How to set healthy boundaries – and stop letting anxiety and guilt get in the way of living your life


Whether it’s family expectations at Christmas, ground rules in a new relationship or the demands of working from home, people are always overstepping boundaries. But how do you establish a limit – and then stick to it?

How to set healthy boundaries – and stop letting anxiety and guilt get in the way of living your life

Whether it’s family expectations at Christmas, ground rules in a new relationship or the demands of working from home, people are always overstepping boundaries. But how do you establish a limit – and then stick to it?

Recently, I had a reunion with some old university friends. After dinner and a bottle (or two) of wine, we slumped down together in front of the television. A few minutes later our host slid open his laptop and started moving parts around on a PowerPoint presentation. “Just getting ahead of something for Monday,” he shrugged.

The next morning we went for a walk. In the middle of taking in the fresh air and catching up about work and kids and life in general, a friend who runs a small business dropped behind a little to look at his phone. “Emails,” he sighed. He was on holiday, but not really. “It’s not like I’m abroad,” he reasoned.

It used to be that work was an ironed shirt and a train journey away. But during the pandemic WFH changed all that for many people, and it seems to have stuck. Back in 2020, my partner and I would convene from different ends of our flat at the end of the workday with a slightly crazed look in our eyes and compare notes on how we’d barely eaten or taken a break. No one was demanding or expecting this behaviour, – on the contrary, our bosses would have been appalled – but the boundaries between work and life had suddenly become porous, and we didn’t know how to deal with it. Three years later, it’s not clear anyone has really figured it out.

The idea of setting boundaries has been fodder for self-help books since around the mid-80s, but in 2022 the idea is making a roaring comeback. And it’s no surprise. After a period in which our digital lives expanded at the same time as our physical freedoms shrank, knowing where to draw the line has never felt more difficult – and it’s not just a work thing. Technology means that as parents, partners and friends we are available to anyone who might want our attention at any time. If we’re single and trying to find love we have to accept we can be tracked, studied and judged by people we haven’t even met yet, assuming we’re active on social media (and if we’re not, it’s hard to even play the dating game in the first place).

Everywhere you look, boundaries that helped put our lives in clear compartments have been flattened by digital technology and many of our psychological boundaries have crumbled with them. Whatever the self-help gurus were contending with 40 years ago, it wasn’t this. But what can we do about it?

“A very common misconception about boundaries is that they are selfish. That they’re cold. That they’re mean. That they’re about keeping people at a distance. And that could not be further from the truth,” says Melissa Urban, who as well as being a CEO, life coach and author is a self-described “boundary wizard”. Her book, The Book of Boundaries: Set the Limits That Will Set You Free, certainly enters a crowded field of recent releases on the subject (titles due out over the next few months making similar promises include The Sugar Jar: Create Boundaries, Embrace Self-Healing, and Enjoy the Sweet Things in Life by Yasmine Cheyenne; Take Good Care: A Guided Journal to Explore Your Well-Being, Boundaries and Possibilities (couldn’t find this: KE); The Vulnerability Workbook: Embrace Fear, Set Boundaries, and Find the Courage to Live Greatly by Anouare Abdou).

Urban has a helpful definition of what boundaries actually are. “Boundaries are limits you set around how people are allowed to engage with you in a way that keeps you safe and healthy, and improves the relationship.” The first step, she says, is to figure out exactly what boundaries are required in any given situation – whether work, emotional or digital – which isn’t easy because they tend to telegraph themselves, at least at first, in vague feelings of dread and anxiety.

“You come into situations and just feel uneasy about them, and that’s a signal that you need to set a boundary,” she says. “I’ll give you an example. I spoke with a woman not long ago who was thinking about the upcoming Christmas season. She said: ‘I can’t do it. I can’t deal with all the pressure. I can’t do all the gatherings.’ When we really drilled down into it, we realised it wasn’t going to three different houses she was stressed about, it was the guilt her mother put upon her when it was time to leave her place and go to her dad’s. They were divorced. And it was like, OK, that’s the boundary you need to set. You need to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to come for the holidays, I’m really looking forward to seeing you. But I need you not to express any sort of sentiment when I leave to go to dad’s because that’s not fair to me and not fair to him. I want to spend time with each of you equally.’”

Figuring that out and articulating it enabled the woman to enjoy visiting her family again. But does setting boundaries always require what is, in essence, a therapy session?

“It certainly can be helpful to talk it through. But you can do it on your own just by thinking: ‘OK, this event is giving me stress or anxiety. What aspect of it am I least looking forward to? Is there something I could do with this one aspect that would make all of the stress and anxiety, or the bulk of it, just go away?’”

One area of life where people struggle with boundaries the most – like my friends – is their careers. Since the lifting of lockdown restrictions, 38% of employed adults in Britain have continued to spend part of their week working from home, something much higher among those in business and office-based professions. This has been seen as a positive development, allowing greater flexibility and work-life balance.

But for some people, WFH days are some of the more stressful periods of the week. Without the modulating influence of idle chitchat, communication with colleagues can take on a peculiarly strained tone and our capacity to push back on requests can falter.

Some of this may just be down to who we are as people. In her 2006 book Coping With Infuriating, Mean, Critical People – The Destructive Narcissistic Pattern, psychologist Nina Brown set out four types of psychological boundaries that people tend to have. The first is “soft” – someone who is easily manipulated and highly susceptible to emotional contagion. The second type of person, “spongy”, has some sense of boundaries, but can feel unsure about what to let in and what to keep out. Then we have “rigid” people who are so closed off no one can get close to them, physically or emotionally. Finally, there are those with “flexible” boundaries, which is the ideal. People with flexible boundaries can decide the length at which to hold others and their emotions based on what is healthiest for them and communicate that clearly.

“The way you show up in one area of your life tends to be how you show up everywhere,” says Urban. “If your boundaries are weak and porous or you’re a people-pleaser and you can’t stand up for yourself, that tends to show up in every relationship – including your relationship with yourself.”

But we also can’t overlook the role technology has played and, at this point, Urban says something that makes a lot of what I’ve heard people say about work-life over the past three years suddenly click into place. We’re discussing the tyranny of Slack, the instant messaging software millions of us became familiar with over lockdown and which now, along with Zoom, defines how we communicate at work.

“I know from habit research that the lure of technology, that really quick dopamine hit you get when you have a new notification, is one of the hardest to overcome. It depletes willpower the fastest.”

So a Slack message, even one from a co-worker reminding you of a deadline, produces the same chemical reaction in your brain as getting a like on Instagram?

Urban nods. “Dopamine is really about the anticipation of an event. It’s about seeking, not enjoying. So when that notification pops up – whether it’s the best news in the world, or the most annoying – all your brain knows is there’s something new you can divert your attention to. And when you’re feeling stressed or disconnected, you’re especially susceptible to this.”

Perhaps the unboundaried behaviours many of us have adopted in the remote working era are just another example of our addled brains succumbing to digital addiction, no different to the way we lose chunks of the weekend doomscrolling TikTok or Twitter. Either way, it brings us back to something Urban said about the first boundaries you need to set being with yourself, not others.

“I often counsel people to start by asking: what are the areas of your day that are the most stressful, the most anxiety-producing, and where you feel the most reactive instead of proactive? And is there one simple limit you can set during this part of your day? For example, I have a boundary in the morning that I don’t check my phone before my routine is done. So I have a cold shower, work out, do a little meditation, and make myself breakfast. Then I start my day. I think those are the kinds of self-boundaries that can be helpful with working from home.”

“You deserve to have healthy boundaries at work,” she goes on. “People will take as much as you’re willing to give. That’s just basic human nature. So you have to be the one to set the boundaries that are healthiest for you.”

If the digital age has blurred boundaries in our professional lives, then in our romantic and social endeavours, you could say it has flattened them altogether. After the US, the UK is the most dating app-happy nation on earth, with 55% of us claiming to have used Tinder at some point and 46% registering at least one match a day. That’s an awful lot of swiping left or right.

LalalaLetMeExplain is an anonymous relationships expert and social worker, and the author of Block, Delete, Move On, a book she describes as not trying to teach anybody how to find love but “how to avoid the toxic ones”. The book was inspired by her own struggles to set boundaries in the era of dating apps.

“One of the things I found was that guys would be very keen to start leading the conversation on a sexual route before you’ve even had a first date,” she says. In the often fleeting, consequence-free world of digital communication, the pushing or disrespecting of boundaries is depressingly commonplace.

For many reasons – most, it must be said, boiling down to poorly behaved men – the Tinder era is generally seen as a depressing development in the story of how humans date and find love. But Lala points out that the internet also offers us a way to save time and effort by identifying poor matches early – through setting boundaries. This can range from a sensible search of their name (“I have spoken to a woman who Googled a man before their date and found he’d just been released from prison for murder,” Lala says) to what amounts to a pre-date date.

“I think it’s really sensible to have some conversations and maybe a FaceTime before you meet,” she says. “Because there are so many little ways you can see if they’re respecting your boundaries. Like texting. I’ve been in that situation where I haven’t replied to somebody’s text for a couple of hours, and then they’ll send a sad face and a question mark. And it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s really fucking annoying. Don’t do that to me again!’”

In these sorts of situations, Lala posits the radical idea that, rather than write a person off straight away, you could instigate a conversation. “You could say, ‘I found that response annoying, there will be times when I’m not going to reply to you for a long time. That’s just how I text.’ Because perhaps that person can then say, ‘Oh, you know what, I’ve got a bit of an anxious attachment style.’” It sounds a little like jumping ahead to couple’s therapy before you’ve shared a bottle of wine, but in the accelerated world of internet dating, it sort of makes sense.

At the other end of the spectrum from inappropriate or excessive communication is vanishing altogether – “ghosting”. “It is becoming increasingly common for people to just back out without a word. And there are so many different reasons for this that are not always obvious. Sometimes they’re already with someone else and they were just on the apps after an argument trying to get an ego boost. Or, you know, they might be experiencing severe anxiety and depression, they are in a hole and cannot face talking to anyone.

“But ghosting is really gutting. It leaves people with unanswered questions. And those unanswered questions are normally filled in by our brains in the most self-deprecating way.”

It’s not just singletons for whom digital communication throws up complicated questions around boundaries. Couples struggle, too, particularly when it comes to social media. “Often it’s stuff around who their partner is following or what they’re doing in spaces like Instagram. If your partner is continually liking pictures of his colleague, is it fair to set a boundary that says, ‘I feel really uncomfortable with you liking these other people’s pictures’? Or that it’s unacceptable for them to follow a girl they’ve met at the gym?” Differing views on porn use, she says, is another common battleground for interrelationship boundary setting.

“The curious paradox,” wrote the psychologist Carl Rogers, “is that when I accept myself just as I am – then I can change.” The challenges we face today may differ from the boundary evangelists of the past, but the solutions remain pretty much the same. For Urban and Lala, it comes back to understanding yourself and your own boundaries well enough to speak up, in a calm and straightforward manner, when you feel they are being violated – to get as close, in other words, to Dr Nina Brown’s “flexible” ideal. Work on that, and even the minefields of Slack and Tinder become easier to navigate.

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