How To Set Healthy Boundaries


5 Therapist-Approved Strategies To Work Through The Discomfort Of Setting Boundaries

If you’ve ever felt that setting a boundary is “selfish” or “mean,” you are certainly not alone. 

From a young age we are constantly learning the importance of making others feel comfortable. This is especially true if you grew up in a household that did not have clear and consistent boundaries. 

For example, maybe you lived with a parent who used substances and your house felt chaotic and unpredictable, or maybe you grew up in an overly tight knit family where family needs were prioritized over personal needs.

Either way, if you grew up without clear and consistent boundaries you are likely conditioned to think of others before yourself. Because of that, boundaries may not come naturally and may even make you feel bad or guilty. 

Why Do Boundaries Make Me Uncomfortable?

There can be many reasons why you might feel uncomfortable with boundaries, but let’s explore the top 3.

  1. Healthy boundaries were never modeled to you as a child. How are you supposed to know how to set a boundary if you have never seen a loved one do that? As children, we learn how to move through the world based on what we see the people around us do. So, if you saw your parents or loved ones taking on more responsibilities than they should, feeling obligated to always help others, or consistently people-pleasing, then you may fall into the trap of doing the same thing.
  2. You do not have the language to express your needs. The internet is filled with examples of healthy boundaries and how to set them; but for a lot of people, the language does not feel right or sounds too harsh. This can lead you to think boundary setting is not for you simply because you do not resonate with how others do it.
  3. Boundaries may feel too extreme because you are used to taking responsibility for other people’s feelings. It is human nature to be attuned to others’ needs and caring for loved ones. But a line needs to be drawn when you “feel bad” for setting your boundary; because what that really means is that you would rather feel bad than make another person feel bad.

The Importance Of Setting Boundaries

To reduce feelings of discomfort or guilt, it can be helpful to better understand why setting boundaries is a good skill to practice.

Boundaries are the limits we set for ourselves within relationships. Think of boundaries like invisible property lines – they define where our property begins and ends. Boundaries help keep things that will nurture us inside our fence and things that will harm us outside our fence. 

As author Brene Brown says, “Boundaries tell us what is ok and what is not ok.” 

Boundaries also help us feel empowered and give us the space to exercise our right to personal power. Having healthy boundaries often leads to more emotional balance, peace of mind, more time to prioritize personal needs, and improved relationships.

How To Set Healthy Boundaries

Become an observer to your stress

During times of conflict, it’s common to make reactionary decisions based on how you are feeling. For example, if you are upset at a friend, you may yell or get defensive in the heat of the moment. This is a reaction because it is the automatic response that arises when you feel triggered. 

Instead, rather than reacting to a situation, the goal is to learn how to respond to the situation. A response is different from a reaction in that it requires a thoughtful reply involving a healthy expression of emotions and boundaries. 

For example, if you are upset at a friend, rather than reacting by yelling and getting defensive, you may respond by removing yourself from the situation or taking some time to think about what happened and how you feel, and then respectfully asking your friend to talk about it.

It can be easy to get caught up in emotions, but the more you practice becoming an observer of your stress, the more responsive you’ll become. 

Imagine a good friend is sharing the same stress or conflict you have. What advice would you give them? Often, it is easier to give helpful advice to a friend because you are in the observer position. Therefore, take more time to sit back and observe how you are feeling with your stress.

Practice out loud or write it out

Since boundaries can cause anxiety, it’s common to ruminate over what the other person will say, create hypothetical situations about your relationship, or fear their emotional reaction. 

To curb these anxious feelings, practice saying your boundaries out loud when you are alone. Get comfortable expressing yourself, hearing your thoughts, and finding your voice. If talking out loud is challenging, try writing it down instead. Allowing yourself to externalize your thoughts will help you process and plan your next steps.

Reflect on your upbringing

Whether we like it or not, our upbringing deeply impacts the way we move through the world and particularly influences the ways we receive and deal with conflict. 

During childhood, we begin to develop coping skills and defense mechanisms to help us get through all the things we experience. These are habits, behaviors, and thinking patterns that protect us and help us survive the hardships we go through. 

However, as we grow and get older, the same coping mechanisms that once protected us may later hold us back or even get in the way of the life we want. This is why it’s important to reflect on our upbringing so that we can start to gain more clarity and understanding around how it impacts who we are today. 

Take a moment to think about your childhood, how you dealt with stress and conflict when you were growing up, and how you deal with it now. Then ask yourself, “are these coping skills working for me? Are there alternative ways I would like to deal with my relationships? What boundaries might I set to help create better emotional balance?”

Expanding your emotional vocabulary

Think back to the type of language or communication style that was used in your household. Was it harsh? Direct? Passive? Aggressive? Compassionate? How do you feel when that type of language is used?

Expanding your emotional vocabulary is crucial. The more ways you can express your thoughts, the more your relationships will flourish.

One strategy to help expand your emotional vocabulary is to write down all the ways in which you see your favorite tv characters, friends, role models, authors, teachers, or mentors express themselves. What words do they use that resonate with you? Make a note of them and practice using those words daily to help you identify the language or communication style that best fits who you are today.

Discomfort is part of the process

Practice, practice, practice. The only way you will get more comfortable with setting boundaries is by practicing. 

If it makes you uncomfortable or anxious, start off small, such as telling the barista your order is wrong, or telling the receptionist that you will call later to set up an appointment instead of taking whatever appointment is available. Practicing boundaries with people who are not close connections in your life can help build self-confidence to implement them with people who are. 

Therapy In Orange County

Often, the anxiety and anticipation of boundary setting is much worse than the act itself. The people who truly love and support you will understand and will want what’s best for you. Use the skills above to start practicing setting boundaries in your everyday life and see how empowered, nurtured, and balanced you begin to feel. 

For additional support from a licensed therapist, contact Orange County Health Psychologists by calling 949.528.6300 or emailing

-Written by Dr. Sharline Shah for Orange County Health Psychologists