One of the most common issues people have is setting boundaries. They’re so used to not doing it, in fact, that they don’t even realize its a huge issue for them! Many people, especially empaths, worry about how to keep other people’s energy from getting to them. Others just want to know how to keep other people from treating them like crap. Some people, who consider themselves empaths, assume there’s no such thing as boundaries for them.

In order to set proper boundaries, we need to know what they are. Then, we need to know when we need one–and after that, how do we set and maintain them?

Decide how you want to be treated

Most of the time we think people are overstepping our boundaries the fact is we just haven’t actually set any. Self-esteem is a huge issue for people. It can be difficult for some people to feel like they have enough value to demand a certain standard of treatment. It can also be difficult, if people are used to treating you like a doormat, to tell them it’s not ok all of a sudden. In addition to this, things get trickier. We might think we don’t like it when, say, our friends call us during dinner because they have problems, but the reality is that perhaps it massages our ego to feel like we’re needed.

You don’t have to become unhelpful, unfeeling, or unempathetic just because you want to put some limits on when people access you. You get to decide when and where and how you offer yourself to people. They may not like it at first that you treat yourself just as importantly as them, but they may end up valuing you just as much as what you give them.

Make your boundaries clear

Think of a boundary as a road sign for your expectations. Boundaries are important in order to make it clear how you expect people to treat you and what is and isn’t ok (hence the road sign). Examples of this are being willing to say “I’m exhausted right now and need to have some quiet time. Can we talk tomorrow?” or “I don’t like to gossip about other people. Let’s talk about something else.” You can’t expect people to read your mind to know what you want.

You especially can’t expect them to respect boundaries you’ve repeatedly ignored yourself. It’s not unreasonable for people to expect that how they’re treating you is ok if you’ve never objected or told them otherwise. But before you can expect other people to recognize your boundaries you have to make them clear to yourself–other people won’t respect your boundaries if you don’t.

Set boundaries for yourself

We usually know a boundary when someone steps over one, because we usually visualize boundaries as something that is designed to keep someone out. In my experience however, in about 90% of the cases where I’ve had boundary issues it hasn’t been with someone coming in, but me stepping outward. In other words, I extended my energy out to meet someone else’s when I shouldn’t have. It’s an easy thing to do when, for example, your kids are pubescent and off-keel, or someone you love is unhappy. It’s a challenge to realize that someone else is experiencing a strong emotion, but that it’s truly theirs–and that you don’t need to share it.

Visualize energy.

Everything is energy, and while that can seem vague, you can at least figure out what’s your energy and what belongs to other people. If you’re feeling exhausted when you’re around a certain friend, it may not mean they’re a “psychic vampire.” It might just mean you can’t tell the difference between their stress and yours. You don’t have to feel what belongs to them. You can if you want to, but you get to decide if and when.

 If you’re bad at this, it can help to practice seeing yourself surrounded by a bubble of color (you choose the color). This can remind you “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” And once you visualize that boundary you can have more power over how you’re affected by things. You can remove yourself from a situation before you have core breach, or you can visualize the affront washing over you, or parting around you. This also lets you realize you can keep your energy intact AND still be empathetic. Sometimes people just need to be listened to. You can let them vent without being overrun by their energy.

Let your boundaries be flexible

Sometimes people don’t set boundaries because they think they should be able to deal with anything anytime and feel bad when they can’t. So for them, boundaries are an all or nothing thing, which usually means all.

Instead of a fence or a line in the sand, think of a boundary as something that can be moved back and forth, pulled in and pushed out, depending on what works for you. If you’re feeling great, maybe you don’t need a lot of personal boundaries. Sometimes you feel under the weather or just need to conserve your energy. It’s fine to tell people you just can’t make yourself available at the moment. Doing this can be a great way to see whether people value you and what you offer them or whether they’re just treating you as a dumping ground.