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How to Set Boundaries in Friendships

Sometimes the best way to be a friend is by looking out for yourself

Setting boundaries with friends is crucial, even at a young age

I cut ties with a close friend earlier this year. People lose touch all the time, but this intentional severing of a relationship upset me. This was a close, trusted friend who had been there for me for good times and in bad, but unfortunately, it was time for us to go our separate ways.

Why? I believe it’s because there were never healthy boundaries in our relationship. Simmering tensions in our friendship came to a head when this friend moved into my home, which I share with my boyfriend, for three weeks without even so much as asking me if she could stay for one night.

This disregard for my personal space (I work at home), resources (she never offered to chip in for rent), and time (she insisted on constantly rehashing her personal dramas) was the final straw. Although this was the incident that broke the camel’s back, it was indicative of a larger pattern. It finally became clear to me that if I allowed this person an inch, she would always take the mile.

What did I learn from this? First off, that it’s alright for friendships to end sometimes. It’s hard to process, but ultimately frees you up to either meet new people, deepen bonds with other friends, or to re-engage with your own interests. Secondly, I learned that I am someone who has a deep need for boundaries, and I’m at a point in my life where I can readily accept that. I am never going to be the spontaneous free-spirit type and that’s OK.

You can’t change the people around you, but you can maintain personal boundaries that allow you to feel happy, safe, and comfortable in any given situation. Here are the four steps I follow when it comes to practicing boundaries in tough situations.

1. Acknowledge what you’re feeling

You’ve been there before. You’re interacting with a colleague, family member, or friend, and the moment comes that you feel anxious or uncomfortable with how they’re treating you, or with what they’re asking of you. If you begin to notice these moments are happening frequently, or even every time you interact with this person, make a note of it. Why is it that you feel uneasy around this person but calm and happy around your other friends?

2. Decide how you want to handle the situation

Once you’ve recognized the behavior, take action. Depending on how close you are to this person, there are a few things you can do. If it’s someone you don’t see often or are required to interact with (like a colleague), just try distancing yourself for a while and see if anything changes. You don’t need to respond to every gossip-laden email that comes your way, and you’re entitled to cut your shared trips to the water cooler short if you don’t feel like chatting.

If it’s someone you care about and want to keep in your life, try talking to them. The first step is letting the other person know that their behavior is no longer acceptable. Tell them in a calm, controlled tone what you’re having issue with. If it’s a coworker, gently let them know that while you’re glad they feel they can confide in you, it’s no longer appropriate for them to discuss their love life in detail with you every day at the office. If it’s a close friend, invite them to coffee or another quiet space so you can talk things out.

In extreme cases, you can cut this person out of your life. Maybe they did something truly horrible to you, or perhaps you just feel too anxious being around them anymore. While this can be stressful, it’s ultimately up to you to decide who you want to spend your time with — don’t waste it around people who make you feel unhappy or unloved.

3. Choose your next course of action

Of course, not everyone is going to respond well to being told they’re acting inappropriately. If a problem arises, recognize that you are in control of what happens next, but you also need to know that this person may disagree with you. If it’s a friend or family member, give yourself some time apart from them or let them know you won’t be in contact with them anymore. 

If they respond to your concerns positively, work out a solution that enables you both to move forward. Maybe your friend had no idea she was using all of your social time to talk about her problems at work. If she’s acknowledges the error and apologizes, work together to come up with a solution. Perhaps you limit talk of the office to the first 10 minutes you see one another, and then take part in an activity you both enjoy doing together instead.

4. Stay firm in your conviction

Practicing healthy boundaries is challenging. If it was easy, everyone would have healthy relationships and interpersonal conflict would become a thing of the past. It’s easy to fall into old habits, but if you do, you’ll be much less happy in your personal relationships. When a situation arises that makes you uncomfortable, take a step back. Take a big breath and remind yourself that your emotional and mental wellbeing is important. Remind the person you’re interacting with that they’re making you uncomfortable or propose a new topic of conversation.

I didn’t realize that by ignoring my feelings, I was not only doing a disservice to my friend, but also to myself. I was deeply unhappy with how things transpired the entire three weeks she stayed at my house, and I now realize I could have avoided the situation entirely by speaking with her directly, but kindly, from the get-go. Had I had the foresight to do that, we might still be friends today. Now, I make the time to check in with myself. Am I uncomfortable? Am I able to express my feelings to this person and potentially reinstate a much-needed boundary? Does this person respect my feelings and want the best for me? Creating effective boundaries in your life can be difficult at first, but once you get into the habit, you’ll feel more calm, confident, and content in all aspects of your life.

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