“Boundary-setting” seems to be the new buzzword across social media platforms like TikTok, but what does boundary setting mean, and why is it so important? Setting boundaries and communicating them effectively sets the foundation for a healthy relationship. In college, you are creating relationships of all kinds — friendships, romances, roommates, and professional relationships. Setting boundaries helps define expectations of yourself and others in your different kinds of relationships.
What are Boundaries?
Boundaries are an invisible line that defines what behaviors are acceptable for a person. They can be physical (e.g., please do not touch me) or emotional (e.g., please do not raise your voice at me). It’s up to you to decide what boundaries feel safe and when. This may differ from person to person, too– maybe you are comfortable with your roommate giving you a hug unprompted, but not a classmate you just met.
Boundaries are mediated by differences in culture, personality, and social context. For instance, appropriate boundaries in class are likely very different than appropriate boundaries at a party. Consider how your boundaries may differ from others as you meet folks from diverse walks of life throughout your college experience (and beyond). Boundaries are also fluid, and can change based on your comfort level, time, and context. For example, you may typically be okay with friends texting or calling you late at night, but during exams, you need your sleep and might set the boundary with friends that they should not reach out to you past 10:00 pm unless there is an emergency.
We can categorize boundaries in 6 broad categories: physical, intellectual, emotional, sexual, time, and material:
- Physical boundaries encompass touch, personal space, and your physical needs. This can include how/when you are touched as well as who can touch you.
- Intellectual boundaries include respect for others’ ideas and awareness of appropriate discussion (e.g. not discussing politics with a certain friend group because it frequently devolves into an argument).
- Emotional boundaries enable you to discern where your emotions end and another person’s emotions begin. This type of boundary also gives you the ability to witness others’ emotions without taking their emotions into your bubble as your responsibility to react to, fix, or solve.
- Sexual boundaries refer to how people touch your body, how people see your body, and how people treat you in sexual situations. This includes consent related to anything sexual in nature, such as sexual or sexually suggestive words, jokes, images, gestures, or touch.
- Time boundaries help you to understand your priorities and set aside enough time for the many areas of your life without overcommitting.
- Material boundaries refer to money and possessions. Creating material boundaries involves setting limits on what you will share, and with whom.
How to Set Boundaries
The key to setting boundaries is to be assertive, but what does being assertive mean, and what does it look like? Being assertive is often confused with being aggressive, but the two are actually very different! When we are assertive in our communication, we are clear and firm in what we are asking for, while still maintaining respect for others.
Tips for assertively setting boundaries:
- Be as clear and straightforward as possible in what you are asking for. Confrontation can be scary, and it’s natural to want to stall or be indirect. Fight against that urge! You want to make sure the other person clearly understands what your boundaries are and what you are trying to communicate.
- Use open body language and make eye contact. So much of communication is nonverbal, and body language like crossing your arms or getting really close to the person will likely come off as more aggressive. Keeping body language open shows that you are direct but not rude, and is likely to be met with a more positive response. For example, keep your hands by your side rather than crossing your arms, keep your legs uncrossed, and make eye contact. Be mindful of avoiding passive body language like shrinking yourself to look smaller, hunching your back, fiddling with clothing/jewelry/hair, and lack of eye contact.
- Do not raise your voice. It is okay to be stern, direct, and firm in setting boundaries; however, watch the tone and volume of your voice — raising your voice or using an angry tone can lead to the other person becoming defensive and less likely to hear and respect your boundaries.
- State your need/request directly and phrase it in terms of what you’d like, rather than what you don’t like. For example, if your roommate keeps borrowing your clothes without asking, saying “Hey, please ask me when you want to borrow something of mine” is going to be better received than “Don’t take my clothes without asking me first.”
Empowering Yourself to Set Boundaries with Others
While setting boundaries is crucial to maintaining healthy relationships, it can be a daunting task. Show yourself compassion if you find yourself nervous to set a boundary with someone or worrying about how they are going to respond. Remind yourself that your needs are important and deserve to be met!
Take some time to reflect on what your limits are with others, and how these boundaries will manifest in your relationships.. Forming an idea in your head of what your boundaries are and how they may look in different relationships will make it easier to have those boundary-setting conversations.
Start small! No one expects us to be boundary-setting experts right off the bat, and practicing communicating boundaries is going to make you more confident and comfortable. Choose a low risk boundary to set with a trusted person in your life — maybe your best friend always steals your French fries off your tray at the dining hall, and while it’s not the biggest bother in the world, you wish they would ask first. You could approach this situation by saying “I don’t mind sharing food with you, but I would appreciate it if you would ask first next time.” Then, you can build yourself up to setting “bigger” boundaries with others.
Finally, remember that you are responsible for your words, actions, and reactions — and you are not responsible for anyone else’s. Some people may not respond positively to you setting boundaries and/or will continue to violate your boundaries. Their reactions are not your responsibility. Lean on trusted supports for help in how to address when others don’t respect your boundaries. Seek out friends, family, professors, RAs, and mental health professionals to help explore how you wish to proceed when someone does not respect your boundaries.
College is a time of meeting new people and finding your place in the campus community. With that comes the need for clear boundaries to ensure your safety and comfort in the new relationships you will foster. Remember, setting boundaries is the ultimate form of self-care, and paves the way for meaningful, genuine, and healthy relationships.
If you’re struggling with setting boundaries and would like professional support, therapy can help! See more information about Maren Panzirer or use our scheduling form to schedule your first appointment!
- Understanding the Six Types of Boundaries, PESI (infographic)
- Boundaries: What are They and How to Create Them, University of Illinois–Chicago Wellness Center
- 7 Tips to Create Healthy Boundaries with Others, Psychology Today
- How to Set Healthy Boundaries & Build Positive Relationships, PositivePsychology.com