clear personal boundaries helps us to have healthy and respectful relationships.
Boundaries are the standards, rules or limits we set about the words and behaviours that we expect from others, and that we use.
We can have boundaries around all sorts of things, such as physical touch, how much we put into tasks, if language is disrespectful, who we spend time with, and how we share household and work responsibilities. Often, we have different boundaries for different relationships and environments.
Boundaries are not about controlling, punishing or manipulating others, or making ultimatums. Rather, they’re about stating what we do and don’t want, and our limits. Sometimes, in order to maintain a boundary, we might need to temporarily or even permanently leave a situation.
When others take our boundaries seriously, we're more likely to feel respected, heard and valued. These feelings are important markers of healthy and safe relationships. If a boundary isn’t respected, however, we might feel angry, frustrated, anxious, neglected or helpless.
Sometimes, it’s hard to set and hold boundaries even if they’re important to us. This may be because:
- we weren’t encouraged or didn’t feel safe enough to set them as children
- we avoid conflict or communicate in passive ways
- we put others’ needs before our own (‘people pleasing’)
- when we’ve tried to set boundaries in the past, the result wasn’t positive
- we’re afraid of what will happen in our relationships and/or workplaces.
It’s important to remember that we’re all responsible for setting our own boundaries and for how we respond to other people’s behaviour.
We hope that the tips and resources below will help you understand, communicate and maintain your limits and expectations in kind but firm ways.
Please note: This advice may not be appropriate for people in high-conflict situations, especially if there is a risk of violence. If you are affected by family violence (domestic violence) and feel unsafe right now, please call 000 (triple zero) immediately. For other family violence support, call Safe Steps (Victoria) 24/7 on 1800 015 188 or 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732.
9 tips for setting healthy boundaries
- Give yourself permission to say ‘no’ and do what’s best for you.
- When setting boundaries, think about what you are and aren’t comfortable with, and what’s most important. Write a list if that helps you to remember.
- Be clear about what people can expect from you and what you expect from them. Do this as early as you can in each relationship or environment.
- Where possible, practice role-playing conversations about setting or holding boundaries beforehand. You might do this on your own or with someone you trust.
- Be polite but assertive, and use clear, direct language. Avoid apologising in advance or using ‘softening words’ like ‘just’.
- Communicate out loud and in-person whenever you can. Communicating over text, email or social media can easily lead to misunderstandings.
- Understand how to recognise and manage your own triggers. Make a plan for how to look after yourself and respond if someone crosses your boundaries.
- Know when to walk away. It’s okay to end or take a break from a conversation if it’s no longer productive, or if you feel overwhelmed, disrespected or unsafe at any time.
- Talk to a professional if you need help. You might choose to do this before a conversation to help with planning, or after a conversation if you need more support.
Helpful phrases for setting boundaries
The following phrases may be a helpful starting point for talking about your boundaries. Consider what else you might add to this list.
- ‘No, thank you.’
- ‘At the moment, I don’t have capacity for that.’
- ‘I won’t be attending.’
- ‘That’s not going to work for me.’
- ‘That sits outside of my role.’
- ‘Could you explain what you mean by that?’
- ‘I don’t think it’s helpful for us to talk about this right now.’
- ‘Let’s take a break and come back to this conversation in a few hours.’
- 'Please lower your voice.’
- ‘Please let me finish what I’m saying.’
- ‘I’m not comfortable discussing that.’
- ‘I’m going to take a break and go out for half an hour because I have a boundary around name calling. We can talk about this more when I get back if you’re open to that and you don’t call me names.’
If you’re finding it hard to set or maintain your boundaries in a relationship or workplace, you may find it helpful to talk to a counsellor, family therapist, mediator, manager or your human resources department.
We offer individual, couple and family counselling as well as employee assistance program counselling and conflict resolution services for workplaces.
This blog post should not be considered professional advice. It is for informational purposes only.