Learning healthy boundaries

5 Ways to Draw the Line Politely

Knowing how to set boundaries is one of the most essential yet overlooked social skills. 

Boundaries are rooted in clear communication. 

As Brene Brown says: “Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.” The more precise you can express your boundaries, the more likely your boundaries will be respected. While you may need to repeat yourself a few times, don’t feel the need to apologize or explain your boundaries. 

Like an invisible fence around the perimeter of a yard, boundaries establish where your space ends, and someone else’s begins. If a dog can recognize and respect that perimeter, then so can everyone in your life. 

Here’s precisely how to set boundaries that protect your mental, physical, and emotional well-being from fostering healthy relationships at work, at home, and in social circles.

What Are Healthy Boundaries?

Healthy boundaries are the limits you place around your time, emotions, body, and mental health to stay resilient, solid, and content with who you are. These empowering borders protect you from being used, drained, or manipulated by others.

You can set boundaries around:

  • Emotional energy
  • Time
  • Personal space
  • Sexuality
  • Morals and ethics
  • Material possessions and finances
  • Social media 

Boundaries can be set with:

  • Family 
  • Friends
  • Romantic relationships
  • Coworkers
  • Strangers

Though they aren’t as blatantly clear as a fence, wall, or “no trespassing” sign, healthy boundaries communicate to others what you will and will not tolerate. In short, boundaries empower you to take charge of your life.

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Why Do You Need Boundaries? 

Personal boundaries are at the root of a fulfilled, balanced life. Without them, people can quickly lose themselves in their work, relationships, familial obligations, or service to others. They can even wind up being exploited or taken advantage of by people who do not respect them.  

These borders help define what you are willing to say “yes” to and what you decide to say “no” to. They give you a sense of agency and sovereignty over your decisions. 

Like an internal compass, boundaries can all start with a “gut feeling” that tells you when you have the time or energy to devote to something versus when you need to say “no.” 

Good boundaries free you to live life on your terms. 

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Healthy Boundaries vs. Unhealthy Boundaries 

People with solid boundaries tend to have lower levels of stress and higher self-esteem because they prioritize their well-being. 

On the other hand, people without boundaries may inadvertently let others take advantage of them. 

They may lack self-confidence, a sense of purpose, or a clear identity to guide them through life. Counselor Dr. Dana Nelson writes, “in work or in our personal relationships, poor boundaries lead to resentment, anger, and burnout.”

People without boundaries can be easily persuaded into things they don’t want to do because they may be acting out of guilt or obligation rather than self-love.  

Signs of Healthy Boundaries Potential Signs of Unhealthy Boundaries
Protect yourself from getting taken advantage of Vulnerable to being “used” or taken advantage of
Own your time Over-commit your time to others and leave little time for yourself
High self-esteem and self-respect Lower self-esteem and critical inner dialogue
Prioritize time for yourself Give a lot of their time to other people
You only take on responsibilities you can handle; you don’t overcommit yourself Feeling exhausted or burnt out by overwhelming commitments and responsibilities
Authentically say “no” if you don’t have the energy or capacity to do something Have a hard time saying “no”
Set limits for others without feeling bad Feel guilty for expressing boundaries
Strong sense of identity and direction Change yourself to fit in with different people
Take care of your own problems and understand that you cannot heal other people’s issues for them Take on other people’s problems as your own
You clearly communicate your needs and wants; you prioritize your self-care You put other people’s needs and wants before your own

Suppose you’re tired of living your life for other people or find yourself exhausted by all the commitments you’ve made to others. In that case, it’s time to set some boundaries and reclaim the power of your time, energy, and mental well-being. 

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5 Effective Ways to Set Healthy Boundaries

Setting boundaries comes down to communication. Communicating your needs and desires is the most vital step toward defining your limitations and living a more liberated existence. 

Visualize and Name Your Limits

The first and most important step to defining your boundaries is to make them concrete. Boundaries are often confusing and abstract because they feel invisible in our daily lives. 

However, by visualizing your boundaries and writing them down, you can get much more clarity on where you want to draw the line between you and other people.

Set aside some time to reflect on the state of your life. Ask yourself:

  • What is causing me unnecessary stress or discomfort?
  • What do I look forward to each day versus what do I dread?
  • Who or what gives me energy?
  • What areas of my life do I feel exhausted by?
  • What makes me feel safe, supported, and valued?

Draw a large circle on a blank piece of paper. Inside the circle, write everything that makes you feel safe and stress-free. 

For example:

  • A daily routine
  • Words of affirmation from your partner
  • Hugs from your loved ones
  • Leaving work stress in the office
  • Clear communication from your loved ones
  • Freedom to decide how you spend your free time
  • Saying “no” to energy vampires 
  • Autonomy over your body

On the outside of the circle, write down anything that causes you discomfort, pain, annoyance, or emotional exhaustion. These are the people or situations pushing the limits of your boundaries. 

For example:

  • Your mom telling you what to do with your life
  • Working after-hours on projects instead of prioritizing your self-care
  • Worrying about what certain people think about you 
  • Your cousin asking to borrow money
  • Your coworker constantly dumping her relationship problems on you at lunch
  • Your roommate eating your food from the fridge
  • Your boyfriend/girlfriend controlling who you talk to or hang out with
  • Strange people at the bar touching you without asking
  • Acquaintances asking deep or intimate questions about your life

This circle represents a visible manifestation of your limits. It’s time to take anything outside the circle and determine how you can define a boundary that will prevent or eliminate those issues in the future. 

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Openly Communicate Your Boundaries

One of the biggest mistakes people make is setting boundaries in their minds but not openly sharing them with the people in their life. Sometimes people assume that you should know their boundaries. But if they didn’t clearly communicate where they’ve drawn the line, how will you know when you’ve overstepped it? 

This can seem daunting and scary, but it can feel like a significant relief once you get it out of the way. As social psychology researcher Brene Brown says, “clear is kind, unclear is unkind.” Once you know your boundaries, you have to communicate them. 

Take a deep breath, gather your resolve, and assertively express your needs in a kind, direct way. Here’s how:

How to Clearly Communicate Boundaries
Time Boundary “I can only stay for an hour” or “If you’re going to be late, please let me know ahead of time.
Energy Boundary “I don’t have the energy to help you with [their request] right now, but maybe [this resource] can help.”
Emotional Dumping “I understand you’re having a hard time and I want to be there for you, but I don’t have the emotional capacity to listen right now.”
Personal Space Boundary “It makes me feel uncomfortable when you [touch or action]. If you can’t respect my space, I’ll have to leave.”
Conversational Boundary “This is not a topic I’m willing to discuss right now.”
Comment Boundary “I don’t find those types of comments funny.”
Mental Boundary “I understand we see things differently and I respect your opinion, but please don’t force it on me.”
Material Boundary “Please ask me first before borrowing my [possession]” or “I would appreciate it if you didn’t touch my [material thing].
Social Media Boundary “I don’t feel comfortable with you posting that on Instagram.”

Fortunately, once someone is aware of your boundaries, most people will respect them and apologize if they accidentally cross the line. Without clear communication, the lines become blurred. You can quickly find yourself crossing into the more dangerous territory of getting burned out, taken advantage of, or even neglecting your own needs. 

The more precise and direct you can communicate your boundaries, the easier it will be to uphold them. Boundaries are like the “rules” of a relationship. When they’re displayed for all parties involved, it is much easier to respect them. 

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Reiterate and Uphold Your Boundaries

Like the invisible perimeter fence around a yard protects a dog from running into the street, boundaries protect you from overextending your mental and emotional well-being. 

But the dog has to be trained not to cross that line. They have to understand where their yard begins and ends. It takes time, repetition, and patience.

The same is true of human boundaries. Not everyone will understand or respect your boundaries the first time. It’s essential to stand firm in your decision while kindly reminding them of your needs when necessary. 

A dog will get confused if the yard ends at the bushes one day but extends to the sidewalk the next. If someone doesn’t initially respect your boundary, remind them, but stay consistent with your original decision. 

Pro Tip: Avoid shifting your boundaries for somebody else’s comfort. If you said, “I don’t feel comfortable with you contacting me about work after hours,” you probably don’t want to send the message that “sometimes it’s OK for you to text me late at night.” While it may be awkward or uncomfortable initially, a person who truly wants to be in your life will respect your decision. 

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Don’t Be Afraid to Say No

Have you ever met someone who seemed to say “yes” to everything? People afraid to say “no” often end up with an overflowing plate of duties and responsibilities that they can’t seem to keep up with. They tend to forgo their self-care as they frantically try to meet the demands of all the people and things they said “yes” to. 

“No” is a powerful word. It sounds strikingly similar in dozens of languages and can be recognized by simple gestures or facial expressions. 

Yet so many people in the modern-day have been programmed to feel guilty for their “no’s.” In reality, to say “no” is to draw a line in the sand. It is an expression of courage, self-love, and sovereignty over your daily decisions. 

Remember that every “yes” and “no” shapes your reality. You have the power to choose how you will spend your time and energy. If something doesn’t feel right in your gut, you probably shouldn’t do it. The word “no” is essential for healthy boundaries. 

If you need help saying “no” more often, check out our 6 Effective Tips to Politely Say No.

Action Tip: Saying “no” doesn’t have to be rude, but it also doesn’t require an apology or an explanation. Notice where in your life you say “I’m sorry, I can’t” or “maybe, let me get back to you” when you just mean “no.” Pay attention to how you can shift these simple conversations to more clearly draw a boundary instead of leaving another person waiting for a clear answer. The clarity of your communication will ultimately benefit all parties involved. 

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Take Time for Yourself

Amidst our fast-moving world, self-care can feel selfish or even frivolous. But the science of self-care is clear: taking alone time for yourself is linked to more confidence, greater creativity, more emotional intelligence, and more emotional stability in challenging situations. It can even help prevent burnout. 

Action Tip: For the next month, set aside a solid 2-hour block of time on your calendar each week specifically for “me time.” Let your close family and friends know that you won’t be available during this time. Whether you’re cooking a healthy meal for yourself, getting outside, taking a rest day, hitting the yoga studio, or lounging on the beach with a good book, creating time for yourself is crucial for healthier boundaries.  

But what does self-care have to do with boundaries? 

Solitude allows you to reflect on your life and your values. The time you set aside for self-care can help bring more clarity into your relationships with other people, ultimately helping you define your boundaries. 

To many, this may seem selfish. Modern society’s tendency toward self-sacrifice and workaholism has led a large majority of people to dismiss their boundaries or sacrifice their well-being to please other people. Ironically, this can often have the opposite effect than they’d like. 

Self-care and healthy boundaries are not selfish; they are a form of self-love that leads to deeper relationships and more fulfilling experiences. 

As the saying goes: you cannot pour from an empty cup. Healthy boundaries are a way to fill your cup so that you can offer more joy and help to the world. 

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Bonus: Deal With Difficult People

Whether you’re at work or dealing with a personal relationship, difficult people can make setting boundaries 10x harder. But how do you even begin to deal with them? Through rigorous testing, we found the optimal approach to dealing with difficult people:

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How to Deal with Difficult People at Work

Do you have a difficult boss? Colleague? Client? Learn how to transform your difficult relationship.

I’ll show you my science-based approach to building a strong, productive relationship with even the most difficult people.

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How to Create Work-Life Boundaries

Research shows that blurred work-life boundaries are linked to emotional exhaustion. This is more relevant than ever amidst the massive shift to remote work-from-home scenarios. But workaholism can manifest in many other ways as well:

For example, John is a high-achieving lawyer who takes great pride in his work. However, he often stays extra late hours in his home office, compulsively checking emails and neglecting quality time with his family. He is regularly stressed and constantly thinking about new clients and cases from the moment he wakes up to when he goes to bed.  

John often jokingly describes himself as a “workaholic” but inwardly associates his job with his identity. He doesn’t have any work-life boundaries, and his mental, emotional, and physical health are suffering. 

Ways to Set Boundaries as a Workaholic:
  • Set precise work hours (such as 9 to 5 with a 1-hour lunch break)
  • Follow a morning routine centered around self-care
  • Avoid checking your phone while with family and friends
  • Tell your coworkers or employees that you are not available during certain times
  • Define a space in your home that is only for work (avoid working on your bed or from your couch) 
  • Delegate tasks or hire new employees to help reduce your stress levels
  • Try a new hobby that is unrelated to your work
  • Keep separate sets of “work clothes” and “lounge clothes” to allow you to shift between boundaries mentally 
  • When you close your laptop, mentally allow yourself to “clock out” for the day

Workaholism is a real problem resulting from a lack of boundaries around time and energy.  

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How to Set Boundaries in a Romantic Relationship

Romantic relationships can be the most challenging area of your life to set boundaries. Despite what the movies tell us, it’s not necessarily healthy to give your whole self to somebody else. And honestly, nobody should expect you to. 

Healthy boundaries are vital to healthy relationships. They define who is responsible for what, when you see each other, how you interact, and what each partner needs to feel safe and respected. Perhaps most importantly, relationship boundaries prevent codependency. 

Suppose a romantic relationship takes over your life and impedes your work or your relationships with friends and family members. In that case, it may be time to step back and re-evaluate your boundaries. 

The 3 most common romantic areas that are lacking in boundaries include: 

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How Much Time You Spend Together

Suppose you or your significant other tries to spend every waking hour together. In that case, you may be lacking a boundary around your time. 

Relationship counselor Garrett Coan advises the “70/30” rule as a general guideline: the happiest, most harmonious marriages spend about 70% of their time together and 30% apart. 

This may be more skewed toward 50/50 or 40/60 depending on the stage of your relationship, but the moral of the story is that nobody should take up all of your time. Time with a romantic partner needs to be balanced with time for friends, family, and yourself. 

You can gently and lovingly express that you need more time to yourself to bring the best version of yourself into the relationship. This may manifest as a simple boundary like, “Sundays are my days for myself.”

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Setting Physical and Sexual Boundaries

Physical boundaries are essential at every stage of a relationship, especially in the heat of a new romance. It is imperative to ask for permission before kissing, hugging, or touching a romantic partner for the first time.  

Moreover, there needs to be conversations around how comfortable each person is with things like publicly displaying affection, holding hands, or any other form of physical boundary. 

Maintaining autonomy over your body while respecting the physical or emotional boundaries of your sexual partner is crucial to maintaining a healthy connection. This can include consent, privacy, expressing your preferences and desires, and having a mutual understanding of your partner’s physical and emotional needs. 

For example, suppose a man sees a woman who has a history of sexual abuse or trauma. In that case, he can respect her sexual boundaries by regularly checking in about her comfort with different types of physical intimacy. Suppose she expresses that a particular experience was triggering for her. In that case, he needs to respect that boundary to maintain her trust. 

More commonplace examples for physical boundaries include avoiding overt PDA while at a social gathering or simply asking someone before hugging them.  

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Respecting Emotional Boundaries

Perhaps the most complex of all, emotional boundaries are the guidelines surrounding how you and your partner express your feelings to each other. 

How do you talk to each other? Do you listen intently to your partner’s needs or only focus on yourself? What topics do you avoid discussing? What tones of voice do you use? How do you apologize and resolve the situation when you get into arguments? 

Examples of Emotional Boundaries:

  • “Let’s not discuss that topic at tonight’s dinner.”
  • “It makes me uncomfortable when you bring up [painful topic]. Can we please keep that between us?”
  • “I need some time to myself to think about this situation.”
  • “I will not tolerate being called names.”
  • “I want to support you in this hard time, but I cannot be your emotional dumping ground. Maybe you can reach out to [a therapist, your mom, etc.].”

Pro Tip: For more amazing advice on how to (properly) argue, read on: 9 Conflict Resolution Tips to Win An Argument Like a Jedi

A Note on Emotional Dumping

Unlike venting, emotional dumping is sporadically dumping traumatic feelings, thoughts, and emotions onto a partner or even a stranger. Whether you are the giver or receiver of emotional dumping, it can be a difficult boundary to navigate. 

A person trying to release their emotions can express extreme vulnerability. But vulnerability can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, vulnerability is the key to establishing deep romantic connections. But it can also lead to breaches of trust or even over-sharing. 

Everyone experiences heavy emotions that they sometimes need to vent, but using your romantic partner as an emotional dumping ground can significantly strain the relationship. After all, significant others are not therapists. 

Set this boundary for yourself and your partner by compassionately saying, “I want to be there for you, but I don’t think I can support you in this way.” You can also suggest a third-party professional help with the situation potentially. Remember always to show empathy but demonstrate that you feel uncomfortable being the recipient of such intense oversharing. 

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How to Set Boundaries With Parents

When it comes to parental boundaries, it’s a whole different ball game. As a child, it can be incredibly confusing to have your caretaker lean on you for support or express inappropriate emotions in front of you. Fortunately, as an adult, you have more freedom and awareness to navigate boundaries with your parents. 

Either way, boundaries need to be established. Whether young, adolescent, or adult, children need to know that they have certain privacy from their parents, for example, a boundary around their parents reading their diaries or entering their room while they are changing clothes.

In the reverse scenario, children also need to know their parents’ privacy and comfort level guidelines. Parents who want to set boundaries with their children may tell their kids always to knock before entering their bedroom or to ask before using certain household items. 

Young adults may need to set boundaries around their parents’ guidance for suggestions. Parents often have an idea of how they want their child to live their life, and even if it is well-meaning, it can be harmful to your sense of freedom and self-sovereignty. Adults can draw this boundary by expressing to their parents that they prefer not to receive unsolicited advice or judgment about their decisions. They will ask for help when they need it. 

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How to Set Boundaries With Friends

While friendships are vital to your health and happiness, they can often be taxing when they have no bounds. Needy friends may expect a lot from you and not always give back. If you need to establish more boundaries with your friends, it all begins with the confidence to say “no.” 

If you’re a people pleaser, this can be incredibly challenging because you want to make everyone happy. You may have difficulty saying “no” to someone asking for your help or attention, even if you don’t have the energy or time to do it. 

There also could be some personal work involved. If you fear rejection or a need for validation, it may be harder to delineate your boundaries. But the friends worth having tend to understand and respect your priorities. Saying “no” is not a massive betrayal or letdown. It’s simply a skill you can practice to help establish more boundaries within friendships. 

Ways to Set Boundaries with Friends:
  • Set aside time specifically for yourself
  • Let your friends know when they can expect a response from you (set this boundary, so people don’t get upset if you don’t respond to their text or call right away)
  • Clearly express when you feel overwhelmed, ignored, or unheard.
  • If you’re afraid to say “no,” start saying “I’ll get back to you” and think about things before you provide an answer
  • Let your friends know that you have personal goals and dreams you are working towards
  • Only offer to help friends with things that you genuinely have the capacity for. Otherwise, suggest alternative ways they can get help with the situation.
  • Communicate that you are there for them, yet you are also prioritizing yourself at this time in your life.

Pro Tip: Use our 11 expert tips to stop being a people pleaser to feel more confident and authentic in your friendships. 

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In Summary, 5 Steps to Set Healthy Boundaries

If you want to reclaim your energy, time, and power, setting boundaries is crucial for your growth journey. 

While it may seem daunting, setting boundaries doesn’t need to be complicated:

  1. Define your limits (what supports you versus what detracts from your well-being)
  2. Openly communicate your boundaries to people in your life
  3. Remind people if needed (but always stick to your boundaries)
  4. Don’t be afraid to say “no” to things that don’t serve you
  5. Take time for yourself

The bounds of your life will shape your growth and relationships with people around you. You only have so much time, energy, and emotional capacity. If you don’t protect your well-being, nobody else will. 

Hopefully, by establishing clear boundaries, you can find more freedom to express yourself and live a more joyful life.

If you’re seeking more confidence to layout your boundaries and fulfill your greatest potential, check out our guide on How to Be More Confident: 11 Scientific Strategies For More Confidence.

How to Set Healthy Boundaries & Build Positive Relationships

Healthy boundaries define what is appropriate behavior in our relationships – behavior that keeps both parties safe.

And setting healthy boundaries is crucial for self-care and positive relationships.

But let’s first understand what boundaries are.

Boundaries differ from person to person and are mediated by variations in culture, personality, and social context. Boundaries appropriate in a business meeting would seem irrelevant in a nightclub with old friends! Setting boundaries defines our expectations of ourselves and others in different kinds of relationships.

Below, we will examine definitions of relationship boundaries, how to set healthy boundaries, the different types of boundaries, and how to establish healthy boundaries in different contexts. We review the New York Times bestseller “Set Boundaries, Find Peace”.

In addition, we offer these free Positive Relationships PDF worksheets to help your clients define and set healthy boundaries—essential for healthy relationships.

This Article Contains:

  • What Are Boundaries?
  • How to Set Healthy Boundaries
  • Examples of Healthy Boundaries
  • Personal and Emotional Boundaries
  • Boundaries in Psychology
  • Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Review
  • 7 Healthy Boundaries Worksheets (PDFs)
  • Positive Relationship Resources
  • A Take-Home Message
  • References

What Are Boundaries?

Let’s define boundaries. Put simply:

“A boundary is a limit or edge that defines you as separate from others”

(Katherine, 2010, p. 14).

Our skin is an obvious physical boundary, but we have other kinds of interpersonal boundaries too, including a limit that extends beyond our body.

Consider what happens when somebody stands too close for comfort. We often describe it as someone invading our personal space, but definitions of personal space vary according to culture, the type of relationship involved, and social context.

Comfortable boundaries with your partner at home, would not be appropriate in a different social context, such as attending a business dinner together.

Similarly, the level of physical intimacy deemed appropriate for expression in public spaces varies wildly across cultures.

When I lived in Sri Lanka, it was customary for children to greet their parents by touching their feet rather than hugging them. Meanwhile, touching, hugging, and kissing between married couples was frowned upon in public.

However, in the UK, hugging and kissing in public is acceptable, and embraces between friends, partners, and family members are deemed appropriate in shared public spaces.

Having said that, we all have friends or family members who are personally uncomfortable with hugging in any situation other than in private with their partner. Each individual is different.

So, in summary, a relationship boundary is an interpersonal limit that is mediated by variations in personality, culture, and social context.

How to Set Healthy Boundaries

Setting healthy boundaries requires self-awareness. We need to be clear about our expectations of ourselves and others, and what we are and are not comfortable with in specific situations. Setting healthy boundaries requires good communication skills that convey assertiveness and clarity.

Assertiveness involves expressing your feelings openly and respectfully. It does not entail making demands, but it requires people to listen to you. Setting healthy boundaries requires you to assert your needs and priorities as a form of self-care. Tawwab outlines three easy steps to setting healthy boundaries:

Step 1. Be as clear and as straightforward as possible. Do not raise your voice.
Step 2. State your need or request directly in terms of what you’d like, rather than what you don’t want or like.
Step 3. Accept any discomfort that arises as a result, whether it’s guilt, shame, or remorse.

The third step is common for people with poor boundaries, codependency issues, or are people pleasers.

Sometimes, adults have been raised by childhood carers who’ve taught them that expressing their needs is bad and selfish. However, not accepting the discomfort that comes from setting healthy boundaries in adulthood means settling for unhealthy relationships that can cause resentment, manipulation, and abuse.

Examples of Healthy Boundaries

Examples of healthy boundaries include:

  • Declining anything you don’t want to do
  • Expressing your feelings responsibly
  • Talking about your experiences honestly
  • Replying in the moment
  • Addressing problems directly with the person involved, rather than with a third party
  • Making your expectations clear rather than assuming people will figure them out.

Setting healthy boundaries also requires an awareness of different boundaries involved in relationships, as illustrated in our ‘7 Types of Boundaries’ diagram below.

Personal and Emotional Boundaries

In this section, we will look at personal and emotional boundaries. In the diagram above, personal boundaries refer to all seven types of boundaries that affect our personal wellbeing.

When we maintain healthy boundaries in all seven domains we will thrive, but when others cross or violate our boundaries, there will be a personal cost if we do not address it.

One domain refers to emotional boundaries which determine how emotionally available you are to other people. We all need support at different times when life hits us with unexpected events, or just help to process the onslaught of micro stressors during the day, sometimes referred to as ‘daily hassles’ in the psychology literature (Falconier et al., 2015).

However, we can’t always be there for people as we often have other priorities to attend to, such as work, domestic, and family responsibilities. As adults, we must take care of ourselves first. Self-care is the foundation of health, while putting others’ needs before our own is a characteristic of codependency that can lead to burnout.

When we don’t maintain healthy emotional boundaries with others, we may feel resentful, guilty, and drained.

As in the 7 Types of Boundaries diagram above, it is perfectly OK to state your limitations to people who make demands of your emotional resources. If they push back against your boundaries or continue to violate them, then this shows your relationship may be off balance, problematic, or even toxic.

If so, then restate your boundary and withdraw calmly. There is no need to over-explain yourself or apologize for setting boundaries, as everyone may say what they do and do not want to do.

When we are dealing with people who repeatedly cross or violate our personal boundaries, then the whole nature of the relationship may need to change. This can be tricky when the relationship is with somebody we cannot escape, such as co-workers and family members.

The rest of the article focuses on how to set healthy boundaries in specific relationship contexts.

Boundaries in Psychology

Boundaries are essential for maintaining psychological wellbeing, especially when providing psychological services to clients as mental health professionals.

There is extensive literature on the harms caused by poor boundaries and boundary violations in clinical relationships with patients and clients (Aiyegbusi & Kelly, 2012; Aravind, Krishnaram & Thasneem, 2012; Davies, 2007).

The APA’s psychologists’ code of ethics does not make any explicit statements about professional boundaries, although it covers related areas including:

  • multiple relationships (such as offering therapy to a student or friend),
  • sexual intimacies with current therapy clients/patients;
  • sexual intimacies with relatives or significant others of current therapy clients/patients;
  • therapy with former sexual partners; and
  • sexual intimacies with former therapy clients/patients (American Psychological Association, 2017).

Similarly, the BPS has no explicit statement on boundaries in their code of ethics for British psychologists and associated clinical professions, but outlines key principles including confidentiality and the related code of conduct (British Psychological Society, 2021).

Meanwhile, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) has a detailed position statement on boundaries which begins as follows:

“It is a therapist’s duty to keep their clients psychologically safe. Boundaries are agreed limits or rules which help provide this safety and protect both the client and the therapist. They set a formal structure, purpose and standards for the therapy and the therapeutic relationship” (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, 2020, para. 3).

Health professionals of all kinds occupy a position of trust in their patients’ and clients’ lives. In legal terms, clinical and caring professionals have a fiduciary duty toward their clients as beneficiaries of their services that entails maintaining professional boundaries that protect the client’s interests above their own, at all times (Aravind, Krishnaram & Thasneem, 2012).

Setting boundaries at work

Maintaining healthy boundaries at work has become increasingly difficult with flexible working, remote and hybrid working, and technological progress.

Setting boundaries at work begins during the interview process, where you can establish what kinds of work practices you will accept, especially accessibility during working hours, out-of-hours working, and remote working arrangements.

Career Contessa offers eight tips for establishing healthy boundaries in the workplace.

  1. Assess your personal boundaries first. These will be determined by your values and priorities. If you are not clear about your boundaries, then it’s much easier for others to cross them or violate them, leading to discomfort, stress, and even resentment.
  2. Communicate directly. Be upfront yet professional. Avoid getting involved in discussing your colleagues with each other. Let people know when you are available and how you handle emails that arrive in your inbox outside work hours.
  3. Create clear structures for your work, especially times for focused work, by letting your colleagues know when you do not want to be disturbed.
  4. Keep your relationships professional. As tempting as it may be to become best friends with colleagues, it can lead to blurred boundaries and problems later on.
  5. Delegate work when appropriate to manage your workload.
  6. Get comfortable saying no.
  7. Take time off.
  8. Use technology to set and maintain work boundaries, by keeping others informed and using shareable project management tools, such as Trello or Asana.

Watch their video below for more detail.

If you find yourself in a workplace where your boundaries are repeatedly crossed or violated despite setting boundaries, then you may be being bullied or harassed. Look at this article on workplace bullying on how to manage and address the situation.

Healthy boundaries in friendships

The tips for keeping healthy boundaries in friendships include some points mentioned above, especially understanding your personal limits in terms of time and emotional investment.

These can also change as life events occur that entail a shift in priorities. For example, the time and energy you invest in friendships may change after starting a family. Your children become a priority and friendships may become less important until your children become more independent.

In the TED Talk below, Shasta Nelson describes the three requirements for healthy friendships that she calls ‘frientimacy’ as:

  • Positivity
  • Consistency
  • Vulnerability

Setting boundaries and maintaining them with friends requires mutual trust and respect. Refer to our seven types of boundaries diagram above to consider your boundaries in friendships.

Boundary setting with friends who have crossed or violated them can be difficult, and you may experience pushback. If so, reassert the boundary again and be prepared to take a break from them by ignoring messages and calls for a while if the pushback continues.

Dr. Nicole LePera is a clinical psychologist trained at Cornell University in the US who has her own YouTube channel called the Holistic Psychologist. In the video below, she outlines the three key boundaries she has identified as essential for healthy friendships:

  • Conversational
  • Consumption
  • Energetic

Boundaries in relationships

This section will take a brief look at boundaries in intimate relationships between partners. Many of the tips offered above also apply to intimate partnerships, including marriage. Let’s just take a moment to consider this quote:

“Boundaries are the gateway to healthy relationships.”

(Tawwab, 2021, p. 3)

Romantic relationships often run into trouble when implicit assumptions are made about shared values and relationship goals.

The key to having healthy intimate partnerships is clear communication between partners about mutual needs and expectations. Our worksheets below will provide further guidance.

This video by FlexTalk discusses how to set and maintain healthy boundaries in marriage, which also applies to any committed intimate partnership.

Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Review

‘Setting limits won’t disrupt a healthy relationship’ says the author of this book, Nedra Glover Tawwab, a psychotherapist. (Tawwab, 2021, p. 130).

If you struggle with setting boundaries, then this book is for you. It prioritizes the self-care we need to look after ourselves and others.

The author uses real-life case histories from her therapeutic practice to illustrate a range of problems caused by poor boundaries.

In each chapter, she offers exercises to help readers identify communication skills deficits that lead to poor boundaries and provides helpful tips on how to set and maintain boundaries.

By setting boundaries in relationships, we also discover which relationships are healthy and which are not. As Tawwab explains, if friends, family members, or work colleagues push back against our boundaries by ignoring them, challenging them, or cutting us off, then the relationship was already in deep trouble and needed to end.

However, boundaries are not walls. Tawwab says that behavior that erects walls, such as cutting people off without giving them a right to reply, (sometimes called ghosting) or prolonged silent treatment, is not about setting healthy boundaries, it is emotionally abusive.

Part two is a guide on how to set boundaries in all kinds of relationships, including family, romantic relationships, friendships, at work, and with social media and technology use. This is all followed up by a self-assessment quiz to help you check your progress.

Find the book on Amazon.

7 Healthy Boundaries Worksheets (PDFs)

To assist your clients in determining their boundaries, and then be comfortable in asserting them, make use of this selection of helpful resources.

1. Visualizing Your Boundaries

The worksheet Visualizing Your Boundaries helps your client identify life areas needing firmer boundaries.

2. The Personal Boundary Continuum – A Self-Reflection Tool

The Personal Boundary Continuum exercise helps your client define their boundaries in different life domains, and understand which areas of life may need more flexibility or firmer boundaries.

3. How to Set Boundaries – Saying No

This Saying No worksheet offers tips on how to set boundaries using the word ‘no’.

4. How to Set Boundaries – Stating What You Want

This State What You Want worksheet offers tips on how to set boundaries by stating what you want.

5. Group Boundary Setting Exercise

This Group Boundary Setting worksheet describes a group exercise that uses body language and speech to set and maintain boundaries.

6. Dealing With Boundary Violations

Dealing With Boundary Violations presents eight steps for dealing with boundary violations, especially when we are setting new boundaries in difficult situations.

7. Setting Internal Boundaries

The Setting Internal Boundaries worksheet helps you set internal boundaries by committing to the behavior you want to embrace (e.g., taking regular exercise, keeping a journal) and avoiding behavior that leaves you feeling uncomfortable (e.g., getting drunk with friends, yelling at your partner).

Positive Relationship Resources

PositivePsychology.com has several other relationship articles with resources you may find useful. Click on the links below for more.

  • Building Healthy Relationships: Helpful Worksheets
  • The Importance of Positive Relationships in the Workplace
  • Conflict Resolution in Relationships & Couples: 5 Strategies
  • Conflict Resolution Strategies for the Workplace
  • Emotional Intelligence in Relationships (+Activities for Couples)

A Take-Home Message

Setting healthy boundaries is an essential life skill and an important self-care practice. Healthy boundaries create healthy relationships.

While someone who’s not used to setting boundaries might feel guilty or selfish when they first start, setting boundaries is necessary for mental health and wellbeing.

Appropriate boundaries can look very different depending on the setting, but it’s important to set them in all areas of life where we interact with others.

Finally, while setting boundaries is crucial, it is just as important to respect others’ boundaries, including parents, children, romantic partners, managers, coworkers, and anyone else we interact with.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free.

  • Aiyegbusi, A. & Kelly, G. (2012). Professional and therapeutic boundaries in forensic mental health practice. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
  • American Psychological Association. (2017). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct (2002, amended effective June 1, 2010, and January 1, 2017). Retrieved on 28 Oct 2022 from http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/index.html
  • Aravind, V. K., Krishnaram, V. D., & Thasneem, Z. (2012). Boundary crossings and violations in clinical settings. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 34(1):21-4.
  • British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. (2020). What do counsellors and psychotherapists mean by boundaries – Client information sheet. Retrieved on 28 Oct 2022 from https://www.bacp.co.uk/media/8273/bacp-boundaries-client-information-sheet-april-2020.pdf
  • British Psychological Society. (2021). BPS Code of Ethics and Conduct. Retrieved on 28 Oct 2022, from https://cms.bps.org.uk/sites/default/files/2022-06/BPS%20Code%20of%20Ethics%20and%20Conduct.pdf
  • Davies, M. (2007). Boundaries in counselling and psychotherapy. Athena Press.
  • Falconier, M. K., Nussbeck, F., Bodenmann, G., Schneider, H., & Bradbury, T. (2015). Stress from daily hassles in couples: Its effects on intradyadic stress, relationship satisfaction, and physical and psychological well-being. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 41, 221– 235.
  • Katherine, A. (2010). Boundaries: Where you end and I begin. Hazelden Publishing.
  • Tawwab, N. G. (2021). Set boundaries, find peace: A guide to reclaiming yourself. Little, Brown Book Group.

Set Healthy Boundaries: 10 Steps


Man among men Practices how to

What does it look like? For example, you are talking on Skype with a friend at midnight, because it is more convenient for her. Or give a ride to a colleague who, as soon as he sits down, habitually lights up in your car.

You and your husband are going on vacation to a place where it rains and where pike is excellently caught. You don't even realize that your boundaries are being crossed even when they are taunting you or joking about your size. nine0003

Some of us are reluctant to set clear boundaries because we believe that doing so can offend those around us.

Others set them up in such a way as to stake out part of someone else's territory.

But remember that there is that part of your "I" that needs to be protected from any encroachment, something that belongs only to you. Your emotional health, what you believe in, what you won't let outsiders touch.

What are these boundaries and why are they needed? Most simply they are defined by the words "my business" - "your business". By setting boundaries, we first of all decide for ourselves what behavior towards us will be reasonable and safe for us, will not destroy us as a person. nine0003

They are not designed to get someone to do something. We set them for ourselves, and in this way we show that we are responsible for our own destiny, for what is permissible and what is unacceptable to do in relation to us. But for this you need to know exactly who we are and what our true "I" is.

We understand where we end and another begins. We are responsible for ourselves and only ourselves. This is where every healthy person starts.

It is almost impossible to manipulate a person who is clearly aware of his personal boundaries and has clearly marked them for others. nine0003

Determine if these boundaries are violated:

Physical boundaries

The very first, basic boundary for us is our skin. Important concepts that define your physical boundaries are physical space and personal space. Ask yourself the following questions to see if your boundaries are being violated by others.

Who is allowed and who is not allowed to touch you and how? What do you consider only your personal space that needs to be protected?

Do you have a place in your house where you can be alone?

Sexual Limits

Find your personal level when sexual activities and touching are comfortable for you. Only you determine what is acceptable and what is not, where, when and with whom. Stick to these boundaries and don't be silent when they are violated.

Material boundaries

What do you think is permissible and what are not permissible in relation to your property?

What can you give as a gift? Borrow? nine0003

How much money do you allow yourself to borrow? Do you allow strangers to use your car, clothes, apartment? It is only you who determines this, and for different people these boundaries can be very different.

Who enters your house? Who wouldn't you like to see?

The same goes for your children's friends: which rooms in your house are not open to guests?

Do guests take off their shoes? Do they eat and smoke in your car? All these are things that should be determined only by you as the owner of the house. nine0003

Emotional boundaries

You are responsible for your feelings, but others are also responsible for their feelings. Don't let anyone take it out on you or make comments about your weight, appearance, or age. And don't do it yourself. Healthy emotional boundaries keep you from blaming or taking someone else's accusations personally. And also feel guilty for someone's decisions or problems and give unsolicited advice.

A border no one knows about is not a border

If you make excuses and argue or defend yourself, this is also an indicator of weak emotional boundaries. “I’m sad, I’m angry, I’m scared…” Are you able to respond to these feelings of yours immediately and calmly accept them? If you ignore them when they first appear, if you think you shouldn't have these feelings at all, your body will turn up the volume until you hear them.

Spiritual boundaries

What is important to you in life? What do you believe? As in all the previous ones, these boundaries must be felt and realized when they are crossed. nine0003

Intellectual boundaries

Your values, opinions, thoughts. They are only yours. And each individual decides what he wants to share with others, and what to leave unsaid. What do you believe? Can you listen with an open heart to those who express a different opinion, and at the same time without prejudice, without compromising your core beliefs?

There are two more things that belong only to you. These are your words and your time.

Remember: "no" is the most basic boundary and a complete, extended sentence. nine0003

Healthy boundaries are not:

  • set for us by someone else;
  • hurt us;
  • are rigid and immovable;
  • invade our personality.

10 laws of healthy boundaries

1. All actions have consequences. If someone in your life showed violence, cruelty, selfishness towards you, did you set boundaries? Or does it all happen over and over again with no consequences for them? nine0003

2. The law of responsibility. We answer to each other, but not to each other. This means not encouraging or provoking anyone's infantile behavior.

3. Power has limits. We have power over some things, but we do not have the power to change other people. We only have the power to change our own lives.

4. The law of respect. If we want others to respect our boundaries, we must respect theirs too. nine0003

5. Freedom of choice. We should be free to say "no" or say "yes" with a pure heart. You can’t love a person just because you feel sorry for him and he leaves you no other choice.

6. We need to evaluate the pain of setting our boundaries for others . Do our boundaries cause pain that will then lead to healing and growth? Or the pain that only hurts them?

7. Law of proactivity. We take active steps to solve problems based on our values ​​and desires. Proactive people defend their freedom and express disagreement, but without raising an emotional storm. nine0003

8. The law of envy. We will never get what we want if we set our limits based on what others have. An envious person simply does not see his boundaries based on the choices that he has.

9. Law of activity . Don't wait for others to make the first move.

10. You need to communicate your boundaries. A border that no one knows about is not a border. We must make it very clear to the other what we want and what we do not want, what we will tolerate and what we will not. We must also make it clear that every violation of boundaries has consequences. nine0003

Text: Maria Malygina Photo Source: Getty Images

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How to set and maintain personal boundaries

When was the last time you said no? Did you feel remorse, guilt, or deep regret that you could upset someone with your rejection? If yes, you are not alone - the vast majority of people experience similar emotions in such situations. To stop feeling guilty at those moments when we make a choice in favor of ourselves, and not others, we re-read the book by Jenny Miller and Victoria Lambert “Personal Boundaries. How to install and defend them. nine0027

Victoria Lambert, Jenny Miller
Mann, Ivanov & Ferber, 2018

Why personal boundaries are needed our actions and words. However, the main purpose of personal boundaries is to defend your interests and prevent unnecessary discomfort. Moreover, this applies not only to annoying people who strive to get into your soul, but also to various limiting beliefs, living conditions or habits. Healthy boundaries are needed in absolutely everything - and first of all, in order to feel good.


However, sometimes in an attempt to protect ourselves, we may overreact to stimuli or get lost when we need to, on the contrary, resist the onslaught

In such situations, instead of protecting ourselves, we think about whether we have offended another whether they reacted correctly, how they formulated the thought, and further down the list ... But any violation of boundaries is not only a conflict between you and the outside world, but also an intrapersonal mini-quarrel. The body gives a signal of danger, and you decide how to respond to it. It happens that the decision comes so quickly that we don’t even have time to realize it, and as a result we get even more discomfort, a quarrel with a loved one and an increase in stress levels. nine0003

To get rid of senseless and unconstructive torments of conscience and guilt will help recommendations on how to feel and defend your personal boundaries.

Four exercises for defining personal boundaries

All recommendations for the formation of personal boundaries are based on transactional analysis - one of the directions of modern psychotherapy - therefore, in the description of tasks, the terms "Parent", "Child" and "Adult" may occur: three states of our egos, which are responsible for various reactions and behavioral motives. By doing these exercises regularly, you will learn to distinguish the voice of each of your states, as well as make decisions based on a reasonable idea of ​​\u200b\u200bpersonal boundaries, which belongs to the Adult. However, this does not mean that the reactions of other states are of no value: everyone's voice is important, but the final decision should always remain with the Adult. nine0003

Get to know yourself

Take a diary, notebook or notepad and in a calm atmosphere remember what happened to you during the past week. When did you take time for yourself, take care of yourself, doing what you like? And vice versa: when did you reproach yourself for laziness, unproductiveness, mistakes? Write down your observations, but don't jump to conclusions right away.

The purpose of the exercise is to reflect, not to condemn, to understand when you really do what you want, and when you are too strict, because any work on yourself begins with understanding and acceptance. nine0003

Your personal boundaries

This exercise helps you to practice setting specific comfortable boundaries for your physical personal boundaries. To complete it, you will need an assistant, but this cannot be your friend or family member, because in relationships with loved ones, the boundaries are usually already defined long ago. With unfamiliar people, things are quite different.

Stand opposite each other at a comfortable distance (usually 1-2 meters is enough). When performing the exercise, you need to stay in place, while your friend will slowly reduce the distance. One step towards you every 30 seconds: the interval is needed so that you have time to evaluate your feelings. nine0003

Try to fix at what distance you started feeling slight discomfort. And when did you tighten up a little more? When did you want to run away, move away or push a person away? All these sensations are signals from your body, which is trying to warn against danger. Remember what distance is comfortable for you, and next time stop any attempts of people to invade your personal space.

Visualization of the border

The exercise will help you identify the borders, understand your attitude towards them and change it. To begin, close your eyes, imagine a limitless field and yourself, define your place in that space, and then build imaginary boundaries around it. How do they look? What material are they made of, are there doors, windows? Do you feel calm - or, on the contrary, feel anxiety, loneliness? If the borders in your mind are more of a negative connotation, try to think of them differently - for example, in the form of a beautiful hedge instead of barbed wire. nine0003

Now imagine your family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances and place them around you. Perhaps someone will be outside the borders, and someone will be right next to you. What do you feel now? Are you comfortable communicating with people outside your borders? Write down or draw what you feel.

Discussion table

Do you know situations when it is impossible to agree with yourself? One part cries capriciously: “I want to go to the sea”, the other says: “Now is not the best time”, and the third is just waiting for all this to stop. The exercise will help you resolve such situations, put everything in its place and come to terms with yourself. nine0003

Imagine that your three states—Child, Parent, and Adult—are sitting at a table with a problem in the center that needs to be solved. Each of your ego states reacts to this problem in its own way: the Child expresses emotions, the Parent judges whether he is doing the right thing or not, and the Adult, listening to everyone, makes the final decision. Think of any problem that bothered you last week and try to focus on it. What did you feel? How did they react? Maybe they forbade themselves something? How did you behave? Or how would you behave now, having sorted out the problem? nine0003

By answering these questions from different angles, you will let each of your "I" speak out, give them the right to be heard and be able to sensibly assess the situation, which means you will learn to adequately determine the boundaries of what is acceptable.

Defining and defending personal boundaries


In a state of chronic fatigue, people are prone to impulsive and reckless actions, and the voice of the Adult due to lack of sleep sounds as if from afar and cannot always be heard. A person needs a healthy, sound and restful sleep. If already in the morning you feel tired, continue to experience stress, as if you had not rested, and your mood is below average, you need to make every possible effort to improve the situation. nine0003

To normalize sleep, make a plan of actions that must be completed before going to bed, and stick to it. For example, at 21:00 - go to the shower, at 21:30 - start the dishwasher, at 22:00 - go to bed, at 22:30 - fall asleep.

Repeated activities will turn the process of falling asleep into a useful ritual, however, in addition to your personal plan, you need to create rules for others. For example, forbid children to enter your bedroom after 21:00. Create comfortable conditions for yourself first of all - at the same time practice in defending the boundaries (especially with loved ones, because, as practice shows, it is they who most often unknowingly violate personal comfort). nine0003


Some people tend to exhaust their body during sports, which leads to breakdowns, illnesses and emotional burnout. And all because, in addition to internal personal boundaries, people also have physical boundaries, which you also need to learn to feel in order to better understand when it's time to stop. Of course, regular sports are needed, they will help you better understand your body and feel its capabilities, but everything is good in moderation.

You don't have to wear yourself out trying to set world records - get into the habit of light fitness or intense exercise in the morning, and this will be enough. Just remember, whatever you do, it's important to watch what your body is saying and help it. That is, give a rest if you are tired, or, conversely, load more if you feel a lack of activity or you need to relieve stress. nine0003

Bad habits

No matter what bad habits you have, you need to learn to set healthy personal boundaries around them. But be gradual, you don't have to give up everything at once. Slowly reduce the number of times you go into the habit until you feel you can do without it. After all, it is you who should manage your habits, and not vice versa.

Remember that every time you give in, you are indulging one of your personalities, whose voice is now especially loud. So she tries to notify you that you are missing something very much. For example, the reason for cravings for alcohol may be the feeling of looseness and relaxation that a glass of wine gives. So wouldn’t it be better to just relax more often, instead of a glass of red wine, to devote time to yourself and your hobbies? nine0003

Communicating with people

In dealing with others, the easiest way to defend personal boundaries is when you feel them well and are confident in their benefits. But at first, of course, this is not easy to do. At first, you will have to regularly, time after time, carefully and politely inform (if appropriate) others about what you like and what you don’t. Most people, most likely, will not go where they will not be greeted hospitably - you will make this discovery as soon as you begin to clearly express your position and interests. Just do not forget that in any situation it is important to refrain from aggression and harsh reactions, so take all your ambiguous feelings and problems to the internal discussion table in order to make an informed decision before you start acting or reacting recklessly. nine0003

Also, be prepared for the fact that, while defending personal boundaries, you are likely to stumble upon the discontent of some of those around you. And that's not bad: what's the point of keeping a person nearby if he is not ready to respect your decisions and requests?

Social networks

Previously, communication between people took place mainly in real life, now - in social networks and instant messengers. However, despite this, the same communication norms and rules apply online. An unpleasant “bonus” is that, due to a certain level of understatement in social networks, the likelihood of offending or angering the interlocutor increases significantly. Therefore, it is definitely not worth underestimating the value of virtual communication and talking as if there is not a living person on the other side of the screen, but a faceless text.

Learn more