dad holding baby while on a phone call and trying to work on his laptop

Boundaries are limits we identify for ourselves and apply through our actions or communication. Setting boundaries allows us to feel secure and healthy in our relationships at work and home. A boundary may look like respecting your:

  • Physical boundary, such as not feeling comfortable hugging a person you just met
  • Verbal boundary, such as not wanting a colleague to speak down to you
  • Workplace boundary, like not checking emails outside of your scheduled business hours

In short, boundaries show others how we want to be treated.

Types of boundaries

Boundaries fall into a few specific categories:

  • Emotional: protecting your emotional well-being
  • Physical: protecting your physical space
  • Sexual: protecting your needs and safety sexually
  • Workplace: protecting your work-life balance
  • Material: protecting your personal belongings
  • Time: protecting the use and misuse of your time

Why boundaries are important for your mental health

Not everyone has the same boundaries. Most people can't guess what another person's boundaries may be. Establishing clear boundaries at work and in your relationships ensures your needs are being met. Boundaries help us maintain balance and foster healthy relationships.

Healthy relationships should be mutually beneficial and positive for both parties. Suppose you feel like you are putting in more effort or that your effort is not being returned in the same way by a friend. The relationship may benefit from a discussion about boundaries.

Maintaining professional boundaries between your work life and personal life can help you succeed. A healthy work-life balance also helps protect your mental health and can prevent burnout. A good example of a workplace boundary is clearly communicating your working hours in an email signature. This allows others to know when they can (and can't) expect a reply. Setting clear expectations with your supervisor on prioritizing tasks is another example of creating a workplace boundary.

Feeling burned out? Learn how hobbies, laughter and enjoying community can help

How to set boundaries

While we may understand the importance of setting and maintaining boundaries, it can be difficult for many of us.

It's often uncomfortable to say "no." However, when you say "no," you are really saying "yes" to yourself. This could mean prioritizing some self-care time, quality time with your loved ones, or projects in which you are already invested. Reframing how you think about boundary setting may help you be more successful in upholding your boundaries in the long run.

Boundaries are not going to set themselves. If you discover a boundary or a line that's been crossed, clearly communicate your needs respectfully. Boundaries can also evolve and change, just as relationships do. Take time to reflect on your boundaries and adjust as needed.

Remember that upholding your set boundaries is important. But make sure you're also thoughtful about respecting others' boundaries.

At the heart of boundary setting is respect. Respect yourself and your relationships enough to understand and clearly communicate your needs. You'll be better and healthier for it.

Medically reviewed by Sara Aghamohammadi, UC Davis Health's Chief Wellness Officer and pediatric intensive care physician.