How to Set Boundaries to Protect Your Mental Health

Updated: May 28, 2021

Psychotherapists explain how to set boundaries with other people to empower yourself, improve your relationships, and protect your mental health.

Back in the fall, I came across a hot discussion on Twitter about setting boundaries with friends. The original poster referenced a text, in which a friend first asked if she had the emotional/mental capacity to cope with an issue before venting about it. The Tweet really stuck with me, and I immediately wished that everyone just automatically did this.

Why it’s important to set boundaries

I love my friends and family and I pride myself in always being there for them. But sometimes I’m dealing with my own stuff and not exactly in the headspace to help them out. I usually do it anyway, because I don’t want them to think I don’t care. (What is an empath? Find out more about this personality type.) But if we all just put out feelers before unloading on the people we love, maybe we’d feel a little less pressure to take on extra emotional work when we’re not in a good headspace for it.

Some people felt that this method—and the poster’s suggested template for telling someone else that you aren’t in a good place to listen to them—felt too sterile. I got to wondering, though, if maybe there was a way to do it right. After all, what the original poster was suggesting, at its core, was setting boundaries to protect your own mental health.

This is something we should think about year-round, but I’ve been thinking about how especially important it is to set boundaries now, in the time of Covid-19. We’re all stressed and overwhelmed and afraid and uncertain about what lies ahead. (Here are wellness expert tips for coping with coronavirus-related stress.) We want to help other people, but we also have to keep our own heads above water first.

Babita Spinelli, licensed psychotherapist and psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City and Northern New Jersey, tells me that this idea of setting boundaries has been coming up a lot in recent sessions with clients. The state of things has made it harder than ever to set boundaries in relationships and work, at a time when we arguably need to protect our mental and emotional well-being the most.

So, how can we do it right? What’s the best way to set our own boundaries with all of the various people in our lives and, conversely, respect other people’s boundaries, too? I asked mental health professionals to share their best advice.

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Why boundaries matter

Boundary-setting is an important part of taking care of your mental health. “If you don’t set boundaries, you end up doing a lot of things you don’t want to do and other people end up draining a lot of your energy and time,” says Stephanie Roth Goldberg, a licensed clinical social worker psychotherapy and founder of Intuitive Psychotherapy NYC.

It can also have a serious impact on your relationships. “When we have unhealthy boundaries, we end up feeling like we have to hold everyone else’s feelings but our own, and that leads to resentment, anger, anxiety, depression, and stress,” says Spinelli. On the flip side, setting boundaries—and not allowing others to make decisions for us or dictate how we feel—is empowering, she says.

Practice self-awareness

“The way I think about setting boundaries is that you have to set them with yourself first, otherwise, they’re really hard to enforce,” Goldberg says. If you know you’re not in the mental space to emotionally help someone else, you have to own that yourself first so that you can effectively communicate it. “Otherwise, it’s really easy to give up on that [boundary] and end up feeling depleted when you knew you didn’t have the emotional capacity to begin with,” says Goldberg.

Next time someone reaches out, look inside yourself and decide what boundary you need. “The first part is recognizing that it’s feeling like a bit much,” says Spinelli. “Take a pause and breathe and get in touch with what you need.” What is that person asking of you? What do you feel you can emotionally give to them right now? What’s your limit considering how you’re feeling?

(Here are some quotes about boundaries that will empower you to stand your ground.)

Protect your mental health

“Remind yourself that you do have a right to self-care,” says Spinelli. “A lot of people think they’re being selfish [when setting boundaries].” But it’s not selfish to give yourself time to breathe and keep your mental health top of mind when you’re interacting with other people.

What’s more, a friend or family member should respect that. “You have to realize your feelings matter and if you’re going to have relationships, what’s healthy is that they recognize it, too,” says Spinelli. “If they don’t, then you really have to look at what that’s about.” (These quotes will empower you to rise above a toxic relationship.)

If someone is testing your boundaries over and over again, it’s time to take a good hard look at that relationship, says Goldberg. Is this relationship satisfying and respectful? Or does it just feel like it’s sucking you dry and leaving you emotionally drained? “Once you start having people in your life who do respect your boundaries, it becomes a lot more clear who doesn’t—and it starts to not feel as good,” Goldberg says. (Here are some more red flags that you’re in a toxic friendship.)

Be honest and firm

If someone calls or texts and you’ve decided you don’t have the emotional capacity to talk to them right now, let them know. Be understanding, but also honest and firm. Goldberg suggests saying something like: “I saw you called. I’m really sorry I can’t call you back right now, I’ll call you when I can.”

It can be vague, she adds, or at little more revealing: “I’m having a hard day on my own and just need some space to clear my head.”

The more honest you feel comfortable being, the better. It requires an extra layer of vulnerability, Goldberg notes, but can help the other person understand that you’re not simply dismissing them. It’s also a good way to set a recurring boundary.

“Once you set a boundary by explaining more specifically—for example, a certain topic makes you uncomfortable because you’re going through something—you’re saying ‘This is what I’m ok with and this is what I’m not,'” Goldberg says.

Whatever you do, don’t lie. Lying always just makes things worse.

(Here are 13 phrases that set you up to make healthy boundaries.)

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If someone pushes back, don’t apologize

There will always be those people who push back when someone sets a boundary and says they can’t talk or take on someone else’s problems right now. “This is the part where it’s important to not apologize. Be empathic, but don’t say sorry,” says Spinelli. Remember that you cannot control their reaction. You don’t need to apologize for being honest and setting a boundary that works for you just because someone else is mad or trying to make you feel guilty.

“Remember to stay firm and not hold yourself accountable for their reaction,” says Spinelli. The reality is that how they interpret your boundary-setting is on them. “It’s not your responsibility to coddle someone else,” says Goldberg.

Try to set time-based boundaries

“If you’re feeling so overwhelmed and depleted because people are just constantly texting you to talk, but you don’t want to completely disconnect, try structuring a boundary to be a certain time of the week,” says Spinelli. She says this can be an especially good tactic for family members.

Set up an hour-long vent session for a few close friends, or dedicated one-on-one time for you and one other person. Spinelli also sometimes recommends this to couples—dedicate one specific time for checking in and sorting through any issues, so that you don’t feel like you’re constantly harping on them and becoming drained emotionally.

By doing this, you’re not only able to prepare better, but you can also set a limit. “Proactively say, ‘How’s 8-9 p.m., does that work for you next week?'” says Spinelli. Structure this time for when it will work for you and you can show up better for both you and the other person.

Be aware of—and respect—other people’s boundaries

Treat others the way you want to be treated. If you want your friends and family to respect your boundaries, make sure you’re doing the same for them.

Both Spinelli and Goldberg say it’s a good idea to check in and ask if someone has the emotional space for you to vent before you jump into it. “When you do something like that, you’re mirroring how you want to be treated, so the person might do the same thing for you,” Goldberg notes.

It’s also a good idea to take one more step back and think about if you’re asking one person for their emotional energy very often. “If you are, why might that be? Ask yourself, ‘Should I find another coping mechanism or outlet? Am I journaling enough? Do I need to join a support group, or otherwise diversify who I’m having these conversations with?'” Spinelli suggests.

It’s also worth mentioning that some people will likely never feel comfortable asking or answering about emotional space. In this instance, it is reasonable to just be conscientious about how balanced your conversations with this person are. Are you asking them about how they’re doing as much as you’re venting about how you’re doing, for example?

Checking in with yourself will help you respect other people’s boundaries and keep your relationships healthy from both ends.