People often discuss establishing boundaries in conversation, but what exactly does this mean? Emotional boundaries are the rules and distancing that we put in place for ourselves within our relationships with others – whether it be friends, family, partners, or colleagues1. They are essential to building healthy and sustainable relationships and increasing our self-esteem2.

What are boundaries?

Boundaries are that invisible line we draw that defines what we feel okay – and not okay – with when we interact with others. Examples of types of boundaries include physical (not being comfortable with physical affection like hugging), and emotional boundaries (removing oneself from a conversation when one is being spoken down to)3. When we establish boundaries, we honour our needs and wants.

The Garden Fence Analogy

There are many analogies used to explain emotional boundaries – some call it their emotional bubble or bowl. Others use the Garden Fence Analogy4. Picture your personal space as a property with a beautiful, lush garden. Surrounding your property is a garden fence. This fence helps you feel safe and secure in your garden. It sends a clear message to others of what is your space.

A healthy boundary is firm and evident without being rigid – like a garden fence that is accessible. It is low enough for you to communicate with others on the other side and has a gate you can open to let them in and out. However, it is high enough to still keep you safe and secure. You feel comfortable being assertive and adjusting your boundaries according to a person or circumstance without violating your own limits.

When we struggle with setting boundaries, our fences are too low – or even non-existent. Others can walk into our garden, climb our tree and pick our flowers, causing a great deal of distress and resentment5! Often, having a low fence – or having no fence at all –  is a result of not knowing how to identify and express our needs. It becomes difficult to see where other people’s emotions and problems end and ours start. In this way, it becomes more likely that we feel responsible for others’ emotions and sacrifice our own wellbeing to please another. When we have little to no boundaries with others, we risk lowering our self-esteem, and increase our risk of stress, burnout, and anxiety6.

Sometimes, people build solid, high brick walls around their gardens that no one can see over. They send a clear message that says ‘leave me alone’. While this can seem like a way to separate their emotions from others, it is just as unhealthy as having no fence at all. When there is a tall brick wall, it isn’t possible to look over and ask for help or support or develop meaningful relationships. This can have a negative impact on wellbeing, pushing others away and being left feeling isolated.

Why is it difficult to build healthy boundaries?

No matter how you describe them, one thing many can agree on is this: setting emotional boundaries for ourselves is as challenging as it is important. As a self-confessed ‘people-pleaser’, setting my boundaries has been a journey of trial and error. Growing up, I often violated my own boundaries for various reasons. I was scared saying ‘no’ would make someone dislike or disapprove of me. I feared rejection if I didn’t take on responsibility for other people’s personal problems. As a result, I was in a constant state of stress, making me feel tired and overwhelmed7. I had grown a beautiful garden and allowed everyone but myself to enjoy it.

What does it mean to set healthy boundaries?

Setting boundaries means honouring your feelings and energy and respecting the feelings and energy of those around you8. It starts with analysing how much energy you are willing to give, knowing what to share and with whom to share it. It also means taking a step back from relationships where the boundaries you have communicated are not respected. To respect other people’s boundaries means to validate their emotions and check in with how much energy they are willing to share.

Three steps to get started with setting emotional boundaries

1. Verbalise what your comfort levels are

Take a moment to reflect on what supports your wellbeing and what negatively impacts it. Think about what you want from others in your relationships, how you would like to be treated, and what are non-negotiables. In other words, what are your values or beliefs that you will not compromise? What emotional information are you willing to share and take in from others? Once you have defined your boundaries, make them clear to those in your life in a respectful way using “I statements”9. This can sound like:

“I feel uncomfortable discussing this topic right now.”

“I want you to be happy, but I cannot take responsibility for your happiness.”

“I understand you feel upset, but do not speak to me in that way.”

2. Know your “no”

An essential step to setting boundaries is learning how to say “no” to situations or conversations that cross your emotional boundaries or are not in line with your values10. Remember, “no” is a complete sentence – it does not necessitate an explanation or an apologetic tone.

3. Set aside alone time

It’s important to schedule moments for yourself to recharge and practice self-care. “Me time”, where you spend time doing an activity you enjoy by yourself, helps to set healthy boundaries. It boosts creativity, confidence, and stability in times when you’re dealing with ups and downs11. Self-care can be anything that adds to your wellbeing, like a walk in the park, cooking your favourite meal, or curling up with a book. Make sure you communicate with others that you will be unavailable at this time.


When we put our boundaries in place, we take a step towards respecting our time and energy and that of others. We only have so much time and energy to give, and with boundaries, we are able to share it in a constructive way that honours our values and beliefs. When we communicate our boundaries, say “no” to situations that violate our boundaries, and set aside “me time”, we are able to build healthy and sustainable relationships and protect our wellbeing.

Enjoyed reading this? You can check out our other blog posts here.


[1] Daynomd, K., Millward, S. (2020). “What do counsellors and psychotherapists mean by boundaries?”. British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. Access here.

[2] Almahmoud, T., Hashim, M.J., Naeem, N., Almahmoud. R., Branicki, F., Elzubeir, M. (2020). “Relationships and boundaries: Learning needs and preferences in clerkship medical environments”. PLOS ONE15(7). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0236145. Access here.

[3] Brooten-Brooks, M. (2022). “What Is Boundary Setting?”. Mental Health. Verywell Mind. Access here.

[4] Rawlinson, A. (2023). “This Analogy for Boundaries is a Game-Changer”. Therapy with Abby.

[5] Gould, W. (2021). “The Dangers of Bottling Up Our Emotions”. Emotions. Verywell Mind. Access here.

[6] Kaufman S.B., Jauk, E. (2020). “Healthy selfishness and pathological altruism: Measuring two paradoxical forms of selfishness”. Front Psychol. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01006. Access here.

[7] Dijkstra, M.T., Homan, A.C. (2016). “Engaging in rather than disengaging from stress: Effective coping and perceived control”. Front Psychol. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01415. Access here.

[8] Coe, J., Davies, P., Sturge-Apple, M. (2018) “Family cohesion and enmeshment moderate associations between maternal relationship instability and children’s externalizing problems”. Journal of Family Psychology, 32(3), 289-298. DOI: 10.1037/fam0000346. Access here.

[9] Rogers, S.L., Howieson, J., Neame. C. (2018). “I understand you feel that way, but I feel this way: the benefits of I-language and communicating perspective during conflict”. PeerJ. DOI:10.7717/peerj.4831. Access here.

[10] Scott, E. (2022). “How to Say No to People”. Situational Stress. Verywell Mind. Access here.

[11] Thomas, V., Azmitia, M. (2019). “Motivation matters: Development and validation of the Motivation for Solitude Scale – Short Form (MSS-SF)”. Journal of Adolescence, Vol. 70, 33-42.