The Importance of Boundaries in Relationships


By Tracey Lynn Pearson, MSW, PLMHP
CSN Contributor, Social Worker and Licensed Mental Health Professional

“I just feel like I have to,” Cheryl explained. She was frustrated. “I already feel like I have no friends; if I say no, I’ll lose my last friend. Do I want to spend my only day off from work and caring for my brother helping her move? No I don’t. But I feel like I’m a bad person if I say no. It honestly seems easier to just say yes and deal with all the stress and be exhausted.”

Most of us have experienced a similar situation. It can be frustrating and exhausting. When our lives involve caregiving or other major life changes we may have to reevaluate or realign the boundaries of our current relationships. These are natural and normal times to adjust boundaries. In the situation above, Cheryl has a relationship with her friend, but she is not responsible for her.

A boundary is simply a limit or a line that differentiates our job from someone else’s job. Because we can’t do everything, boundaries help us determine what is our responsibility and what is not. Boundaries work like a fence: They help keep in the good and keep out the bad. Cheryl was afraid that imposing a boundary would make her friend angry and that she would lose out on something good. However, boundaries, while they seem restricting, actually give us freedom. By saying no, Cheryl is not giving up her friendship or forcing herself to live a life that is friendless. Setting boundaries is not cutting people out of our lives. Setting boundaries creates more freedom and prevents us from living tired, resentful, and frustrated lives.

In this situation, Cheryl should kindly and respectfully say that she cannot help her friend move at this time.

What often happens for us is that we tell ourselves a story about what will happen if we set boundaries. When you find yourself thinking this way, remind yourself that this is just a story; it has not actually happened. When we assume the outcome, we are actually judging the other individual and making decisions based on a false scenario. We are not allowing the other person room to grow, mature, learn, etc. More important, how your friend responds to the boundary is not your concern. Our responsibility stops at us. We can only be responsible for our own feelings and actions.

As an alternative, Cheryl could offer to go over the night after the move with a bottle of wine to help unpack a few boxes. Her friend may find this a very acceptable or even preferable alternative to moving.

When we do not set boundaries we actually add more stress and worry to our lives, blocking us from living free. In the New York Times bestselling book, Boundaries, Dr. Henry McCloud and Dr. John Townsend identify two myths that often prevent people from establishing them:

  • Myth #1: Boundaries are selfish.
  • Myth #2: If I set boundaries I will hurt others.

Here are a few other suggestions for setting boundaries:

Say no simply and firmly. You should not overexplain. You have the right to say no. Do not let others put their responsibilities on you.

When you do say no, take responsibility for you; don’t focus on others or the emotion. In the example above, Cheryl could say, “I am not able to help you move on Friday.” She should avoid making excuses, bringing up problems in the relationship, etc.

It is important to remember that healthy boundaries are part of a healthy and happy life. Boundaries help you protect the good things in your life, like peace, joy, contentment, and rest. Without boundaries we can lose sight of ourselves and the things we are passionate about. Boundaries are about what is our responsibility. We are responsible to ourselves – to our joy, to our peace.

About Tracey Lynn Pearson, MSW, PLMHP

A mental health practitioner, life coach, and ordained minister, Tracey has nearly 30 years of experience  ministering and counseling children, women, and families. She is professionally trained in trauma, EMDR therapy, and integrates elements of cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness into her work. She continues to serve in leadership capacities with organizations that work with teenagers in the foster care and the juvenile justice system, and has spent more than 20 years working in counseling settings with 3-12-year-old children, families and women.