boundaries

How to Set Boundaries

“Yes.” It’s one simple word, but it’s a word that holds amazing power in our lives.

Yes to picking up the extra project at work…even if it leads you closer to burnout

Yes to watching the neighbor’s kids…even when you don’t want to

Yes to the one night stand…even though you swore you’d never cheat

Yes to helping a friend out financially…even when you don’t feel good about it

Have you ever struggled with the disease to please? Do you tend to over-commit yourself? Yeah, join the club.

If you have a hard time standing up for what you want. If you have a hard time saying “no”, you might need to establish a few more boundaries in your life. Let’s get started…

So, what is a boundary?

Are we talking picket fences and guardrails here? Not quite, but you’re not far off either. Look it up on dictionary.com, and you’ll find that the definition of a boundary is something that “divides one entity from another.” If we don’t keep healthy physical, emotional, and time/commitment boundaries, you and I will live stressed-out, frazzled, unhealthy lives.

“Boundaries define what is me and what is not me,” psychologists Henry Cloud and John Townshend write. “A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins.”[i]

Just like a physical fence protects what’s inside and what’s outside, when you and I set healthy boundaries, we protect our own selves. A life without boundaries can be insane. For some of us, the “yes” monster is always lurking, and, when we do say “no,” we feel horribly guilty. So we avoid setting healthy limits. We try to just just tough it out…and eventually, we burn out.

Worst of all, when we can’t say “no,” we lose joy. Helping other people out becomes a desperate race to feel better about ourselves. To prove something. It’s almost like “no” is a cuss word. We’re terrified of saying “no” because, to us, saying “no” is a sign of being a selfish, good-for-nothing, jerk.

And this kind of pressure can make us crazy. Unpredictable. Emotional. We struggle to stay afloat, but other people’s expectations are heavy. Life is one chaotic mess. But it doesn’t have to be that way! If you feel overwhelmed by the commitments in your life; if you’re finding it difficult or impossible to set limits with others, to say “no”, try these tips.

1) Release Yourself From Having to Do It All

Try as you might, you are not a superhero! So don’t live under that pressure. Saying “no” doesn’t make you selfish, mean, or a horrible person. Actually, the hardest decisions in life are often between the good things and the best things. Counselors and life coaches have found that people who do a few things well find more joy and satisfaction in life than those who try to do too much (ever hear the saying, “keep the main thing the main thing”). So be realistic in what you commit to.

2) Tell People Your Limits

An invisible fence only works with pets, so let people see your limits! Too often, we don’t say things we should because of the fear of rejection. Let this worry go–if you say no, someone will make someone else source for impositions.

Be straightforward and honest about what you can and cannot do. It’s far better to say “no” to a commitment up front than to say “yes” and then fail to come through (or to come through at your own discomfort). If you’ve been living a life without boundaries, your friends and family may be taken aback by this change in your behavior. And that’s okay. Setting boundaries may feel awkward and even “heartless” at first, but will result in a huge sense of freedom as you come to understand that who you are is not wrapped up in what you do for other people. That begs repeating….

Who you are is not wrapped up in what you do for other people.

3) Establish Healthy Amounts of Personal Time

If you don’t take care of yourself, you cannot take care of anyone else. Counselors and life coaches point out that those of us without boundaries have been raised to disregard our own needs, desires, and emotions. Oftentimes, we have no clue who we are apart from what we do. And this is not healthy. At all! Build time into your schedule to take care of you…whether it is reading a book, going for a jog, taking a bubble bath, or playing golf.

In addition, make sure you put lots of MARGIN in your schedule. Margin is a grace period from one thing to the next. Too many of us are running 30 minutes behind all day long because we haven’t worked any margin into our schedules.

4) Cure Yourself of The Disease to Please

If you ground your identity in what other people think of you, you’ll continually change yourself, and eventually lose all concept of who you really are. As you make decisions, consider what is the best personal course of action. Remember, your goal in life isn’t just to be popular. Face it: There will always be somebody who disagrees with you. But that’s okay.

5) Don’t Commit Out of Guilt or Obligation

You are not the world’s savior. It’s not your job to make everyone happy or “fix” all of the problems for those around you. Don’t succumb to the pressure of other people’s needs; evaluate your heart and commit your time and energy to what you’re passionate about. The reality is this that there will always be needy people, and if you don’t set clear personal boundaries you will attract them like a magnet. Your relationships will be one-sided as you give and give and give of yourself.

If your life has been defined by the needs of other people, do not despair. One fencepost at a time, you can set boundaries. As you learn to say “no,” you’ll begin to actually enjoy the relationships in your life (rather than feeling drained and used by them). Far from inhibiting you, personal boundaries free you up to experience joy and satisfaction in relationships like never before.

What are you waiting for? Take a step today to begin setting boundaries–you won’t regret it.


[i] Henry Cloud and John Townshend, Boundaries (New York: Zondervan, 1992), 13-14.

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Introductions to common mental health issues, with more personality than Wikipedia.
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