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Setting Healthy Boundaries in Your Relationships

September 15, 2017

Expressing your feelings and asserting your needs are essential for maintaining healthy relationships.

Cristina Young, MSW ’98, is a licensed clinical social worker with a private practice in Greenwich, Connecticut. Young specializes in working with parents to improve family dynamics and reduce anxiety. Her clients, mostly women, share many of the same issues, including depression, anger management, anxiety and boundary setting.

Over the years, Young has developed proven strategies to improve her clients’ abilities to set healthy boundaries — an issue that is often at the root of overall mental health and wellness.

Do I Have Boundary Issues?

Those with boundary issues often report that their partner doesn’t listen to them, or that their needs aren’t being heard, honored or respected. When they express an opinion that triggers pushback or conflict, they back down and retreat rather than communicating their true feelings.

This kind of backtracking from one’s own needs and feelings is especially common among women, who are socially conditioned to prioritize others’ needs — often at the expense of their own — to avoid conflict, anger or disappointment.

Buried feelings can become an emotional burden, swelling into resentment that lingers for weeks, months or even years.

Unfortunately, this pattern is rarely confined to one relationship. People with boundary issues may find that their friends or family, not just their partner, treat them in a similar way. Young often reminds her patients of the mantra “you get what you tolerate.” In other words, if you constantly stifle your opinions, needs and desires in order to avoid conflict, you’re teaching your friends and family that your feelings don’t matter.

Setting healthy boundaries, and therefore building healthy relationships, is only possible when a person recognizes the importance of their own value, and refuses to accept anything less than what they deserve.

To determine whether the relationships in your life are negatively affecting your mental health, and if you are setting healthy boundaries, Young shares her three rules for overcoming boundary issues:

  1. Recognize that boundaries are a choice.

    Setting boundaries represents a simple choice. The first option is to establish the boundary, opting for a short period of discomfort during which the boundary is communicated and the other person is given an opportunity to react. The second choice is not to express the boundary at all. If you choose this road, you’re really choosing resentment, as that’s the natural outcome of repression.

    Distilling the options down to two distinct choices ultimately makes the decision easier. When the available options are momentary discomfort or prolonged resentment, it’s plain to see that setting the initial boundary is the right choice.

  2. Have a mantra.

    Once you’ve recognized the need to set boundaries, devise a mantra for real-life situations that you may encounter. Practice saying that mantra over and over, especially in front of a mirror, until you’re comfortable using it in real life. Keep that mantra in your back pocket so it can be pulled out any time you need it.

    For example, you may be the one person in your workplace who never says “no” to taking on a new project, no matter how overwhelmed you are with your current workload. Try this simple mantra: “I can’t, I’m too busy.” You may find that these five simple words empower you to set boundaries in your work life and beyond.

  3. Exercise the 24-hour rule.

    If you’ve taken the above steps but continue to struggle with boundary setting, or your desire to please is especially entrenched, Young suggests the 24-hour rule: simply allow 24 hours before making any decision that may affect your mental health.

    Instead of immediately accepting a work project, for example, say “I’m not sure if I can do that. I’ll look at my calendar and get back to you tomorrow.” Once you’ve created distance from the issue, you will be able to take a more clear-headed approach, ultimately deciding whether saying “yes” will serve your authentic needs. If not, you know what to do: employ your mantra and decline the request.

    Almost everyone can benefit from setting better boundaries, whether in love, at home or at work. Employing Young’s key strategies is a simple way to move in a positive direction, avoiding resentment and earning respect in the process.