How to Set Boundaries for Healthy Relationships

Setting boundaries in a relationship sounds formidable, as if it involves barbed wire or palace guards, but actually, boundaries are respectful and healthy. Boundaries need not be approached with a “keep out” sign—it’s just a matter of knowing where you end and another person begins. This week, thanks to listeners Harue S. and Jill C., both of whom requested the topic, we’ll explore how to set boundaries and how to know if yours have been breached.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #72

healthy boundariesWhat Is a Healthy Boundary?  

Well, if we’re talking about geography, a boundary marks the limits of an area. Same idea for relationships with significant others, friends, colleagues, family, or neighbors—it’s knowing your limit in each relationship. Your limits include what you can take on successfully, what you can give without feeling depleted, or what you can do without violating your personal integrity.

Someone who pushes your limits might encourage you to go against your values, like pushing you to drink after you worked hard to get sober. Or you might feel overwhelmed by demands, like when a friend expects assistance at the drop of a hat, even when she calls at 3 am. Or you might feel taken advantage of, like when an adult child keeps asking to borrow money without acknowledging the previous three loans she hasn’t yet paid back.

Your boundaries will vary from person to person. You may give your mother-in-law some slack because she’s so great with your kids, but keep a tight leash on your toxic coworker.

How Can You Tell if a Line Has Been Crossed?

Try this analogy: a relationship boundary is similar to your personal space—that invisible hula hoop-sized area around your body. People you love and approve of can come inside your personal space to give you a hug or offer you a shoulder to cry on, but most people know to stay respectfully outside your personal space.  

Now, think of a time someone invaded your personal space. Maybe someone stood way too close while you had a conversation. Maybe someone you barely know gave you a bear hug. How did you feel? Awkward? Resentful? Uncomfortable? Like Angela Merkel during George W. Bush’s creepy shoulder rub?

Press ‘pause’ on that feeling. When that feeling comes up, that’s your red flag that your personal space boundaries have been crossed.  

Now, let’s connect this to relationship boundaries: the same feelings will likely bubble up when a relationship boundary has been crossed. Trust your gut. If you have a nagging feeling you’ve been taken advantage of, dumped on, or ignored, your relationship boundary with the person in question may have been crossed.

Some signs are more subtle—your boundaries might require some shoring up if you:

  • find yourself complaining all the time,
  • feel constantly guilty or inadequate,
  • never have time to get your own life stuff done,  
  • find that individuals in crisis are inexplicably drawn to you, or
  • depend on a partner or other individual as your source of worth and validation.

So, How Do You Set Healthy Boundaries?


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.