We don’t often think about friendships in such formal terms, which is understandable – our friends are people we love, not business associates. There’s rarely (if ever) any quid pro quo in friendships – we’re happy to go the extra mile for our friends and we allow them a lot of leeway in terms of the things they can say to us. Sometimes, though, we may find ourselves unable to set boundaries in our friendships and doing things even if they are inconvenient or uncomfortable for us, just so we don’t hurt our friend’s feelings. And it might get to the point where we start harbouring resentment towards even our best friends, but we don’t know how to talk about it without starting a fight.
Now certain friends are clearly toxic people. They don’t deserve any of your time and you shouldn’t hesitate to cut them off. But other friends might be lovely people who are just unaware that they’re sometimes making you uncomfortable with their demands on your time. It’s with them that you’ll need to set the boundaries, both for your own sake and for the sake of the friendship. Here are some ways you can do that.
Help them understand what are the times of day when it’s okay to call or text you.
Sometimes, friends may just call you or text you randomly to chat when you’re busy. And when you tell them you’re busy, they might say “Come on, five minutes won’t hurt!” and you give in, interrupting your work. You could ignore their calls, of course, but a nicer way of setting boundaries is to tell them clearly that there are certain hours of the day you’ve reserved for work. At the same time, give them two or three time slots during the day when you’re free to chat. Help them understand that being interrupted is inconvenient for you and you’d enjoy chatting with them a lot more if it happened during your free time.
Don’t feel pressured to meet/call them if you need some time on your own.
When you’re spending time with a good friend, you’d want both of you to enjoy yourselves. And that can’t happen if you’re in the mood to switch your phone off and read a book all evening. So if your friend suggests a meet-up, tell her that you don’t feel up to a meeting and suggest an alternative day/time when you could catch up. Be honest and say that you’d like some alone time – if your friend complains/protests that you can read your book later, explain gently but firmly that you have decided to prioritise me-time that day and you would not be comfortable giving that up. Remind your friend of some activity that she enjoys doing on her own and talk about how you wouldn’t want to take that time away from her – which is why you’d like her to respect your me-time too. This could be a little tricky to navigate the first few times, but a good friend will understand what you’re saying and not feel too bad about it.
If there are aspects of your life that you do not want to discuss with them, say so clearly.
In friendship, we often tend to assume that anything and everything should be shared. Which is why your friend may feel hurt if you choose to not discuss something with them, such as a work crisis or an argument with your date. The key here is to not brush off the matter with “I just don’t want to talk about it”, but to explain – nicely – to your friend why you would like to keep this affair private. Reassure her that it’s not about you not trusting her, but that there are other factors involved. Perhaps you’d be breaking the confidence of another person by talking about it, or perhaps it involves confidential medical/legal information, or perhaps you just don’t want to jinx things by discussing them. As long as your friend knows why you can’t talk about something, she should be fine with not knowing about every little detail.
Speak up if they do something that crosses your boundaries.
It’s often hard for us to confront our friends when they annoy us. We tend to excuse them for “not meaning it” or berate ourselves for “overthinking it”. But just as you’d speak up if a partner went out of line, you should be clear with your friend about how and when she crossed your boundaries and why that made you uncomfortable. It’s far better to have one tough conversation now rather than bottle up your resentment and have it come out later in a fit of anger. And as long as you maintain your cool while speaking and let your friend share her perspective as well, it doesn’t have to be that tough either.
Be firm but not defensive if they complain about feeling ignored/sidelined.
Life catches up with the best of us and sometimes we just don’t have time for those three-hour-long phone calls or those shopping dates every weekend. When you start making phone conversations shorter or taking rain checks on the weekends, your friend might complain that you’re not giving them time anymore or that you aren’t as invested in the friendship as you used to be. It’s natural to feel a little guilty when that happens, but you need to remind yourself – and your friend – that you have multiple priorities now. Things just aren’t the same as when you were both in high school or college together, and that’s okay. Reassure your friend that you care about her just as much even if you talk/hang out less, and that you’ll always be there for them when they need you. If possible, you could even work out a new hang-out schedule with your friend that fits your current lifestyle – say, two half-hour phone calls every week or brunch together every alternate Sunday.
When you do spend time together, be fully present.
Boundaries aren’t just about prioritising yourself. The time you spend with your friend requires boundaries too – which means that when you’re together, you shouldn’t let other distractions invade your time. Keep your phone aside and throw yourself into the conversation if you’re meeting in person, or put your laptop/notebook aside if you’re talking over the phone. Your friendship is something that deserves to be treasured, no matter how busy you are – and when you have only a limited amount of time together, it’s essential to make the most of it so that your friend knows you’re as actively invested in her as you always were.
Be there for them as much as possible when they really need you.
At the end of the day, your friends are important to you. They have given you good memories, lots of laughs, kudos when you hit a high and support when you hit a low. So when they’re in trouble and they reach out to you for help, it’s time to be there for them. Even if you can’t be physically present, give them the support they need over call or text and allow them to unburden themselves to you. Now’s not the time to worry about boundaries – now’s the time to give your friend the no-holds-barred love that makes your friendship the fantastic bond it is. Be there for them like they’ve always been there for you – boundaries or no boundaries.