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Establishing Boundaries: Essential or Selfish?

By Chapel Taylor-Olsen, BA and Dr. Ashley YaugherGirls holding flowers

It’s often said that having healthy personal boundaries is important, but is it selfish to consider your own needs when someone wants something from you? What are healthy boundaries and how do we set them? 

Personal boundaries are the rules and limits that we set for ourselves in relationships. They help us take care of and protect ourselves emotionally and physically while also considering and protecting the rights of others (Postolati, 2017;Selva, 2021). Being deliberate and assertive about our healthy boundaries lets us feel like we can say “no” when needed and are also comfortable opening up in close relationships (Therapist Aid, 2016). Setting boundaries may be difficult if we worry that people will get their feelings hurt or think we are selfish, but healthy boundaries are not selfish. In fact, they’re an essential part of self-care that can actually make our relationships stronger (Houston, 2019). 

Most of us have a mix of healthy and unhealthy boundaries (Therapist Aid, 2016). For instance, we might have healthy boundaries with our partner but unhealthy boundaries with our coworkers. Boundaries can look different for everyone. Healthy boundaries can look like asking for help or setting up expectations for chores around the house with those you live with. Unhealthy boundaries on the other hand might be too flexible and lead us to feel like we can never say “no” to a friend who is demanding our time or energy or be too rigid and lead to trouble trusting others, even people close to us. Unhealthy boundaries can impact every aspect of our lives making us feel stressed, financially burdened, or like we never have enough time. They may strain our relationships and leave us feeling taken advantage of or resentful (Houston, 2019; as cited in Selva, 2021). When we set boundaries to ensure that our own needs are met, we become better able to help people we care for (Cloud & Townsend, 2017; Glazer & Clark-Foster, 2019; Postolati, 2017). It’s important to realize that, “taking care of myself doesn’t mean ‘me first’ it means ‘me too’” (as cited in Glazer & Clark-Foster, 2019, p. 207). Setting boundaries is healthy and can be accomplished with four steps and some practice.

Four Steps for Setting Healthy Boundaries in Any Relationship

1. Identify -

Spend some time thinking about your current boundaries. Which ones are working and not working? What do you want from your relationships (e.g., your partner, your coworker, family members)? See the additional resources below for links to worksheets that may help.

2. Talk it Out -

Once you know what your boundaries are, communicate them directly and unapologetically (Selva, 2021; Cleantis, 2020). Examples of practical boundaries might include I statements that you communicate with those in your relationship like: “I want to know when you will be coming home late” with a partner; “I expect you to keep private information I share  confidential” with a family member; “I am not able to help with tasks that you were assigned” with a coworker; or “I need privacy online so I will only share with close friends or family members on social media” to acquaintances (Selva, 2021; Cleantis, 2020).  

3. Keep it Simple -

Everyone has the right to decide for themselves what their boundaries are. Don’t feel that you need to over explain your boundaries or justify why you are setting them (Kairn, 1992). 

4. Establish Consequences -

Tell others why this matters to you and set up what will happen if this boundary is crossed. If someone crosses a boundary, let them know that what they have done is not okay (Houston, 2019; Selva, 2021)

Setting healthy personal boundaries does not create distance between you and the people you care about; rather they help you have healthier, more sustainable relationships and more connection (Houston, 2019). Boundaries are not selfish; talking about and setting them is part of healthy relationships.

Additional Resources

*All of the information and resources provided here are for educational purposes. Utah State University (USU) does not endorse or control any of the websites, worksheets, or articles referenced.