Boundaries and Friendship: 3 Tips from a Mental Health Coach

boundaries friendship

Growing up, I was often the odd girl out. You see, not only was I the biggest (both height and weight) of my friends, but overall, my family was so different from theirs. My mom was strict when it came to what I did with my spare time. She hated the idea of going to the mall or hanging out at a friend’s house. When friends came over to my house, my mom would take us to museums or to do some educational activity. You can imagine how popular my house was for hanging out purposes in middle school – though I do appreciate the cultural and scientific education nowadays – hah!

Being so different from my friends, both in personality and upbringing, often led to my being left out, and to some degree, missing out on the subtle rules of engagement imbued in middle school girls. For instance, I was (and still am) a total nerd. I love facts and science and am constantly learning how to apply everything I learn. In middle school, this meant that conversations about clothes and boys were an awkward situation for me and my friends. Because I wasn’t “in the know” about these vital topics, I wasn’t included in these conversations, and was frequently excluded from hangouts, dance parties, and budding middle school businesses. As I grew up, it meant that I would take breadcrumbs in terms of being included, because I never wanted to feel like I did in middle school ever again. It also meant that I bent myself to fit in to the type of friend people wanted, despite it being so unnatural to who I was. I became a total people pleaser.

In college, I saw my lack of authenticity backfire time and time again. People saw right through me and picked up on my non-existent sense of self. When I moved to New York City post college, with a relatively blank slate, I began the deep work of being authentically myself, pursuing what lit my soul on fire, and learning to overcome my severe social anxiety. I learned more about myself in those first years after college and truly began enjoying my own company, as well as the new friendships the authentic and vulnerable version of me was building.

In order to be authentically myself in social settings and deeply connected friendships, I learned to set boundaries on the kinds of relationships and behaviors that I would accept. Some will think that this view is self-centered, but these boundaries allow me to both receive the types of friendships that work for me and to be the kind of friend that my friends expect and deserve!

Boundaries are the self-care that allow others around us to see how much we value ourselves as humans. Boundaries are one way in which each of us takes care of our well-being, and I know we all want our friends to experience high levels of well-being too. Modeling healthy boundaries in a friendship can also benefit others, who like me, didn’t have them to begin with!

Some healthy boundaries I set in friendships: 

I won’t accept a one-sided friendship – in my teens and young adulthood, I became the go-to friend and never asked for help for fear of appearing needy. I was a total people pleaser who showed no vulnerability. The reality is that both giving and receiving feel good. For instance, it feels great to be able to cook a meal for a friend who is ill or has just had a baby. Likewise, it feels great when a friend drops off zucchini bread as a study treat or gives your newborn a bath so you can rest. It’s not a tit-for-tat reciprocity; it’s reassurance that both people feel comfortable being vulnerable and want to see the other be well and succeed.

Trust is non-negotiable – In many friendships, gossip can often be currency. Some chit chat can be funny and harmless, but if a friend entrusts you with sensitive information, or explains that they’re not sharing something with others, it is for your ears and brain only. If a friend does something you do not agree with, you discuss it with that friend, not others. Friendship is built on mutual trust and an understanding that you’re each looking out for the others best interests. If a friend betrays your trust, it is up to you to enforce your boundary and let them know how you feel.

 I won’t accept friendship that makes me feel inferior – In her infinite wisdom, Eleanor Roosevelt said that “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”  To some degree that is true. But what is also true is that sometimes we have an experience that makes us feel like gum on the bottom of someone’s shoe. For some, that may look like being left out of a group activity while for others that might include a friend who consistently disrespects their time. Either way, where Eleanor Roosevelt is totally on point is that when it comes to behaviors that make you feel inferior, it is up to you to do something about them. Enforce that boundary. Let that friend know you’d like to be included more often or that their constant tardiness makes you feel disrespected. If the behavior doesn’t change, then reevaluating that friendship might be in order because you deserve mutual respect in a friendship.