5 Rules for Setting Healthy Boundaries

So much suffering in life is reduced to unhealthy limits:

The decades of resentment and loss of intimacy built up because you “tolerated” your spouse’s bad habits.

Stress and burnout at work because you routinely “compromise” with your boss about workloads
The chronic worry and anxiety that comes from “just going with the flow” and never speaking up for oneself

And while most people know that better boundaries are key to healthier relationships, they’re also essential to your own emotional health and well-being.

So whether your goal is to improve an important relationship in your life or to increase your own well-being, learning to set better boundaries is critical.

Here are 5 principles to help you create healthier boundaries in your life.

Be hyper-specific with your boundaries

Suppose you want your mom to stop calling you to complain about your dad every day. Telling her that she should see a therapist instead of unloading all her baggage with you is a good idea, but it’s not a limit.

A good clear boundary in this situation might look like this:

Mom, I don’t want to hear you complain about Dad anymore. If you call me and start complaining about Dad, I’ll politely say goodbye and hang up.

Notice how specific it is, both in terms of input (what the other person does) and output (what you will do in response).

Don’t set boundaries you’re not willing to enforce

Suppose you want your manager to stop emailing and texting you for “urgent” tasks at night and on weekends.

You can set a perfectly clear boundary:

James, it is company policy that I will not respond to work-related emails outside of official business hours. I will reply to you as soon as possible when I am back in the office.

But if you don’t enforce that limit, what’s the point? If you see your “urgent” email at 10 p.m., when you go to bed, decide to open it, read it, and finally respond because the thought of not responding makes you anxious, your crystal-clear boundary didn’t do any good.

Give praise when your boundaries are respected

Unfortunately, many people will only change their behavior if there are consequences for that behavior, hence the first two points above. But that doesn’t mean that people aren’t influenced by positive reinforcement and rewards as well.

While it’s essential to be clear about setting boundaries and consistent in enforcing them, it’s really helpful to reward people for respecting them.

Avoid moralizing your boundaries

Many well-intentioned boundaries don’t work because people frame them as a moral issue of right and wrong.

Here is an example from a woman I worked with several years ago:

After setting and enforcing a clear boundary with her partner about sarcastic comments, she began to reflect on how unfair it is that this is an issue… Why can’t she be a mature adult and accept my request without me having to? define? Boundaries? It’s like a child! If I had gotten married…

After only a few minutes of this, she was so angry and bitter that she confronted her husband about it and, in her own words, “blew up on him.”

Consequently, her husband “exploded” at her in response and then refused to respect that boundary and returned to his sarcastic ways.

All you need to know

Setting better boundaries is essential to the health of our relationships, as well as our own emotional health.

If you want to get better at setting healthy limits, remember these 5 rules:

  • Be hyperspecific with your boundaries
  • Do not set limits that you are not willing to impose.
  • Praise when limits are respected
  • Avoid moralizing your limits
  • Clarify the why behind your limits