Boundaries, why we need them, and how to have them

As I moved through college and learned more about myself, and consequently began learning how to heal past and current trauma in relationships, one of the first things I discovered was that I lacked boundaries. I think what is the most interesting about this is that I realized most people lack boundaries. I also realized that I felt hurt when other people established boundaries with me because I expected everyone else to lack boundaries just like I did-what even are boundaries?


In the past few years there has been a great push for discourse surrounding consent, especially sexual consent. When I entered college and throughout the duration of my college career, there were many modules and in-person exercises on consent, how to give consent, and what qualifies as consent because sexual assault occurs quite frequently on college campuses. However, the discourse on boundaries has been limited to self-care and time management conversations, which tend to be quite shallow in their explanation of boundaries and how to set them. I think this lack of explicit definitions for boundaries is intentional- there are many institutions and spaces that depend on people lacking boundaries or the ability to stand up for themselves, such as many work spaces and educational spaces. For instance, many employers prefer you to lack time boundaries so you will work later than your assigned shift or come in on your day off. Similarly, the demands of college life- engaging in clubs and other extracurricular activities, staying up late to finish assignments, and finding extra time to spend with friends- requires that you make your personal boundaries more flexible than you normally would. So it makes sense that there is so little information surrounding boundaries, how to set them, and even when you should set them. We even lack the ability to see or examine what a lack of boundaries looks like.

I want to start with boundaries because I obviously think it is the less discussed term, and I also think it’s the more broad and often misunderstood term. Boundaries are important for familial, friend, and romantic relationships. Our ability to allow people to live their lives outside of constant communication has been hindered by the rise of social media and social connectivity. However, it is still important to create boundaries even with our social media profiles! So before I dive into it, here’s a short video about friendship boundaries:

I wanted to share that specific video because of my own personal struggle with boundaries in my friendships. As I move further into adulthood, I have had to learn how to be more comfortable with having less access to my friends and setting boundaries with my time and emotional needs. My lack of boundaries around emotional support left me feeling unsupported because I was expecting my friends to give me the same unconditional access to them that I gave. With that disappointment I began to resent some of my relationships and feel lonely but it has been easier to navigate those feelings as I begin to establish more boundaries with my friends so I don’t feel like I give more than I receive. I also found it easier to set my own boundaries once I gained friends who clearly communicated their boundaries with me. In the video, there are three types of friendship boundaries: conversational, consumption, and energetic. Conversational boundaries are what you’re comfortable discussing, consumption are things/energy that you want to be around, and energetic is limits on what you can/cannot give. My closest friends are great with communicating their consumption and energetic boundaries with me and in turn I can easily communicate my own similar boundaries. In addition to this, my expectations for what I can/should receive in my relationships with my friends is managed because they clearly communicate where they are with me and what they need from me every day.

Now let’s talk about boundaries in friendships for a second. I think friendship boundaries and work boundaries are the areas where people struggle the most. I know for sure those have been my hardest areas to push my boundaries. We have this idea that as friends we are supposed to provide undivided attention, consistent and constant emotional support and we should be available for our friends at all times just in case they need something or want to do something. Many of us feel guilty for having set bedtimes or needing time during the day to disengage with others and reconnect with ourselves because that means we have less time to be available for friends. How many times have you stayed up way past the time you needed to sleep because a friend wanted to talk? While there is a balance between living life freely and being open to spontaneous moments and keeping set schedules- which is a completely different conversation for another blog post- it is vital that people are able to set boundaries with friends and that friends respect each other’s boundaries.

So what are boundaries? Do boundaries always have to feel bad? The official dictionary definition of boundaries is, “ a limit of a subject or sphere of activity.” A boundary is simply a limit to what you can or will do at any specific moment. The more you set them, the less icky they feel to express. Many times we express our boundaries in casual conversation, especially when integrated with consent. Whenever someone asks us if they can sit next to us, hug us, or touch us- whatever answer we provide is the establishment of a boundary. Even saying no to an activity because you are tired is boundary setting. In these scenarios, boundary setting isn’t scary, and it doesn’t always make people fear the possible responses to it. The truth is, you should never fear someone else’s response to your boundaries. Your friends, family, and partners should respect you and the boundaries that you set, and if they don’t, you should re-evaluate those relationships.

There are six types of boundaries you should have and what they look like:

  • Physical
    • Respect all matters relating to touch or personal space
      • i.e. Setting rules about when or how you would like to be touched
  • Emotional
    • Respecting feelings and energy needs
      • For example, telling a friend you are having a bad day and need time to yourself
  • Time
    • How much time you will spend in a set place or doing a set thing
      • i.e. Having a bedtime or not staying extra time after work/ class
  • Sexual
    • Involves consent to sexual acts and intimacy
      • i.e. What you are and are not willing to do with your sexual partner
  • Intellectual
    • Respect for the things you are interested in or the thoughts that you have
      • i.e. Telling someone who has different moral views than you that you are not willing to engage in certain conversations
  • Material
    • Respect for the things that you own
      • i.e. Asking for permission to access someone’s pantry or telling someone else to take their shoes off when they enter your home

And this is where consent comes in. A lot of boundary work and boundary-setting is about respect. Consent is also about respect- respecting your friends, family, partners, and self to ask for permission in the areas that boundaries cover. Whether it is consenting to sex or consenting to a hug the premise is the same: one person must ask; another person sets a boundary and either confirms or denies consent; and both people respect the boundary. A lot of discussions around consent are focused on sexual boundaries but sexual boundaries are not the only important places for consent.

Here are two videos about consent, hopefully in a way you haven’t seen them before:

I love the tea consent video because it simplifies consent and frames it to include a person’s autonomy. Consent is simply about abiding by someone’s personal rules for their life and people asking for permission before infringing on someone else’s personal rules. If you offer someone tea and they want some, then you can give it to them! If you offer them tea and they say no, then don’t give them tea, or don’t even make tea. The second video, Consent for Kids, puts extra emphasis on bodily autonomy and clearly defines consent in those terms. My favorite part of the video are the examples of consent regarding family members and bribes. More often than not, people do not consider the boundaries of children and disregard asking for consent when interacting with other family members because people want to seem polite. However, children do have boundaries and should consent to physical touch even when concerning a family member. In addition, understanding that being offered food, money, or promises in exchange for your consent still does not count as consent is an important lesson we should all carry. No one has autonomy over your body other than you and you don’t have to exchange anything for your consent.

At the end of the day, both boundaries and consent are about autonomy. Boundary setting is cool, and consent is easier the more you practice it. Most things are yes and no scenarios. If you enter into a boundary conversation and feel uncomfortable discussing it at the time… set another boundary! Say you are uncomfortable and would like to discuss at another time or include a mediator that will make you feel more comfortable.

By Veronica

Tags: boundaries, consent, bodily autonomy, friendship