Creating (and Respecting) Boundaries Was a Big Deal in 2021—And These Tips Made That Possible

Photo: Getty Images /. Luis Alvarez
Boundaries have always been important, but, as we close out another year with the COVID-19 pandemic in tow, they’ve become even more vital to our daily lives. There have been developments in the pandemic throughout the year—vaccines rolled out, mask mandates were lifted (in certain locations), and Zoom gatherings became safe-as-can-be-possible meetings in person, as calendars began to fill with social events—that have crystallized the importance of boundaries.

As defined by mental health educator Minaa B., LMSW, “boundaries are limits that we put in place to help us assess what is our responsibility and what is not, and it also defines what our limits are.” They help us take care of ourselves while simultaneously caring for others, she adds, as they teach people how they’re allowed to interact with us and, with ourselves, it’s a lesson on accountability and agency. Whether you’re struggling with people-pleasing tendencies or simply trying to enact healthy boundaries, below, a compilation of the best tips we've amassed in 2021 for setting and maintaining boundaries.

Experts In This Article

Read on for the best tips for creating and respecting boundaries in 2021

Boundaries 101

1. Healthy boundaries begin with these 2 tips

No one said establishing personal boundaries would be easy. The act of being honest about your needs and then actually articulating them, isn’t for the faint of heart. Though creating boundaries (and sticking to them) may make you feel like you’re being mean, that’s far from the case—instead, by maintaining healthy boundaries, you’re strengthening your relationships. So how do you get started on setting boundaries?

According to a therapist, you should start by defining your values. Values, or the things you deem as important to you, inform your decision-making; they are behaviors, not just thoughts and feelings. Understanding what your values are allows you to create a starting place for you to set boundaries that best support you. For example, if unplanned visits aren’t something you enjoy, articulating to family and friends that showing up unannounced is unacceptable. Remember: When you say “yes” to things that don’t align with your values, that’s when feelings of regret and shame creep in.

Second, stop letting your feelings control you. Emotional intelligence is key to setting boundaries as it allows you to approach your emotions through a lens of non-judgment and not allow them to dictate or control your behaviors. Feelings, like guilt, often accompany boundaries, but it’s important to note that doing the right thing won’t always feel good. Still, maintain your boundaries. When you need to work through your boundary-induced feelings, try breathwork, journaling, meditation, and talk therapy, to name a few helpful tactics.

Learn more about the importance of boundaries in your relationships by listening to the “Boundary Hunter” episode on The Well+Good Podcast:

2. Alleviate stress with these 4 strategies

Stress is an unavoidable reality. Your body’s natural response to it, however, can derail other natural functions, such as sleep, appetite, concentration, and communication, as your body manages its “fight, flight, or freeze" response, explains Aimee Daramus, PsyD. Stress management is how you remain alive and well. Thankfully, there are healthy boundaries that will support your stress management journey when physical stress, emotional stress, social stress, and burnout hit.

According to Dr. Daramus, physical stress, like working late or staying up past your bedtime to finish tasks, can be tackled by creating a to-do list and agreeing to close up shop once you’ve reached a certain point. This also looks like prioritizing non-work-related tasks, like eating and workouts, just as you would work projects. Emotional stress can be triggered by a number of things, for example, listening to a friend’s issues without factoring in space for you to vent. Solution: “Set a boundary by letting friends know that you’re there to listen but that you’re going to need a chance to express yourself so you can feel like someone cares," she advises. When it comes to social stress, whether your calendar is filled or not, the pressure can make you feel uneasy. To quell this, remove an item (or two) from your calendar—it’s okay to skip out; but on the flip side, reach out to a friend or loved one if you want to connect.

Are you taking on too many responsibilities? If so, a likely result is burnout. Dr. Daramus advises letting people know as soon as you feel overwhelmed so you can scale back. In addition to focusing on yourself, here’s your confirmation to ask for help when you need it.

3. Plus, these 5 methods will help you stand up for yourself

Pushover. People pleaser. Doormat. You may not describe yourself as such, but the urge to place everyone else’s needs before your own has given you the title. Your reason might involve you avoiding conflict (FYI: conflict isn’t a bad thing), however, your inability to set firm boundaries keeps you from accepting anything from others.

Don’t beat yourself up because establishing boundaries is the first step in asserting yourself; the following will help you get started: take the time to evaluate your own personal needs and boundaries; say “no,” and stick to it, when you know something is not right for you; take your time—there’s no obligation to respond to requests immediately; you don’t have to address personal questions; and, if you feel the need to excuse yourself from a situation, do it.

Boundaries are a form of self-care and, by extension, so is sticking up for yourself.

4. Unplug from urgency culture

The pandemic has fueled urgency culture, or the expectation to be on call at all times, so much so that people believe your free time is synonymous with your availability. As professional and personal life blurred, and tech tools began filling the void for in-person connections, folks adapted the mindset that anyone is free, 24/7. The only way to offset that expectation is to stand firm in your boundaries.

Of course, being home allows for more flexibility in how we spend our time, but that doesn’t mean we’re obligated to respond to other people’s requests in an urgent manner. Disconnect, and don’t feel bad about it. While you can facilitate that disconnection best, you can also employ tools to help enforce it, like your phone’s Do Not Disturb setting. When you respond to calls, texts and emails immediately, it gives others the impression that you’re available — not that you actually feel pressured to respond. So advocate for yourself and honor the boundaries you’ve established around your time.

Pandemic Guidelines

5. Stay true to what you want

After being nestled inside of our homes for over a year, resuming a pre-pandemic stride has proven to be difficult for many. There was no gradual return, meaning we went from a virtual-only lifestyle to a full-blown celebratory season filled with weddings, vacations, and birthday gatherings. "Many people have found that their body, mind, and spirit have become acclimated to a slower, more introverted way of being,” says Carla Marie Manly, PhD. “When external mandates—such as eased social restrictions and changes in mask-wearing policies—are abrupt or seemingly arbitrary, the sudden change can bring on anxiety."

To kick the internal fears and uneasiness brought on by the “reopening” of the country, the clinical psychologist recommends these tips to set and maintain boundaries: make time to journal about your personal needs and boundaries; see where your social circle is at currently; don’t compare your level of comfort or your needs with those of others; and, as you move back into social settings, honor your needs openly and respectfully (while doing the same for others). Find out more, here.

6. Talk to your unvaccinated family members

The widespread availability of three vaccines and proof of effectiveness hasn’t convinced all Americans to get vaxxed. According to data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau in late April, 18.2 percent of Americans are hesitant about receiving the vaccine, noting either "definitely not," "probably not," or that they're "unsure" when asked if they will get the jab. When discussing gatherings with unvaccinated family members and friends, things may get complicated.

Enter: boundaries. Mental health professionals recommend a few approaches to navigate “the talk” with family, which include deciding exactly what your boundaries are surrounding your unvaxxed fam and anticipating their response (yes, it’s likely to be an emotions-filled, intense conversation); keep calm and stick to a script you’ve created (and rehearsed) prior to the conversation; and, lastly, keep your judgments to yourself.

“What is not helpful is to show judgment about their decision to not get vaccinated, as this will only put them on the defensive and lead to conflict,” says Naomi Torres-Mackie, PhD.

7. Keep this in mind for dating boundaries

Will we ever forget the hold Zoom dates had on the pandemic dating scene? It’s no secret, the pandemic led to creative date night ideas for budding and well-established partnerships. As social distance regulations began to loosen, however, masked-up dates steadily began to replace virtual-only dating. But not everyone has returned to pre-pandemic romance.

No matter your dating style, it’s important to articulate your boundaries — even more so in a post-lockdown dating environment. Before meeting up, articulate your intentions and detail what exactly you’re looking for — a friend with benefits, a short-term rendezvous, or a long-term commitment like marriage. This will remove people who don’t share your dating visions. The key is to be honest with yourself, so you can be honest with the person you’re dating to set clear boundaries. Next, know your limits and communicate them. For example, if you’re not ready to ditch your mask or return to in-person dates, don’t hesitate to articulate that. Lastly, give yourself permission to change your mind. Thought you’d be ready to dine indoors, only to realize you’re not? That’s totally fine. You have the right to move at your own pace. This doesn’t just apply here, but also with maintaining friendships in the return-to-socializing era — find out more tips here.

8. Boundaries can exist around drinking

Getting reacclimated to social gatherings can trigger your anxiety, especially when alcohol is involved. “I think alcohol is particularly sensitive because it's one of the few areas where peer pressure is accepted," says Adia Gooden, PhD. While social drinking may have been a part of a person’s life prior to the pandemic, people have changed, and so have their habits and lifestyles. A person’s relationship with alcohol should be respected.

According to psychologists, there are a few tips for how to set healthy boundaries with drinking after quarantine. Before you attend a social gathering, create a game plan that includes how many drinks, if any, you’ll have during a set period of time. If you happen to reach your limit, a mocktail, sparkling water, or any non-alcoholic drink of your choice should be your go-to, advises Dr. Gooden. The buddy system is an effective way of keeping you to your word, so share your plan with a trusted friend who will support you and hold you accountable. Find out more here, including how to check in with your body.

9. Make finances better with these boundary tips

The pandemic allowed for some to save monetarily in ways they hadn’t prior to COVID-19. At the same time, others had to factor in financial hardships, like being laid off from work and medical expenses, that made budgeting trickier than was the case 19 months ago.

As reopenings take place and a greater number of people are returning to pre-pandemic spending habits, it’s vital to identify and implement financial boundaries. For starters, live within your means, which can look like creating a monthly budget that allows you to take into account your income flow plus expenses or to set limits on your spending habits. If you have people-pleasing tendencies, commit the following financial tip to mind: “if you don't have it, it’s okay if you can't give it.” Self-sacrifice isn’t an admirable trait. Furthermore, define what’s important to you and what deserves your yes. Once you’ve done that, you can determine something is worth spending your hard-earned money on. Click here for more.

Friends and Family

10. How to set boundaries with friends

On a normal day, friendships require an investment of time and energy, but add in the pandemic and that’s multiplied as people grieve a series of losses. As more people seek mental health support, there’s an increased need for boundary setting as a psychological survival technique. In the case of friendship, there can be a number of reasons leading you to implement boundaries, including being overwhelmed, feeling the relationship is too one-sided, and having a difference in communication styles, to name a few, so be open to working through this new shift with your companion.

"Having boundaries in a friendship is not just about saying 'no'," says Cori Hill, MS, NCC, LPC, LMFT. "It's about managing walls, but also managing doors and windows—essentially navigating the space between you and another person."

Have a conversation with your friend about what’s bothering you and how you would want the relationship to progress, suggests Marisa Franco, PhD. Follow that up by asking your friend for their thoughts on the matter. As you have the conversation, be explicit so there’s no room for interpretation. And, instead of focusing on your friend’s behavior, center the conversation around how it makes you feel. “It's really about understanding your internal world and sharing it with them so they can better meet your needs rather than telling them about themselves or trying to diagnose them,” says Dr. Franco. Find out more tips here. Also, if a friend is treating you more like a therapist than a bestie, you can approach that using these action items.

11. Knowing the ins and outs of friending family on social media

Social media is a great connector. No matter the platform, you’re able to share your day-to-day happenings, innermost thoughts and opinions – even accompanying them with curated photos and videos. For family that you may not get to spend time with often, social media can bridge the gap between time and distance wedged between the relationship. However, there are some things reserved for family and other things reserved for…well, the timeline (sans family). To foster the connection via social, consider implementing soft boundaries, like creating different family and friends accounts or, if the multiple accounts get confusing, modify your sharing settings. On Instagram, for example, your fam can see your grid but, when it comes to Story, you may customize so they can’t see what you upload.

“It saves so many headaches and unnecessary drama later on while leaving the focus on connecting with family," says Goali Saedi Bocci, PhD.

‘Tis the season

12. How to maintain holiday cheer

After the first holiday season of the pandemic, many were hopeful that the next would resume all the typical cheer, décor, and good eats alongside loved ones. But it’s pretty clear that we’ll still have to proceed with caution. Though managing holiday boundaries related to the pandemic may not be easy, it’s essential that you do what provides you with peace and safety. To keep your celebration COVID free, mandate COVID testing for all those visiting your home and minimize your gathering, only inviting a few while extending a virtual welcome for others who want to attend. And, if you’re unsure of your comfortability in attending a holiday gathering or hosting one, it’s okay to opt out this year.

However, if you proceed with spending the holidays around others, it’s still important to maintain your boundaries. There may be topics you feel uncomfortable discussing over dinner, like dating; so, it’s okay to respond with, “I don’t feel comfortable talking about my dating life right now. I would really appreciate it if you don’t ask again because I am not going to change my mind about discussing this.” There can be a moment where a loved one crosses the line, and you have every right to inform this person that they crossed a boundary with you. You deserve peace of mind and can distance yourself from the habitual boundary stepper at any time. For more on maintaining healthy holiday party boundaries, specifically at work, click here.

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