A Therapist’s Guide to Setting Boundaries and Actually Keeping Them
08.28.17

“You need to set boundaries” is a very unhelpful yet well-meaning solution frequently offered up to solve all my problems. It’s IKEA Advice: Like a desk or shelf you have to put together yourself, “setting boundaries” sounds good, makes a lot of sense and comes with a confusing instruction manual — if it comes with an instruction manual at all.

In theory, I get it. Two common hypotheticals: “I think I work too much, so I need to set boundaries that protect my hours.” Okay, but how? “A close relationship of mine sucks out all of my energy, so I need to set boundaries that protect my batteries.” Okay, but how?

Since it’s one thing to know what the remedy is and quite another to know how to make the potion, I spoke with Dr. Lisa Firestone, psychologist and Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association in Santa Barbara, California. She walked me through the how-to portion of learning to set boundaries. Consider her advice below your actually-helpful boundaries manual.


1. The first thing you need to know about the inability to set boundaries is that it’s a common problem.

Knowing that always makes me feel better and less like I’m the only one who can’t figure this out. Another thing that always makes me feel better is knowing I can blame something on my parents. (I am just kidding. Shout out to my parents for giving me life and reason to live it!)

Dr. Lisa Firestone explained that an inability to set boundaries often begins during childhood. “A lot of parents send confusing messages about who’s the parent and who’s the child. They don’t set clear boundaries. They’re not being lazy or bad parents — they likely weren’t taught how to set boundaries, either. Also, those of us who find ourselves in a caretaker mode early on have trouble setting boundaries because we’re used to taking care of others before ourselves.”

Now that we all feel “normal” (whatever that means), next is the actual approach.

2. To set boundaries, you must first set goals and know your limits.

“We say ‘I’m working too many hours,’ but we don’t say what we’re willing to do, what we’re not willing to do,” says Dr. Firestone.

Rather than lament about too much time in the office while making ambiguous, easy-to-break resolutions, decide upon an ideal leaving time: “I would like to leave the office at 7 p.m. every single night.”

Then, decide upon your hard line. “I will never stay in the office past 9 p.m. so long as I have a job on this green earth, no matter how pressing a deadline, because it will make me worse off the next day.”

3. You have to be willing to face the consequences of what might happen (“even though you’re likely catastrophizing it”) and prioritize accordingly.

Dr. Firestone said something I never considered to be an option when it comes to setting boundaries: That maybe, for the sake of your sanity, it’s okay lose some things in the process.

“You have to know that you might lose things in the process of setting boundaries,” says Dr. Firestone. So we have to prioritize. What’s more important: Fixing this problem (often for the sake of being a better friend, a better employee, a better partner), or keeping the friend/job/relationship wholly intact?

That said, while Dr. Firestone says our minds tend to go to the worst-case scenario, the worst-case scenario rarely happens.

“I think we tend to exaggerate the risk of losing a relationship or a job when it comes to setting boundaries.”

4. It’s probably not true that you’re “the only one” who can do a job or comfort a friend.

Dr. Firestone explained that we may avoid setting boundaries to retain a sense of power, that feeling of being special.

“Feeling special is very seductive,” she says, “but it’s probably not true that you’re the only one who can do something or deal with a problem. These illusions don’t serve us. ‘Feeling special’ may be one more thing you have to agree to lose if setting boundaries is important to you.”

5. Challenge the notion of “not good enough” and know your value.

“There is this obsession that we’re never doing enough,” says Dr. Firestone. “There’s a fear that if we had limits we wouldn’t be enough. This is good to identify because then you can start to challenge it. Yes, you might need the help of therapist at some point to really address this, but it’s worth identifying so that you can start to answer whether or not that’s true. When it comes to work in particular, something to ask yourself: Are your co-workers working as much as you?”

Dr. Firestone also brought up our sense of self-worth. If everyone else in the office leaves work at 6 p.m. and you stay until 10 to prove that you’re a hard worker, “you’re not thinking much of your value,” she says. “You’re not thinking much of yourself if you think your friends will ‘only be friends with you’ if XYZ. Are they worth more than you?” (Rhetorical question there; the answer is no.)

6. How wrapped up are you?

Another thing to ask ourselves is whether or not our identity is too wrapped up in the other person, or in the job. If a relationship has gotten to the point where it’s affecting your life in an unhealthy way and you’re not able to find balance, if it’s pervasive, if it’s a pattern, you may consider seeking outside professional help. (Resources at the end of this post.)

“Even in romantic relationships,” says Dr. Firestone, “It’s important to know where you leave off and the other person begins. When you lose your separate identity, that’s when relationships deteriorate.”

7. Once you’re clear as to what your boundaries are, communicate what they are to the appropriate people.

Tell your friend, “I can take calls during X hours , I will not answer after Y.” Let your team at work know when you can and can’t be online. When you’re taking a vacation, communicate that you plan to take a vacation and what your availability, if any, will look like.

8. It’s okay to say ‘no,’ to not pick up the phone, to not answer emails…

We’ve been trained to respond quickly in both work situations and our social lives, but you don’t have to. “You get to decide,” Dr. Firestone said. But! You have to change your behavior once you make the decision. “If you change your behavior, people will get the picture and act accordingly. If you say you’re not going to take calls after 7 p.m., and then take calls after 7 p.m., people will learn that message. Be willing to stick with what you decided. It’s not a matter of you saying it, it’s a matter of you living by it.”

She stood by this even in the case of a self-destructive friend or volatile boss. These scenarios are, “understandably hard, but you’re human. You have limits. How available are you going to be to someone? How does his or her life get to be more important than your life?”

Every time I poked holes or tried to bring up scenarios where a boundary would be “impossible,” she directed me back to point #3: that we have to be willing to face the consequences of what might happen (even though we’re likely catastrophizing it) and prioritize accordingly — again, if we’re serious about setting these boundaries.

You know what else she kept reminding me? This is 100% doable.

Let’s talk about our boundary issues in the comments below.

Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association in Santa Barbara, CA.  

The Glendon Association offers a free website for the general public — www.psychalive.org — with helpful resources on this topic. To find a psychologist or therapist in your area, visit www.locator.apa.org

Photography: Louisiana Mei Gelpi. 
Creative Direction: Emily Zirimis

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  • Adrianna

    I have the opposite problem. It’s my nature to approach or react to each situation with a lot of boundaries, and it feels like a “catastrophe” if any of my boundaries are challenged

    • Jennifer

      Same with my parents. They were a bit older when I was born (my mom was 35, my dad was 44), so they definitely weren’t around to be my bff. Since I saw my them as authority figures, I rarely had a conversation about anything personal. Of course, that might just be how they were and isn’t indicative of all older parents 🙂

      I also feel I have the opposite problem of not setting strict boundaries — normally I think I have too much free time and am just wasting it. When I leave work, I leave and I don’t think about it until the next day. When I’m at home, I take care of anything that needs my attention (walking the dog, cleaning, cooking, working out), and then I reply to emails, texts, phone calls (unless it’s a true emergency). Does this make me selfish? I’m a big believer that you have to look out for yourself first before anyone else. Obviously this probably isn’t the case if you have children…

    • Amelia Diamond

      this is really interesting // makes sense. how do you “deal” with the feeling of your boundaries being challenged?

      • Adrianna

        I will say that I don’t necessarily feel a desire to “work on this,” which reminds me of other Man Repeller pieces on the topic of whether we’re already our best selves.

        It’s helped me to realize and recognize that I can overthink my way into perceiving something as a catastrophe. Not every emotion I feel is necessarily an accurate representation of what’s going on.

        If I think about a specific example, such as maintaining boundaries with a needy friend, I kind of don’t invest a lot of mental energy into it. It’s pretty effective to just end a conversation when someone is acting particularly bratty.

    • Bea

      Very interesting because I am the same way. I’m very clear about my boundaries. It used to bother me because I thought people would see me as selfish or uninterested but I’m more OK with it now. I give my 100% when I’m at work and I will stay longer if there’s an emergency but not as a habit. I stick to a contract that was signed and agreed on by both parties (for me it makes all the sense in the world). When it comes to friendships: 1) I don’t feel I need to give my all to every acquaintance (I prefer fewer/truer friends, life is too short for anything else) And 2) I know that there are certain things that I can’t help a friend with. I can and will help a friend through a break up but I can’t help someone who struggles with anxiety for instance (apart from pointing them in the right direction = treatment. I know it sounds harsh but I promise I’m a nice person 🙂

      My parents were also very much “The parents”. They always rolled their eyes at this “my mom/dad is my best friend” stuff. Hehe

      • Adrianna

        I’m the same with work. I will give my 100% during the hours I’m contracted to work, but I never feel guilty about taking my lunch break or not participating in extra events. When asked where I was, I’ve said “I just couldn’t talk to people at the end of the day anymore,” and they completely understood. I come in early for purely selfish reasons – I’m paid hourly+overtime, and I like how quiet the office is at 8:00-8:30. I don’t feel bad about leaving the minute I can. I’ve been promoted two times in three years.

        I also have personal, first hand experience with your #2 point. I also sound “harsh” when I repeat the boundaries I set. But I’ve witnessed a parent enable a relative for ten years because they were trying to help.

    • Ana

      Same! Interestingly I’m also a child of immigrants with a similar dynamic. I’m also an only child which is what I always saw as the cause of my strict boundaries. I used to be more worried about appearing selfish when I was younger but now, at 30, I’m like whatever. If you don’t take care of your own needs first you can’t possibly be helpful for somebody else imho.

    • Louise

      This all rings true to me so much it’s crazy. I’m the perfect storm of a lot of these things– immigrant mom, both my parents in their early forties when they had me, my sibling is 10 years older than me so virtually an only child. I’ve done theater and nonprofit work for most of my life so I have an intrinsic need to help people but am coming to terms with a similar intrinsic need for privacy, restraint and boundaries. Love these comments!

  • So you can actually read my mind these days, Amelia, and offer good help. Way to go 🙂 I need a better mental firewall :-))
    (been moosing on how to set 2 boundaries, not on whether or not, but it’s still a tough job, it always is, because I need to figure out how firm and how kind I am going to be.)
    Anyway: thank you.

    • Amelia Diamond

      it’s fuckin HARD alcessa

    • Jen

      I admit I don’t super struggle setting & sticking to boundaries. Something that helped me a lot was realizing that you can be firm and kind AT THE SAME TIME????!! Like kindness =/= saying yes to everything. Kindness =/= making everyone happy. I know women are socialized to be people pleasers, so this is an important and sometimes mind blowing revelation. This was totally news to me a handful of years ago. But now I can say no to something without lying or making up a “worthy” excuse, just by being honest. “Hey thank you for asking me to hang out, but I’m gonna have to say no tonight. I need some alone time/have had a busy week/am not feeling up to it. Have fun!” Or at work, “I’m really not up to that, but I can offer xyz to help/transition/whatever” has done wonders for my mental health. I don’t think that’s rude! Sometimes I get a little pressure but no one has responded really negatively, definitely not past like, that conversation. (That probably won’t happen forever, but so far so good.) And also if a friend is OFFENDED because I don’t hang with them anyway when I’m exhausted, do they really value me as a person? Do I want them as a friend?
      My relationships not only haven’t suffered, but are BETTER. My friends have literally told me, “I appreciate that you’re honest with me because I know when you hang out or help me move or whatever it’s because you really want to, not because you feel obligated.” And now they feel more comfortable being real with me and saying no to things they don’t want to do or don’t have the energy for. I think everyone is kind of relieved that they can just tell the frickin truth.

      That was totally a speech but there it is.

      • That’s exactly the reason why I am preparing one of my “exits” right now … It can really suck being the society’s caretaker/lubricant/you name it and this role is usually expected of women, as you said. Now, I had done my share of greasing, growing and repairing until I couldn’t anymore. My first reaction after having found out I don’t want to and don’t have to cater to others was to send people packing as soon as it seemed like they had some needs and expectations, but I have learned things in that field, too, and nowadays, I generally give people a lot of time, nudging them towards their emotional independency (whereby they should try to find solutions and general relief by themselves) and only if I am not successful, I take time to decide upon the nice manner we are going to part ways in the future. It is true what you say – often, being nice is absolutely brilliant. Unfortunately, I told a guy I “hated men” (not true) last week (with an appropriately hatred-filled voice, after being taunted for ages) and have to now explain reasonably why I don’t want to belong to his circle anymore and that means being polite after everyone witnessed our mutual dislike. *sigh* the drama, always the drama – I prefer books so much more … 🙂

        • Jen

          Still giving people space to have needs! That is a very important part of this too, I think. I was kind of the same way, but I resented people’s needs. Now I’m more balanced there but still trying to find a true healthy in between place.

          That sounds like an awful situation. Having boundaries constantly overstepped and pushed on can make anyone lash out, but it makes things more complicated :/ I hope that whole deal goes well. It’s a tricky conversation to have!

  • Samantha Serbus

    Oh wow. So dealing with this right now. I grew up with three younger siblings and as a result, definitely fall in that “caretaker” role in relationships. Also, my mom was young when she had me (26) and often vented to me about her and my stepdad’s relationship issues! (not good!) Since it comes so naturally, my partner thinks that I must just love taking care of people. To an extent, yes. If it’s reciprocated, yes. But as soon as the balance is off, I get resentful and have a hard time communicating my frustration. As a result I feel like I’m always scrambling to get a few hours to myself and even when I do it’s still not enough. I also have zero desire to have kids because I feel like I already raised my three younger sibs! I know I have boundary issues and this totally helped solidify that it’s time to set better ones. Thanks for posting!

    • Amelia Diamond

      thank you for sharing in this space!

    • Lyndsay

      🙋🏻

  • I could be better at setting boundaries, but I’ve come a long way! I’m the youngest of 5 girls, and I usually had to be the most easy going, tagging along to everyone else’s sports, events and celebrations. I didn’t have much of a choice then, but now I really have to get better at pushing people out of my way. Mainly I let my family encroach on my work time, which is hard when you run a blog from home!

    The best thing I ever learned from my therapist was to take responsibility for every situation you find yourself in. If you’re not happy with the way someone is treating you, your boundaries are encroached on, or you can’t find the time, look at changing yourself, rather than saying “he’s a jerk,” “my mother walks all over me,” or “I’m too busy.” When you look at these problems from the right perspective, you always have the power to change them. Don’t like how someone is treating you? Remove yourself from the situation. It gets a little more complicated with work stuff, but it’s applicable on so many levels.

    Best advice: you can’t change other people, you can only change yourself.

    http://www.shessobright.com

    • Amelia Diamond

      “you can’t change other people, you can only change yourself.” so true

      • Jay

        That is so true… I am terrible at boundaries, still… but I had this project of making my work more efficient, and my life in general… and that to me means time blocking, and really dedicating time to what is important, before doing everything else… (Got that from “the one thing” – it’s an ok book but not really a new concept… rather you actually know all this, just dont practice it… so its a recommend more as a reminder…)

        And I did just what was recommended here: I actually told my colleagues and my back office, that in the mornings – when I’m most productive, Ill not be checking mails or having meetings.

        First they were like “what”? And my boss was like “WTF – no?” But it’s been a month and they no find that ok…

        Changed my habits and worked for me…

  • Megan Greffen

    I’m a social worker, and this resonates so much with me. It took about 3 years, but I finally learned how to draw boundaries for myself after leaving the hospital and my patients.

    I beat myself up for neglecting to call friends/family after work or saying no to happy hours/dinners. I felt like I needed to do it all- be an active listener, a provider, a therapist. For every person in my life. It was fucking awful.

    I started developing rituals for leaving my office and shutting off my therapy brain. I listen to my friends but I let them know I’m not on the clock, I’m not billing for these hours…ya dig?? Girlfriends would jokingly say “can you therapise me? I need a therapist lol.” It’s difficult for folks to understand that this is my job, and I have to turn it off too. Just like everyone else.

    AnyWHO- all that to say…take it from a mental health professional. This is spot on. The more we split ourselves, let others take pieces of us, the less we have to give. Duh, right? Not so much- that shit is hard! It’s okay to say no. It’s okay to tell someone you need help.

  • Madeline C

    I am terrible at setting boundaries. I am constantly trying to make everyone in my life happy, and it’s an impossible goal. The more you give to people the more they want. I completely understand my participation in this though. It is addictive to feel needed. You can never be left out if you are needed. You can never feel isolated if you are needed. And so, I make myself too needed, and can’t live up to it. It makes me feel like I am constantly disappointing people including myself.

    In regards to the parents though: I had a fairly clear adult/child relationship with my parents. I think my boundary issues come from discovering at an early age that if you manipulate and control the narrative by being the lynch pin, you can protect yourself. There is no worse feeling than being alone on the playground, and my childhood self-was trying to protect herself. And now my adult self seriously struggles with breaking those habits.

  • Yas I used to think boundaries was a rude, isolating thing but there was nothing like anxiety and adrenal fatigue to help crystallize this for me in psychological and practical terms (and well, mysticmamma/kaypacha on more transcendental levels heh).

  • Helen Johnstone

    Great articles and comments. I too had a Mum who vented to me about her dire relationship with Dad when I was pretty young. These things mould you and you never know why…..Especially interesting to read of Adrianna who kind of has an opposite experience with her boundaries being ‘omnipresent, being hyperconscious of them… Is that right?

  • Lindsey

    Even though I have pretty good boundaries, it took me a long time to learn that I could just say “no, I can’t do that” without an explanation. For example, if someone asked me to do something on xyz day and I really just didn’t want to, no other reason than that, I could just say, “Thanks for the invite, but I can’t. Maybe next time!” Never have I actually had someone push me on why I couldn’t do it. I especially felt guilty if someone would ask me to cover their shift or something, but it was going to be my only day off which I needed for my mental health and I would say no…I felt like I was being selfish because technically I *could* cover for them, and saying “mental health” didn’t feel like a valid “excuse.” It took a lot of practice for me to just apologize and say no without offering up a detailed excuse or reason (often one I completely made up to sound more legitimate). And, if someone did press me on something, I had to teach myself to be honest. That taking care of myself IS a legitimate reason to not do something. And like someone else said below, my friends learned pretty quickly that as an introvert, I needed time to myself, and they really respect when I’m honest with them. Plus, it makes it so much more meaningful to them when I ask them to hang out because they KNOW I want to! It’s not been easy to relearn those patterns, but life in general is a lot less stressful.

    • Emily

      same! i always used to say yes to everything, or thought i had to have a bloody good reason if i said no! now, same as you, i just say “i can’t sorry”, and leave it at that! unfortunately i have been challenged, though, on why i couldnt… so i had to lie, which wasnt ideal, but i feel like by challenging me, they didnt respect my decision / space? i used to be a huge extrovert who said yes to everything, but without getting the violins out, a bad break up and a stressful job means that now i get SO annoyed if i have to do something on the weekends, becuase it feels like its “my” precious time, as selfish as that sounds? does that make sense? obvioulsy if its a wedding or something thats totally fine, but i’ve started to say no to a lot more stuff. i think this has made people stop invitnig me to things, but surely, my close, or “best” friends will stick around? might even be a useful tool to start weeding people from my life, as brutal as that sounds? wow, sorry, dindt mean to write an essay here!!

  • Sansa Osman

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  • Ai-Ch’ng GB

    Thank you for this article. Quite an emotional reading it, as I’m in the process of sorting out what I am physically able to say, “yes” to, without compromising my health, time with loved ones, and time on my own.

    Coming from an Asian background where my (first generation migrated to Australia) parents, brother and I also lived with my maternal grandparents, there was a very strong sense of “the hierarchy”.

    For as long as I can remember, my mother was always saying to me, “as the daughter/as the oldest child or daughter/as a Chinese (there was a lot of familial baggage attached to that as well: mum’s lineage is particularly prominent with a genius great-grandfather, and my maternal and paternal grandmothers were well-known trailblazers in their own right back in Singapore), you must do/act/be x/y/z”. The females in my family are really, really strong. So, as a child, for me it was all about listening to your elders – unquestioningly doing as they said/asked, “because we’ve eaten many more grains of rice than you have”. I said, “yes” to many more things than I really wanted to at the time and throughout my twenties – and this acquiescence extended to beyond the family to boyfriends, friends, colleagues.

    All that, “yes-ing” really did my head, although I didn’t realise it at the time. It’s a case of always acquiescing, because it’s what you’ve always known… and then, one day, BAM, you hear/see/realise things are different, and you buck really hard. For that realisation, I have my mother-in-law (Chinese, married to my Sikh father-in-law) to thank. We actually weren’t close at all for almost 12 years, all due to two comments she made to me one day, whilst I was staying at her place: (in relation to my being incredibly nauseated and exhausted whilst pregnant and unable to stand company and the smell of any pungent food) , “it is your duty to always welcome your guest and entertain them, regardless of how you are feeling: the guest is God” (very Indian belief, but nice – if you’re the guest); and (in relation to my wearing a sleeve-less singlet top on a 43 degree Celsius day sans air-conditioning), “now that you’re married, you can’t ever wear sleeveless – you must always make sure you are modest and cover your arms: no more sleeveless for you. Didn’t your mother ever teach you that?” Those two comments from my mother-in-law (and maybe they were not the sole reason, but they certainly were the proverbial straws that broke my camel’s bowed back) immediately destroyed whatever small chance she and I may have had at a relationship… and of simultaneously freeing my (internal) roar that I would never, ever again be held in unreasonable constraints by my gender, or cultural background.