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3 Compassionate Ways to Set Boundaries with Friends

I was recently talking with a teenage client who is ready to assert some new boundaries in a particular friendship. This is not a new topic in coaching sessions, y’all. Many clients I have the honor of working with identify as being highly sensitive and/or empathic, and I hear them celebrate the ways these traits are gifts, allowing them to be aware and responsive. I also hear them sharing that it can be really challenging to define and assert boundaries with their friends and family. As an HSP empath, myself, I can relate!

This article is all about honoring yourself and establishing compassionate boundaries with your friends. 

Whether the descriptors highly sensitive and/or empathic resonate with you or not, don’t worry. This blog is really just about being human alongside other humans. You are welcome here.

What are Boundaries?

In a previous post, I defined boundaries like this: “Boundaries are guidelines and limits that we hold ourselves to internally and/or externally. Boundaries are agreements that we make with ourselves; they impact our relationships and interactions, as well as connection to ourselves.”

To this I would add: Boundaries help us protect and nurture ourselves– physically, emotionally, and energetically. Furthermore, boundaries are most effective when we feel comfortable with the container (a.k.a. limits) we are creating for ourselves. Oftentimes, boundaries help us honor the answer to the question “What do I need?”.

Is there anything I’m missing? Another way you like to look at or define boundaries? I invite you to consider this for yourself. And if you feel called, share in the comments. (And big thanks to 2 of my pals who shared their definition of this term; I borrowed some of your language here. Xo.)

How to Know if a Boundary was Crossed

If you’re wondering if your boundary has been crossed, my guess is that the answer is yes. 

If your body is giving you information in the form of tension or stomachaches or a throbbing head when you’re around a certain person, it might be time to check-in with your container– are there holes, does it need to be smaller, does it need to be made of a sturdier material, does it need to take a different shape? Likewise, if the quality of your mind shifts to anxious, racing, or self-deprecating while you are in the presence of a specific person, this, too, is an invitation to consider your needs and boundaries. Consider: “What do I need?”

How do you know if/when another person has crossed a boundary of yours? How do you know if/when you have crossed your own boundaries? Again, if you feel called, you are welcome to share below. 

How to Assert Compassionate Boundaries with Friends

Each relationship dynamic is different, AND your personality and communication preferences are unique. So I invite you to explore these ideas with curiosity. Notice what resonates, as well as what doesn’t resonate. And especially notice what feels interesting, but also a little uncomfortable– this may be your growth edge. 

  1. Practice communication that respects boundaries. You can approach your friends in mindful ways that acknowledge that other people have boundaries, too.  My go-to way to practice this is to text or say something like, “Do you have the energy for me to vent a little?” When you check in with others about their time/energy/ability to share or hold space, you are doing multiple layers of good work. First, you are identifying AND communicating that you have a need. Additionally, you are showing regard for their limited resources. By the way, when you ask for permission in this way, it’s crucial that you are okay with a yes, as well as a no. And if you get a no? It’s not personal. Consider who else you might be able to turn to. (Notice if your friends begin using this strategy, too, after you’ve modeled it!)
  2. Ask your friend “What do you need?” Sometimes friends will launch into a story giving you alllllllll the details, and this can be very overwhelming. (Sometimes, I’m that friend who rants. Other times, I’m the friend who feels overstimulated. Can you relate?) If you don’t have the capacity to hold everything a friend is sharing, you might gently interrupt them or enter at a pause and ask, “What do you need right now?” or “How might I be of support in this situation?” This compassionate check-in can allow them to slow down and consider their needs, AND it can help you create more space to uphold you own boundaries. If you are unable to give what they need, you’ve created the space to name that. 
  3. Acknowledge them, assert your boundary, and (if you want to and can) make an offer to connect in another way. If a friend has not checked-in before they start unloading on you, and you genuinely care about them BUT don’t have the capacity to hold it all, that’s okay. Again, you might gently interrupt your friend to slow things down. You can acknowledge the big feelings your friend is sharing. For example, you might say, “Hey, I’m so sorry. It sounds like today has been a really rough day.” Then, assert your boundary in a simple, direct way. “I have to get to class and wrap up an assignment before the bell.” Lastly, if you want to and you can— emotionally and energetically– make an offer to connect in a different way. “If you want to chat again later, I have 20 minutes after school.” If you’re unsure of how you want to connect with them, you can make a commitment to check in with them later: “I will text you this evening.” 

It can time and practice to feel comfortable asserting your boundaries, and you are worth it! As you do this important work, you might like to consider who and what is in your support system— who and what helps you create the container that feels safe and nurturing.

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