How to Set Boundaries and Why You Should

How to Set Boundaries and Why You Should

It's a weekday, about 8 or 9 in the evening. You've had a long day at work, or a long day with the kids, or both. You've managed to get through the dinner hour. Everyone's fed, dishes are done, kids are bathed and off to bed, and you are finally able to relax. You have this small space of time in the evening that's yours, and you are soooo looking forward to it.

You get settled in your chair, or favorite lounging place, with your book, or remote for the TV, computer, or whatever you like to have to enjoy that space of time. Maybe you just want to be quiet or chat with your partner. Whatever it is, it's yours!

As you settle in, your cell phone rings. You glance at the number and see that it's one of your friends. It's a friend you like, but she's often overly chatty and always has problems. "Well . . ." you think, "maybe I'll answer and just keep it to 10 minutes. Then I can still have my time." So you answer.

An hour later you are still trying to get off the phone. Not only that, your friend has talked nonstop without taking a breath, and she's dumped all of her emotional woes on you. She's having problems with her husband, her mother-in-law, her kids, her boss, and she doesn't feel good, and she has a lot to say about what's wrong with everybody else, and on and on and on.

You've told her at least four times now that you need to get off the phone, and she always says "Okay" and then keeps going.

By the time you get off the phone, you feel awful. You're angry, tense, and sad that the little time you had carved out is mostly gone. Worse, you can't get yourself back into the same emotional space you were in when you first sat down and were looking forward to relaxing.

What happened?

So why did you answer? That's a good question. I'm guessing there are a number of possibilities.

  • You are a caretaker and usually feel responsible for listening, rescuing, fixing, soothing, or "being there." It's how you were raised and it's what you do.
  • If you don't attend to others when they ask for it, you feel guilty.
  • If you don't attend to others, you're a bad, selfish person.
  • If you don't attend to others, you are an unworthy friend, spouse, parent or co-worker.
  • It's part of your spiritual ethic. You should always help others, and always give.
  • It's the right thing to do, and you always try and do the right thing.
  • Listening is caring, and you are a caring person.
  • Your friend needs you, and even if it's an inconvenience, she needs your help and you should give it.

The list goes on, but the bottom line is, your decision to the answer the phone in the above scenario is intimately tied to your self-image and what you see as "good."

Yes, but it feels bad!

There is another part of you that knows that something is wrong with this picture. Let's take it from another point of view and replace some of the above reasons with reality checks. The real deal is:

  • Your friend, regardless of how much you may like her or think she's a "good person," is not in the least interested in how you might be feeling. She just wants an ear, and if it's not your ear, it will be someone else's.
  • Your friend is not really interested in solving a problem. She just wants to vent and wants you to be her emotional receptacle.
  • Your friend ignored your pleas to get off the phone. She heard them, but she pushed on anyway. She really doesn't value your time.
  • All of your listening hasn't done anything to help her move from point A to point B. Nothing you say makes a difference. The more you give, the more she takes. In fact, she often overloads you with her problems.
  • Your friend is not a true friend, and allowing her to take such advantage of you is neither kind, helpful, necessary, or productive. By participating, you are actually allowing her to use and abuse you, and there is nothing good about that. Not by any standard, including spiritual.

What about your Self-Image?

Now let's return to your "self-image" and redefine it in light of our reality checks.

  • A good caretaker doesn't allow anyone to step over the line. They offer help that can be received and used to make a situation better, but they don't allow anyone to abuse them. A good caretaker can see the difference between the two.
  • "Being there" means doing what's good for the other person. What's good is working through a problem, not perpetuating it by blaming everyone else.
  • It is not caring to listen to a negative diatribe about what's wrong with everyone else. To the contrary: when you listen to that kind of conversation, you are participating in it and perpetuating it. Worse yet, you are condoning it. That's not good for you, and certainly not good for the other person.
  • It is "being good" to take care of yourself as well as others. Your relaxation is a necessary part of your day and should be guarded. It is part of taking care of you.
  • Setting necessary limits is being "good." It is responsible, caring, and healthy.

Being a caretaker usually has roots in your personal history.

Caretakers often are big hearted people who like to please, and who take pleasure from doing things for other people. There is nothing wrong with that, and if that fits you, feel good about it.

More often, caretakers have a combination of those characteristics I just mentioned which we'll call a natural temperament, but also historical issues that have greatly effected the way they see themselves.
Caretakers usually play that role in their families growing up. They:

  • Had adult responsibilities beyond their years.
  • Were rewarded for pleasing others, and reprimanded or punished if attending to themselves.
  • Were made to feel that taking care of themselves or pursuing their own interests was selfish.
  • Felt guilty if they had negative emotions such as anger, disappointment, displeasure, or sadness.
  • Felt responsible for the happiness of their parent(s), and often their siblings.
  • Felt anxious if they were not involved in pleasing or rescuing others.
  • Felt unworthy in spite of all of their efforts to please.

What to Do

If you find yourself anywhere in the above descriptions, then it's a good idea to begin working on changing these patterns. You can do this most successfully by taking it a little at a time. Sweeping big changes rarely work because they put you in a place that seems so foreign and uncomfortable that you will quickly revert back to what you know. Here's some ideas:

Be selective.

Consider that your time and energy is important, and that you should use it in ways that fulfill you. Don't waste it on people who take advantage of you, or who are toxic. Not only do you lose that time, you also have to digest all of the negativity they pass on to you.

Choose your friends and relationships carefully, and begin to move away from toxic people in your life, or at the very least, limit the time you spend with them.

Be direct.

If you need to set a boundary with someone you love or are in a relationship with, it's best to be direct about your feelings. That doesn't mean you have to be unkind or confrontational, but express how you feel and what is making your uncomfortable. Always use "I" statements and focus on your feelings to reduce defensiveness.

Be firm.

If you get in a situation like the initial one I described in this article, then it's time to be very firm about your need to cut the conversation short. When you say you have to get off the phone, say it and mean it and wind the conversation up without allowing the other person to keep you in it. You can do this without being rude in most circumstances.

Set the boundary up front.

If you know ahead of time that you are going to be talking to someone who almost always runs away with the conversation and takes way more time than is necessary, then plan how much time you are willing to spend and decide beforehand how you are going to cut the conversation off.

My favorite method is to prime someone by telling them up front I only have 10 minutes to talk, and then I warn them when there are 2 minutes left and tell them we need to wrap up. If they don't wrap up, I say "Sorry, but I have to go. I'm out of time," and then I do it.

It might feel weird the first time you do that, but it will become easier and more fluid as you practice.

Isn't "just listening" good sometimes?

Yes, just listening is great sometimes! The difference is that someone who wants you to "just listen" to them, and can make use of that to work through something, is very different from someone who makes a habit of venting and gossiping and blaming others for their problems.

All of us want someone to "just listen" sometimes, because it helps us work something out or soothes us. It's the latter situation that I am addressing. For those folks, just listening is not helpful. For them, setting limits is a much better option.

Remember, a real friend has an awareness of your feelings as well as her own, and her actions reflect that.


A good book to read on the subject of setting limits is Boundaries by Henry Cloud. Dr. Cloud is a psychologist and a good writer. This book is written from a Christian point of view, but even if you are not oriented toward Christianity, it provides an excellent understanding of what boundaries are, when they should be set, and why.

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