Teen girl sad, depressed, on phone setting boundaries with a friend.

How to Set Boundaries with Friends

Friendships can be some of the most rewarding and important relationships in a person’s life. Friends help us figure out who we are, are there for us when things are difficult, and share our joys and successes. They can be especially important if you are going through a difficult time with your family, or feel friends offer support your family doesn’t. So how do you know when it’s time to set boundaries with friends? 

This article will review what healthy boundaries in friendship are, why boundaries are necessary, and practical tips for how to set them using real examples. We’ll also talk about how and when to seek help for an unhealthy friendship and how therapy can help. With the right tools and support in place, boundaries can help a friendship grow stronger and better over time.

What are healthy boundaries in friendship?

Friends play an important role in everyone’s life, and they can become especially important during the teen years when you are figuring out who you are and who you want to become. Friends may feel especially important to you if they understand parts of you that aren’t accepted by your family, or if family relationships are strained for you. They may feel like the most permanent relationships in your life sometimes. But even the closest of friendships require boundaries to remain strong and healthy.

There are all types of close relationships in life, but all of them contain two important components: trust and safety. 

Knowing everything

Being a therapist has taught me that people are complicated - no matter how well I know my clients, I still remind myself that I don’t know everything about them. This is true in friendship too! It can make you feel very special and safe to have a friend who knows “everything” about you - maybe you stay in touch all the time, and an expectation develops that you tell each other every detail. This is often how friendship is portrayed in movies and TV, too. This looks so fun on the outside, but it can also be draining, and isn’t sustainable across a lifetime. 

Friendships are healthy and close when there is trust and safety. Trust and safety means you can update each other often, but there isn’t urgency to convey every thought and detail. When there is too much pressure to do this, it inevitably leads to conflict when one person in the friendship isn’t able to keep this up, even temporarily. Instead, it’s better to focus on meaningful connection and conversation. No one can know everything, but some can know a lot. There’s a difference!

Being everything

Some people have wide circles of many friends, and others have just a few people close to them. There may be times when there’s only one friend in your world. These are all ok and healthy! But whether you have a wide circle, or a tiny one, no one—not even your best friend—can be everything in your life. This is because humans are meant to be shaped by all kinds of different relationships over time, from relationships with your parents, to siblings, to romantic partners. 

Sometimes if you have a difficult relationship with your family, it can feel like a best friend is the only option for all of the attention and support that you need. Being close is a good thing, and it’s good to lean on friends during hard times, but going to only one person for everything puts too much pressure on them. If there is only one person in your world who you go to for every kind of support from advice to company to emergency help, then it’s a good idea to think of expanding your circle. And chances are if you’ve made one good friend, you have the tools to find more. 

Feeling everything

Sometimes a friendship can be close one minute, and filled with conflict the next. When you’re constantly waiting to find out if your friend could be upset, then you don’t have either trust or safety. When trust and safety are present, this means conflict can be managed without worrying about your entire relationship being compromised. This doesn’t mean conflict is easy! It’s normal to get angry or hurt, and healthy relationships allow space for this. In fact, it’s important to have conflict in friendship sometimes because it allows you to practice talking things out without harming each other. 

Having trust means that anger can be present without threatening the end of a relationship. And having safety means that you can express anger or hurt without scaring or hurting the other person. Both people in a friendship are responsible for trust and safety. If you’re in a friendship where a person is unpredictably angry or hurt, or it’s not possible for you to be angry or hurt in an appropriate way with them, then new boundaries need to be set for that relationship to go forward.

How to set boundaries with friends

Setting boundaries with friends can take some practice, just like all new things. But with a few conversation tools, some courage, and compassion for yourself as you grow, you can start practicing now and watch how healthy friendships flourish. 

Here are 8 tips for trying out new boundaries:

1. Give yourself 10 (or more)

If you’re feeling pressured to know, be, and feel everything in a friendship, it can lead to lots of anxiety! Maybe you’re constantly waiting for that text or DM to come back, worried about what you’ve said (or not said). If you’re feeling pressured, try waiting an extra 10 minutes before responding. Be honest with yourself, and if you’re not in a clear headspace, wait a little longer. Remember, trust and safety are requirements for friendship - forever friends can wait 10 minutes.

2. Mix in no

If you’re always saying “yes” in a friendship and feeling overburdened a lot of the time this can lead to burnout. Imagine saying “no” every other time, or every 3rd time. Loving friends leave space for you to care for yourself, and a “no” to a request or invitation does not compromise a healthy friendship.

3. Redirect

Sometimes when a conversation is hard, it’s easiest to lead it in a different direction. If your friend always wants to talk about one emotionally draining topic, you can try saying something like “I’m so sorry it’s still tough with your girlfriend, let’s talk about something else to get your mind off it. Have you seen - ?” 

4. Recruit

There are times when you might need to widen your circle if you’ve been carrying too much for one friend. This might mean “recruiting” another friend to lean on, or suggesting a trusted adult like a therapist or school counselor for you or them. Having a small circle can be great, but remember no single person can be everything to someone all the time. 

5. Take a break

If a friendship is becoming too pressured and challenging, take a break and seek out something humorous, pleasant, or relaxing for yourself. This can be a reminder that you are a separate person from this friend, with your own self and experiences. You don’t have to feel everything they’re feeling, or absorb every problem. A break will inevitably bring you one of two things: either more clarity to help solve a problem, or clarity that it’s not your problem to solve.

6. Ask for what you need

A friend may not know what you need unless you ask for it—a really useful skill in life is finding kind and respectful ways to state a need. This is a tool that will benefit you across all relationships, including friendships, romantic relationships, and even your professional life! Saying something like “I think I need this night to myself” is ok, and the more you practice, the more confident you’ll feel about your needs over time.

7. Validate

Starting to set new boundaries with a friend can be hard, and hurt feelings may come up. One way to help improve this experience is practicing being open about your positive feelings about them, too. Telling your friend what you enjoy about being close with them can help to reinforce the trust and safety you’ve started.

8. Be direct

My favorite tool! And usually the one we need the most practice with. While it may feel impossibly hard to tell someone how you feel or what you need, try to think back on times when you felt stressed or hurt in a relationship. Often it’s connected to lack of clarity on where the other person stands. There can be a lot of pain in wondering. And telling the truth is giving the other person respect, even if it’s hard. Just like asking for what you need, being direct in a kind and respectful way is one of the most important skills you can learn for all relationships in life. Here are some examples of being direct and communicating about hard things:

  • “I need to tell you that I can’t talk about our other friend anymore—I feel guilty.”
  • “I’ve thought a lot about this and I don’t think I can keep this secret for you anymore. It’s not right for either of us.”
  • “You are my best friend, but I have to say no.”
  • “This feels wrong to me, I need you to respect that.”
  • “I disagree, but I still care about you.”
  • “I need to talk about this tomorrow.”
  • “Thank you for telling me that, I need some time to think.”

No matter which new tool you try, remember that all friendships should have trust and safety. Change is hard in any relationship, but a loving friend can even be invited into the process of setting new boundaries to improve your life—you can practice together. 

When boundaries aren’t enough

There are almost no “nevers” in life, but there are some boundaries when it’s ok to use “never.”. Remember, healthy friendships are safe friendships, and your personal safety should never be compromised in any relationship. These are some times when you need additional support to get safe again:

Violence

No relationship, including friendship, family, or romantic relationships can include violence and be safe. If you have been physically or sexually hurt in a relationship (even if it was just once, or an ambiguous situation), you should tell someone safe right away. Similarly, this should never be a secret you keep for someone else. In these situations, the safe person you select needs to be an adult, because only an adult will have the power needed to help make the best decisions, recruit appropriate help, and provide the level of support you need. If you’re having trouble thinking of the right adult to tell, think of your community broadly - it can be a parent, an older sibling or adult family member, a family friend, a teacher, a school counselor, a coach, or a therapist.

Coercion

Doing favors or being close to someone because they are threatening you emotionally or physically does not allow you to be safe. If you’re in a friendship because you’re worried about what would happen to them or you if you set a boundary, you should talk to a safe adult to get support.

Suicide or self-harm

There are some situations where, no matter how much you love someone or how well you know them, outside support is just necessary. If a friend is talking about suicide or self-harm, or this is a part of your life, friendship is not enough. The best friend in this scenario is someone who can help you get mental health support. If you or your friend already have a therapist but are still relying on a friend to talk about suicide or self-harm, this is likely a time when using one of the tools above to set a boundary is a good idea. This can be done in a caring way that makes sure your friend still knows you want to be there for them, but that topics like suicide need to discussed with an expert who can assess safety accurately and provide ongoing support. 

Can therapy help with friendship boundaries?

Relationships are probably the most common topic in therapy! Even if someone comes to therapy to talk about something completely personal, we always end up talking about relationships in their life, too. Therapy can help in surprising ways. It can be a space to get understanding and validation for your experience, which can be hard in other relationships. It can also help with practical tools for “what to do or say when.” A therapist can help you figure out what boundaries should look like for you personally, and even help you practice conversations. 

Some people worry that going to therapy to talk about friendship isn’t “important” enough, but friendship plays a huge role in a person’s mental health, so it’s a great topic for therapy. It’s good to find a therapist who specializes in working with teens and young adults, like therapy at Joon, so that you can guarantee they will understand the unique role of friendship in your life. If you would like more space to talk about boundaries in friendship, consider reaching out to a therapist at Joon to learn more.

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July 12, 2023
Katey Nicolai, PhD | VP of Clinical Services

Katey Nicolai, PhD | VP of Clinical Services

Katey Nicolai, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Seattle Pacific University. Dr. Nicolai provides services to adolescents and adults using evidence-based treatment rooted in cognitive-behavioral and psychodynamic therapies, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy, interpersonal therapy, and family systems. Dr. Nicolai has specialized training in treating trauma and PTSD, personality disorders, self-harm and suicidailty, family problems, emotion dysregulation, and mood and anxiety disorders.

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