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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