5 Rules for Setting Healthy Boundaries

So much suffering in life comes down to unhealthy boundaries:

  • The decades of resentment and lost intimacy accumulated because you’ve “tolerated” your spouse’s bad habits
  • The stress and burnout at work because you habitually “compromise” with your manager about workloads
  • The chronic worry and anxiety that comes from “just going with the flow” and never speaking up for yourself

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

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

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


1. Be hyper-specific with your boundaries

Vague boundaries don’t work.

Suppose you want your mother to stop calling you complaining about your father every day. Telling her that she should see a therapist instead of unloading all her baggage onto you is a fine idea, but it’s not a boundary.

A good clear boundary in this situation might be something like this:

Mom, I don’t want to hear you complain about dad anymore. If you call me and start complaining about dad, I will politely say goodbye and then hang up the phone.

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

What’s more, notice that it’s specific in the sense of concrete actions and behaviors: If X specific action happens, Y specific action will result.

I could give you a hundred and one reasons why specific boundaries are better than vague ones. But what matters is that specific boundaries are much more likely to work than vague ones.

If you want your boundaries to be effective, make them crystal clear.

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

Suppose you want your manager to stop emailing and texting you “urgent” to-do items in the evenings and on weekends.

You could set a perfectly clear boundary:

James, per company policy, I will not be responding to work-related emails outside of official work hours. I will respond to them as soon as possible when I’m back in the office.

But if you don’t enforce that boundary, what’s the point? If you see their “urgent” email at 10:00 pm just as you’re getting into bed, then decide to open it, read it, and finally respond to it because the thought of not responding makes you anxious, your crystal clear boundary hasn’t done a bit of good.

Actually, you’ve made things worse…

When you set boundaries but fail to enforce them, you teach people not to respect your boundaries.

Think about it: How seriously would you take some else’s boundaries if they never enforced them or stood up for them?

So before you set your wonderfully clear boundary, just make sure you’re willing to do the really hard work of enforcing that boundary when the time comes.

3. 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 people aren’t influenced by positive reinforcement and reward too.

While it’s essential to be clear when you set your boundaries, and consistent in your enforcement of them, it’s really helpful if you reward people for respecting them.

While rewards often aren’t enough to get people to respect your boundaries initially, they can do wonders at getting them to maintain respect for them over time. Praise in particular is often especially helpful as a reward for a boundary well-respected.

For example:

  • Let’s say your teenage son keeps taking the keys to your car to hang out with friends despite the fact that you’ve asked him to ask your permission first.
  • You set a clear boundary that if he takes the car again without asking, he’ll lose driving privileges for a month.
  • Sure enough, he does it again. And you, like a true boundary expert, follow through on enforcing that boundary by taking away his use of the car for a month.
  • The next month, your son comes to you and says, “Hey mom, can I take the car to go hang out at Ben’s house?” YES!! This is the outcome all your boundary setting (and enforcing) has built toward. Enjoy your moment of success! But don’t forget to reinforce this newly established boundary respect.
  • Maybe you reply with a warm smile and say, “Sure, honey. And by the way, I really appreciate you asking first.”
  • It seems like a small thing, but human beings (even teenage boys) have a soft spot for authentic verbal praise. Use it!

If you want healthy boundaries that last, it’s worth taking a little time to reward people when things go well.

4. Avoid moralizing your boundaries

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

Here’s 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 started ruminating on how unfair it is that this is even an issue at all… Why can’t he just be a mature adult and accept my request without me having to set boundaries? He’s like a child! If only I’d married…
  • After just 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 at him.”
  • Consequently, her husband “blew up” at her in response and then promptly refused to respect that boundary anymore and went back to his sarcastic ways.

Because my client framed the issue in moral terms—“I shouldn’t have to… He should know better than to…”—her goal of getting her husband to be less sarcastic failed despite getting off to a good start.

But she was right! It’s not her fault that he’s got the emotional maturity of a 15-year-old.

Of course she was. But what good did it do her? Nothing. In fact, it made it worse.

Right or wrong, other people sometimes don’t treat us well. Instead of wailing and gnashing your teeth about how unfair it is, you’ve got a decision: Either leave or do what you can to improve the situation with better boundaries.

And if you choose the latter option, it’s likely to be much better for everyone if you avoid moralizing about what should or shouldn’t be and stay focused on what is.

5. Clarify the why behind your boundaries

Trying to improve unhealthy boundaries can be exhausting and emotionally taxing. Which, of course, is one of the biggest reasons people avoid doing it or fail to do it well.

For example:

You set a boundary with one of your employees about not being late to work. But when they’re late again and violate the boundary, you hesitate to enforce it… If I do put them on probation, they might complain to HR and it’ll turn into a giant, time-consuming mess of paperwork and meetings. Maybe I should just let it slide?

You’re already feeling stressed just imaging all the negative consequences of enforcing the boundary on your tardy employee. And you can feel yourself about to give in when…

You remember why you really care about this boundary in the first place:

My company is a team. And for a team to be successful, everyone has to do their part. If I don’t enforce this totally reasonable boundary I’m enabling and contributing to an unhealthy culture. And eventually, that impacts everyone from other employees to investors to our customers. That’s why it’s important to enforce this boundary.

Stress and difficult emotions often pull us to give up on our boundaries. The solution is to “outcompete” that pull with a force that has even greater pull: your values.

When you take a moment to remind yourself of the big picture and why it really matters to set and enforce your boundaries, you’ll be amazed at how much more emotional difficulty you can tolerate.


All You Need to Know

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

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

  1. Be hyper-specific with your boundaries
  2. Don’t set boundaries you’re not willing to enforce
  3. Give praise when your boundaries are respected
  4. Avoid moralizing your boundaries
  5. Clarify the why behind your boundaries

11 Comments

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Brilliant, thank you Nick! What about pushback, if someone is scornful when you set a boundary, so you have to deal w the emotional fall-out of THAT…?

Thanks Mandy!

Yup, I think pushback in some form or another is almost inevitable. So you have to be prepared to tolerate whatever difficult emotions comes from that. What’s more, you might need to set boundaries on the pushback behavior. And finally, it’s possible that the pushback is extreme/abusive/etc, in which case you always have to be prepared to put more extreme limits on the relationships, even ending it if necessary.

I would change number 3. I have recently moved away from rebuking and praising. The external loci of evaluation does not give rise to a horizontal interpersonal relationship. Positive reinforcement can be intrusive and insensitive just as harsh rebuking can be damaging and dangerous. I have tried to adopt a position of gratitude : I felt so much better when you were able to consider me by you asking me if you could use the car or consequence: I find your continuing sarcastic comments towards me, when I have told you how much it upsets me, leaves me very disappointed in you.
Assertiveness in setting your boundaries is is often seen as being critical. My newly found perspective is beginning to be helpful but not infallible.
If those people do not respond to your boundaries and constantly violate them at work or home do have to face the consequences of their actions. This may mean you look forward another job or you leave the relationship. Sanctions may help in the interim or even rewards social and tangible but ultimately it is the intrinsic reward to the other person that will make the difference. A more content and reassured mum, work colleague or wife. If they disrespect you enough to want to perpetuate the damage their behaviour is doing it is time to take actions to ensure you are not only have boundaries but safeguarded.

I think extrinsic rewards can sometimes lead to intrinsic ones.

Good thoughts, Marion!

Perfect article to pass on to my “next generation” struggling to enforce boundaries with my grandkids! Thanks Nick. A great reminder for me too!!

Putting a boundary on work relationship with my boss has not been easy. She has added victimisation to the list.
I hope I can have a strong hold on setting boundaries before my next job.
Thanks Nick.

Really useful, thank you. Particularly like the point where when you don’t enforce a boundary you have set, it teaches others not to respect you.

I sincerely need this right now. I need to study which is really important tk me bug not others. The pushback is draining and I feel angry all time.

Waow, this just came in my time of need, I’ve been trying to set boundaries with a lot of people but I sometimes compromise because I fear they might get annoyed. Thanks Nick

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