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The Boundaries We Set Help Us Guard Our Energy. Here’s How To Do It

A ball of energy with electricity beaming all over the place.
Have you ever felt resentful or had a passive-aggressive response to a request on your time or energy? That's a sign your boundaries are being crossed — and it might be because you haven't set them clearly.
(Hal Gatewood
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Do you ever feel put out by too many social events? Fed up by all the work requests you feel pressure to say yes to? Bothered by small asks that make you feel big mad?

It might be time to take a look at your boundaries.

"A boundary is something that keeps you safe and comfortable in your relationships," says Nedra Glover Tawwab, a licensed therapist and author of Set Boundaries, Find Peace.

Boundaries can look a lot of different ways depending on who makes them. "A boundary for you might not be a boundary for me because it is unique," says Tawwab. "It's based on who I am."

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Look for signs you might need a boundary

Ignoring or compromising on your boundaries — like allowing yourself to be talked into activities you don't want to do — can lead to frustration, resentment, discomfort or passive-aggressive behavior, says Tawwab.

Anxiety can also be an alarm bell for a breached boundary — like if you're feeling worked up ahead of interacting with a specific person or stressed in anticipation of declining a request. "Those [feelings] are indicators that perhaps there is space for boundaries in this situation," she explains.

Once you've realized a commitment or situation isn't working for you, the next question is: "How do we make an agreement with ourselves to not exhaust ourselves in the same way in the future?"

To answer that, Tawwab offers this guidance on how to set — and keep — boundaries in your everyday life.

Practice setting boundaries on a daily basis

Like any new habit, boundary-setting requires practice. Here are some ways to hone your boundary setting:

  • Do an honest assessment of what you're willing to tolerate. When you encounter something that doesn't feel good, create a boundary and communicate it.
  • When you're feeling overextended, say so. We can't expect other people to know our capacity.
  • Say no to requests that you don't actually have the time or energy to fulfill. You can practice different ways to decline. (There's a Life Kit episode for that.)

Remember that boundaries help protect relationships, not stifle them

If you're new to setting boundaries, starting to do so might affect your relationships — and that's OK!

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"We want to be in relationships with people," says Tawwab. "We just want to be less anxious, less overwhelmed, less drained, less frustrated with folks."

For example, "If I have to say to you ... 'This is not a good time for me to talk because I'm really in my head about my stuff. I am not prepared to listen. Let me give you a call back a little later.' That is a way to preserve the relationship," she explains.

If the person you're talking to isn't used to you drawing a line, you might get some pushback. They might even say you've changed. Tawwab says a self-honoring response to that is: "You are correct."

If their next response is that they don't know how to treat you anymore, "Our job is to say, 'I will teach you. I will let you know the things that I need and want today,'" says Tawwab.

When someone crosses a boundary, it's up to you to deliver the consequences

There will be people who don't respect your boundaries. And while you can't control how people react, you can decide what happens next.

Tawwab says to make sure you've clearly communicated that there is no room for negotiation on a matter: "At some point, we need to say, 'Stop.' They need to know that that door is closed."

If that still doesn't work, "Sometimes it is ending the relationship," she says. "But I think more often we figure out different ways to be present with people."

You can choose the frequency and duration of your contacts with a person or an organization, as well as what limits you want to place on the relationship. (Hello, work/life balance.)

Boundaries start with you. Knowing your capacity and ability to respond to requests is the beginning of being able to teach others how to treat you.

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