Establishing healthy boundaries with friends and loved ones can be challenging. We are often scared to set boundaries for fear of offending others, disappointing others, or challenging the level of connection we feel in those relationships through saying "no". However, NOT setting healthy boundaries that honor one's limits can lead to resentment, burn-out, avoidance, emotional fatigue, and strained relationships which in turn hurt the relationships we were trying originally to protect. Boundaries actually allow healthy relationships to thrive and invite both parties to show up as their best selves owning and honoring their individual needs and limitations.
When setting healthy boundaries with friends and loved ones that you would like to preserve, maintain and strengthen a connection with, consider the following 3 simple steps.
As we consider these 3 steps and their corresponding examples, we are going to assume that you are being asked to do something that you are either not comfortable with, you do not have the emotional reserves for, isn't the right choice for you to participate in, or you are simply choosing to say no.
1. Express Gratitude: Prior to setting a firm and clear boundary, it can be supportive to express honest and sincere gratitude towards the person you will be setting a boundary with. This step fosters acknowledgment, connection, and appreciation.
Sample Scenario: Someone asks you to participate in an event that you simply do not have the emotional time or energy to participate in.
"I really want to thank you for thinking of me as someone who might want to participate."
"I appreciate the invitation, it makes me feel included and thought of."
"Thank you for reaching out and considering me to participate."
"I'm flattered that you would consider me to participate."
It's important that if you express gratitude that it is honest and sincere so that it will ideally be received as genuine.
2. Establish Clear Boundary: Boundaries at their core are a simple declaration of what you are or are not comfortable with or able to do. When establishing a boundary clearly own your truth, your limitation, or your comfort level without giving into the temptation to apologize, make an excuse, justify your boundary, or overly explain your situation. We often share more information than we need to with individuals who haven't earned a right to that level of vulnerability in hopes to justify our limits. I'm going to invite you to be simple, kind, and firm in your approach to stating boundaries and challenge the need to overshare and/or over justify. You can also express what you are able to do in relation to what's being asked to see if that is an option. This allows you to set a boundary that honors your limits while offering an alternative that works for you.
Sample Scenario: Someone you love asks you to attend an event that isn't the right choice for your emotional, mental, or spiritual health.
"I'm unable to attend"
"Attending isn't the right choice for me"
"I'm not comfortable with attending"
"Coming isn't the right choice for my mental health right now"
"I am not able to participate at this time"
"I can't make it"
"Attending doesn't work for me"
"I won't be coming"
"I'm not able to come to the event but would love to meet up afterward"
If individuals press you for more information or wonder "why?", you can simply repeat the boundary in another way or consider what level of information feels right for you to share, that might sound like: "that's personal" or "That's all I'm comfortable sharing at this time" or "That's private." If you would like an opportunity to discuss in more detail the reasons for your boundary you could suggest a conversation at a time and place that works well for you that sets you up for the greatest amount of success in that conversation. That could sound like: "I'd be happy to talk more in person about my inability to participate. Let's find a time this week during the day to connect in-person and talk."
3. Establish Importance of Relationship: To secure and reinforce that the relationship between your friends and loved ones are important to you, and not challenged by the boundary created, consider finishing a boundary statement by creating an opportunity for reconnection and/or a reminder of the significance of the relationship.
Sample Scenario: A family member wants you to get involved in a family situation that you're simply not comfortable talking about or getting involved in due to past family drama.
Sample Responses: "I'm so glad you know you can talk to me about anything. (gratitude). I'm not comfortable talking about this specific situation, I'm trying really hard not to get involved to protect my own wellness (boundary). I would, however, love to get together for tea next Tuesday and talk about how your recent trip to Hawaii went, I love our talks about travel - they always leave me uplifted and excited (fostering connection)."
Other sample responses that foster connection and honor the significance of the relationship include:
"I will miss the opportunity to connect with you on (date of event or experience you won't be participating in). Could we schedule a time to get together soon? I would really love to get caught up."
"I love you, thanks again for reaching out and thinking of me, it makes me feel loved and seen."
"I am so lucky to have you in my life, thank you for considering me, will you ask me again at a later date to participate, I might be able to then?"
"Our friendship means a great deal to me, thank you for reaching out, please know I'm here for you too."
"Thank you for honoring where I'm at, I love you and appreciate our friendship."
"Thanks for thinking of me, I'll call this week to get caught up."
"While I'm not comfortable with (name what was asked of you), I am able to do (name what you are capable or comfortable doing), and I'd like to support and honor the significance of our relationship."
For additional examples, here are some sample scenarios and responses with all three steps shown. Remeber when you're creating your own boundaries use words and phrases that feel honest and authentic to you.
Sample Scenario: You are asked to particpate in an experience or trip with friends you can't afford without causing financial strain and stress.
Sample Response: Thank you for the invite, it makes me feel loved and included. I'm not able to afford to come this time.* Let's get toether when you get back and grab a quick lunch (reinforce relationship).
*Notice how the person didn't applogize for not being able to afford the experience or share an excuse why they can't afford it - simple and clear with no need to apologize.
Sample Scenario: You're asked to particpate in a fundraiser you would love to support the cause and person but doing so will truly limit your ability to be there for other obligations that need your time and attention at the moment.
Sample Response: I am so glad you thought of me. I really support your work and believe in the cause. Right now participating is not the right choice for me. However, would you be willing to reach out again in a month or two if you are still in need? I might be in a different position then. Know I love and support you and am flattered you thought of me!
Sample Scenario: You are asked to attend a religous family event that is not the right choice for you to attend.
Sample Response: I love how inclusive you are, and that you always invite everyone in the family to church events. I won't be coming to (name the event)
but would be able to meet up afterwards. I would love to show my support of your family in ways that honor my ability to. Let me know if that works well for you. Once again, thanks for thinking for inviting me, it makes me feel loved and included!
I want to acknowledge that while these three steps are simple, re-establishing healthy boundaries with loved ones that were previously unhealthy or lacked boundaries can be anything but simple, and often individuals experience a great deal of pushback once they begin establishing healthier boundaries, especailly with loved ones. As you practice these three steps notice what response you get back from those you are setting boundaries with. Give yourself permission to take ownership in the boundary creation and maintaining boundaries while allowing others the responsiblity to show up and honor those boundaries. It takes two willing participants to have boundaries created and respected.
Feel free to comment and let us know how we can support you in creating and maintaining healthy boundaries with friends and loved ones.
Sara Hughes-Zabawa, LMSW has extensive experience working with trauma survivors, depression & anxiety, LGBT+ individuals and their families, and faith transitions. She is also a yoga instructor and uses mindfulness training to support clients in cultivating self-care practices.