When & How to Set Boundaries with Friends

In this podcast (episode #436) and blog, I talk about setting boundaries in friendships, and why it is okay to be honest and ask a friend for space.  

It is always okay to ask for space in a relationship. Boundaries are an important part of a healthy bond, as I discussed in a recent podcast and blog. We all have our own unique needs for “space”, and we need to be able to communicate where we are and what we need to our loved ones, including our friends. 

If being around a certain person or group of people is affecting how you are processing life, you need to be able to ask for space. This doesn’t necessarily mean the person is “bad”; it could just be that their presence is not what you need in a particular moment or stage of your life. 

Our nonconscious mind (which many scientists consider the most intelligent part of the human psyche), as well as the brain and body, can sense our unease before we are consciously aware of how we feel about a situation or person, and send us warning signals like anxiety or a stomachache, which tells us to pay attention because something is affecting our internal homeostasis—our sense of wellbeing. 

These warning signals, which originate from our psychoneurobiology (the mind-body-brain connection), include: 

  • Emotions (such as unease, guilt and confusion when we are around someone)
  • Behaviors (like withdrawing, overcompensating, or apologizing frequently around a person)
  • Bodily sensations (for example, an adrenalin rush, a gut ache or muscle tension if we know we are going to meet a friend we actually don’t want to be around at the moment)
  • Perspective (when we think things like “what’s wrong with me?!” or “am I a bad person?”)

Ignoring these signals can result in imbalanced energy across the two hemispheres of the brain, called alpha and beta asymmetry, as well as a drop in dopamine. As a result, we can lose a lot of our insight and perspective, which is a red light that we need to put up some boundaries to manage our own mental and physical health.  

But communicating your needs can be really hard, especially if you are asking for space but do not want to end a relationship. I don’t recommend using the words “I need space” or “I am putting up boundaries because I cannot be around you right now”, as this may hurt the other person or result in a negative response that will block their ability to process and understand what you are asking. 

Here are some examples of things you can say in person, via phone, text or email, or in a letter: 

1. “Hey! Sorry, but I am going to have to take a mental health rain check right now. I don’t have the capacity to devote energy to our friendship at the moment. I won’t be able tune into your needs in the way a friend should right now. Thanks so much for understanding!” 

This way of talking focuses on what I call the “emotional oxygen mask”. We cannot truly be there for a friend if we are not able support ourselves and our needs. Like the oxygen mask in an airplane, we must put our mask on first before we can truly help others.

2. “Hey! I just want to say I do value you and our friendship, but I just can’t be there for you at the moment because I am focusing on sorting some major issues in my own life. [Here you can go into as much detail as you feel comfortable with and can add things like career, business, school, family members et cetera]”. 

Saying something like this gives the other person context to the boundary you are putting up, which is important if what you are asking for is space. It will help them understand where you are and what you need, rather than just reacting to what you are saying.

3. If your friend sends you a long response and wants to deal with the issue immediately, or if they respond negatively, you could say something like:

“Thank you for your response - I really appreciate it. I don’t know how to reply at the moment, and hope you understand I need some time to process what you have said.” 

Remember, you don’t have to respond to anything after this! If your friend is angry at you, remind yourself that they too may need some time to process what you said, and that is perfectly okay. If they are truly your friend, they will eventually understand that you need space, and will be more willing to wait for when you are ready, since they know who you are and your character. 

For more on friendships and boundaries, listen to my podcast (episode #436). If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).  

You can now also join me on Patreon for exclusive, ad-free content! Sign up for a membership level that suits you, and receive access to ad-free exclusive bonus podcasts. These episodes will include more targeted, step-by-step guides for specific mental health issues AND some fun, more personal podcasts about topics like my favorite skincare products and favorite books, as well as live Q&As, fan polls and requests, and exclusive digital downloads!

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Podcast Highlights

1:40 Why it is okay to ask friends for space 

2:30 Why boundaries are important 

6:18, 11:00 What happens in the brain & body when we don’t put up boundaries

9:00 Why we need to listen to the warning signals our mind, brain & body send us

12:30, 15:30, 22:10 How to ask a friend for space 

This podcast and blog are for educational purposes only and are not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.

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