Physical boundaries help maintain order, efficiency, and safety. Traffic lanes allow high volumes of cars to move at high speeds without crashing. Fences keep people from wandering into dangerous construction zones. Those ropes in airport security lines help lots of people queue up in an orderly, single-file line.
Emotional boundaries can serve the same purpose — if you set them up and respect them.
Setting boundaries helps us spend our time and energy in the ways we want to and in ways that align with our values, explains Matthew S. Mutchler, PhD, a licensed marriage and family practice therapist and acting academic director of graduate counseling psychology at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
“We only have so much energy. If we are giving too much to a person or our work, or other things in our lives, we will run out and have nothing left for ourselves to be healthy and well,” Dr. Mutchler says.
It's important to point out that setting boundaries for yourself — either at work, in your personal relationships, or elsewhere — isn’t selfish or something to feel guilty about, Mutchler adds. Setting boundaries helps you show up, at work, school, for your family, and friends, at your best.
What It Means to Set Boundaries, According to Psychologists
The American Psychological Association defines boundaries as the psychological demarcations that protect the integrity of an individual or group, or that help someone (or a group) set realistic limits on participation in a relationship or activity.
“Boundaries are about our own behavior, choices, and limits,” explains Rachel Wright, a New York City–based licensed marriage and family therapist?who runs a telehealth mental health practice specializing in sex and relationships.
We need to be proactive in setting our own boundaries, she adds. “They’re about us, and what we are willing to engage in or tolerate,” she says.
Deciding not to stay in a conversation if someone talks poorly to or yells at you is an example of a boundary you can set for yourself.
Another example: In an early developing romantic situation, you might ask the other person not to kiss you until you let them know you’re comfortable with that, Wright says. “Boundaries are how we teach other people how to treat us,” she explains. They teach us how to respect one another.
“Instead of viewing boundaries as a way to keep people out, it’s actually inviting quality people in,” Wright says.
Types of Healthy Boundaries to Set in Your Life
Boundary setting can be valuable in many different parts of our lives, including at work, in romantic relationships, in friendships, and elsewhere.
Boundaries at Work
Maintaining professional boundaries between your work and personal lives can help you succeed, as well as help protect your mental health and help prevent burnout, research has shown. They can also help you develop better relationships with your colleagues.
An example of a work boundary is deciding on work hours and asking your colleagues to respect those hours. If you work between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., that means not scheduling (or answering) calls outside of those hours, Wright says.
Other work boundaries might look like: not bringing work home on weekends, delegating work when necessary, not doing tasks outside of your job description, or limiting how much you share about your personal life outside of work with your coworkers.
According to Amy Cooper Hakim, PhD, an industrial psychologist at the Cooper Strategic Group in Boca Raton, Florida, a productivity consulting service for work environments, here are some healthy boundaries you can set at work (and these are especially important if you’re working remotely):
- Set working and nonworking hours. (If it’s an option to choose to work during the hours that you are most productive, talk with your manager about it.)
- Disconnect during nonworking hours. (Having time during the day when you’re disconnected from work helps you recharge and come back the next day ready to give it your all.)
- Use an auto-reply for email (and other chat apps) that lets colleagues and clients know your working hours and breaks, so they will know when to contact you.
- Let your family know when you’re working and when and how to contact you during work (and when and how not to). This might look like telling your kids that it’s okay to call or text if there’s an emergency, but if it can wait until after work, please wait.
- If you work remotely, designate a separate space in your home for work, get dressed for work, turn off your monitor during nonwork hours, and have a pre- and post-work routine (like taking a walk, doing another workout, or practicing some type of relaxation).
- Stay off work email on the weekend and days off (or doing other work-related tasks).
Remember, even if you own your own business, or do side work outside of a full-time job, setting work boundaries is important. Those boundaries might look different from boundaries set for a more traditional 9-to-5 office job, but they’re still important, Dr. Hakim says.
And remember to respect the breaks and nonwork times of the day, just as much as you would respect the starting time for an important meeting or start of the work day, Hakim adds.
Boundaries in Friendships
Healthy relationships, whether between friends, companions, or lovers, should mutually benefit and be positive for both people. If you find yourself in a position where you feel like you are drained because you are giving more to your friend than they are giving to you, consider if you have healthy boundaries in that relationship.
Remember friendship is a two-way street, says Gregory Scott Brown, MD, author of The Self-Healing Mind, and a psychiatrist and affiliate faculty of Texas Dell Medical School in Austin. You should be there for each other and help one another out.
“Communication is key,” says Dr. Brown. When setting boundaries in friendships (and other relationships), explain why you are doing so, Brown says. If you need more time to yourself, let your friend know that and let them know when you'll be available again so that he or she doesn't feel abandoned, he adds.
Without setting boundaries in a friendship you risk becoming irritable and harsh in how you communicate.
“Setting boundaries will help better position yourself to be a good friend,” Brown says.
Boundaries in Romantic Relationships
While expectations may help you set boundaries, boundary-setting really means putting those expectations into practice, says Brown.
As an example, if you tell a romantic partner that you’re not available for phone calls after a certain time of the evening, setting your phone on silent after that time is a way to turn that expectation into a boundary.
Have a conversation with romantic partner about boundaries you want to set before crossing those boundaries becomes a problem, says Brown.
There’s a common misconception that setting boundaries with a romantic partner is a way of distancing yourself from that person. But the reverse is actually true, explains Mutchler. “When done well, it’s a recognition of one’s own needs and a desire to keep the relationship healthy.”
He adds: “Some people will want thicker or thinner boundaries, but in a healthy relationship, they will be there.”
When it comes to romantic partners, this includes boundaries around sex and intimacy. It is important to tell your partner what kind of intimacy you are comfortable with and what feels good to you physically and emotionally and makes you feel loved. Conversely, it’s okay to talk about what makes you uncomfortable.
This might include conversations around how much kissing or signs of affection you show one another in public.
And this should include talking about sex and what types of sexual acts you and your partner are comfortable with.
“Talking about sex with a partner helps you know the boundaries without breaking them. It can help increase intimacy and feeling known and understood by your partner,” says Mutchler. “When our partners explain their boundaries to us it shows us how to love them.”
And remember, no matter how long you’ve been in a relationship or lived with someone, it is never too late to set boundaries, adds Wright.
Other Types of Boundaries
Though work-life boundaries and boundaries in relationships tend to be some of the more significant ones, there’s room to set boundaries in nearly all aspects of your life.
You might, for instance, benefit from setting boundaries when it comes to how much time you devote to charity work or other extracurricular activities.
This is true for a lot of people who donate their time and energies to nonprofits or other groups that have given a lot to them or carry special meaning, Mutchler explains. “A person wants so badly to give back to a group that helped them so much, they run the risk of taking on too much responsibility and damaging their own mental health.”
You might find it beneficial to set boundaries around how much you use your mobile phone, or spend on social media platforms.
Why Boundary Setting Is Good for You and Your Well-Being
Boundaries also help us maintain balance in various aspects of our lives, Mutchler adds.
Establishing work boundaries that delineate work time from nonwork time helps ensure you’re building in time in your day to work hard and time to recover, explains Hakim.
“If you burn the candle at both ends, you’re going to feel emotionally exhausted,” she says.
A study published in 2018 in the journal Academy of Management Proceedings, for instance, found that when workers were expected to check email at all times of day, they reported having lower levels of health and well-being, and less satisfaction in their relationship with their significant others in survey responses. Their partners reported suffering the same costs.
Setting clear work and professional boundaries can help you become a more efficient worker, and can therefore benefit both you and your employer, she says.
Other research suggests that when employers respect employees’ boundaries (such as not asking a subordinate to complete a task when he or she is on a break), that contributes to that employee’s sense of autonomy (or need to act with a sense of ownership of their behavior). Having autonomy is considered a fundamental human need, as defined by self-determination theory, a widely cited psychological framework used to understand human motivation and wellness, per?research.
Establishing boundaries between our personal lives and work became particularly important for the many workers who became remote workers overnight during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A study published in December 2020 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology that analyzed survey data from 877 adults living in the Netherlands during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic found that employees who reported experiencing the most blurred professional and home boundaries reported they had more physical and mental health challenges which led to a decline in their overall well-being compared with employees who had clearer boundaries between work and home.
Boundaries in relationships foster healthy relationships, Wright says. “They help you have more respect for yourself, and help you let the other person show up for you and treat you with respect.”
According to Cleveland Clinic, other benefits of setting boundaries in relationships include:
- Retaining your own identity
- Preventing others from taking advantage of us or manipulating us
- Having more empathy for one another
- Empowering us to set and work towards goals
- Maintaining mental and emotional well-being
7 Tips for Setting Boundaries in Your Life
Know that when it comes to boundary setting, you’re going to need to be intentional, Brown says. “Boundaries are not going to set themselves.”
He recommends these seven tips that can help you set boundaries in all different aspects of your life (boundaries between your work and personal life, boundaries with friends, boundaries with partners, boundaries with technology, and more):
- Think about where you need more boundaries. Look closely at areas of your life where you don’t feel balanced, a relationship feels off track, or your ability to communicate with someone has broken down.
- Decide which boundaries you want to draw and stick to. Then commit to setting boundaries in those areas of your life. If it helps, write them down.
- Set boundaries one at a time. Don’t make it too complicated.
- Keep overheated emotions out of it. Don’t attempt to set boundaries when you’re lonely, angry, or overtired.
- Reset boundaries that aren't working for you. Be prepared to modify them if they don’t work well for you or aren't meeting your needs.
- Be realistic. Set unrealistic boundaries and you may be setting yourself up for failure.
- Don’t be discouraged by setbacks. Just because you have a conversation about boundaries with someone or about some aspect of your life doesn’t mean that they are going to be implemented perfectly right away. People will forget your boundaries and they may need a reminder.
Mutchler says it is important to reassess the boundaries you have created periodically. Ask yourself if your needs are being met, are the boundaries working, and is someone being hurt by them?
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- APA Dictionary of Psychology: Boundary. American Psychological Association.
- Kreiner GE, Hollensbe EC, Sheep ML. Balancing Borders and Bridges: Negotiating the Work-Home Interface via Boundary Work Tactics. Academy of Management Journal. August 1, 2009.
- Becker WJ, Belkin L, Tuskey S. Killing Me Softly: Electronic Communications Monitoring and Employee and Spouse Well-Being. Academy of Management Proceedings. July 9, 2018.
- Pluut H, Wonders J. Not Able to Lead a Healthy Life When You Need It the Most: Dual Role of Lifestyle Behaviors in the Association of Blurred Work-Life Boundaries With Well-Being. Frontiers in Psychology. December 23, 2020.
- How to Set Healthy Boundaries in Relationships. Cleveland Clinic. July 12, 2022.
- Van den Broek A, Ferris DL, Chang CH, Rosen CC. A Review of Self-Determination Theory’s Basic Psychological Needs at Work. Journal of Management. March 9, 2016.
- Deci EL, Ryan, RM. Self-Determination Theory: A Macrotheory of Human Motivation, Development, and Health. Canadian Psychology. 2008.