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Each person must decide where they draw the line between preserving their privacy, at least from those with whom they are not intimate, and letting others in. To maintain those lines, they erect boundaries and work to preserve them. Some individuals are more vigilant, and even aggressive, about their firewalls, which can lead to discomfort, if not conflict, with others. But in general, setting healthy boundaries can be a way of preserving one's mental health and well-being.

Setting Boundaries

Setting boundaries means, first of all, knowing what one wants and expects from the people in their life, and what they’ll accept from them—and then clearly, concisely, and calmly stating those ground rules. For many, though, this is harder than it seems.

Why do some people struggle to set boundaries?

Individuals who don’t set boundaries with the people in their lives may believe that they are less worthy than others, and that their needs are less deserving of attention. They may shy away from telling others that they’ve violated their boundaries because they fear the social consequences. If such a pattern continues, they may lose sight of their own wants and needs.

How can a people-pleaser set boundaries?

Someone who consistently sets their needs aside to accommodate the needs or demands of others may be a people-pleaser. This is not a clinical diagnosis, but it describes a personality type characterized by low self-worth, assertiveness, and self-awareness, and a tendency to overapologize, take the blame when not at fault, and overvalue the praise of others. With help, often involving therapy, a people-pleaser can begin to assert themselves, make others understand their limits, and begin putting their own needs first.

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The Most Challenging Boundaries

Some boundaries are relatively easy to establish: Telling a child not to touch a parent's computer, for example, or asking a co-worker not to leave their things on one's desk. Others can seem daunting, such as telling a parent they can't drop in to see a grandchild at any time, or asking a partner to respect their daily exercise time. Insisting that close friends or family members honor a boundary one knows they may not agree with is a challenge, but to preserve one's balance and well-being, it's often essential.

How can partners maintain boundaries within a marriage or romantic relationship?

Some of the hardest boundaries to set are within one’s closest relationship. One partner can violate the other’s boundaries by disclosing private information to others without approval, not honoring their work schedule, or even touching them in ways they don’t appreciate. With well-established boundaries, though, a couple can thrive. Partners must clearly state a boundary, enforce it by reminding the other when they’ve violated it, and not to reward boundary-crossing behavior.

What boundaries should people set after a breakup?

After a romantic relationship ends, one of both partners may resist completely letting go of their connection to the other, leading them to try to maintain a friendship, online communication, or even having sex. Experts suggest the key to a healthy parting is the establishment of strong, agreed-upon boundaries, based on an honest assessment of how much contact partners decide they’re comfortable with, and clear communication about it. But at least at first, research suggests, the healthiest boundary may be to take some time apart to evaluate next steps without pressure.

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