Therapists Explain Why Setting Boundaries Doesn’t Make You a Bad Friend

It's okay to tell your bestie "no."

June 8th is National Best Friend Day.

Romantic relationships can be beautiful and teach us a lot about ourselves but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that some of my greatest loves have been platonic. Throughout my life, I’ve been lucky enough to form friendships that have shown me the kind of love I deserve. My friends are witnesses to my growth and support me as I continue to evolve. But just like relationships, friendships are not easy and require reciprocated effort—which is why it’s important to set boundaries to ensure they will last.

My idea of friendship has changed over time, and I now see that there are some things I got wrong. I once thought that a good friend is there for you no matter what. However, this lack of boundary created unrealistic expectations not only for my friends but also for myself. I have since learned that having boundaries isn’t selfish; it’s actually a form of self-love.

Much like romantic relationships, though, friendships can look different for everyone and what boundaries work for you might look completely different for someone else. That’s why HelloGiggles spoke with mental health experts to explain how setting boundaries can make our friendships even stronger.

What does a healthy friendship look like?

“I’d actually define it pretty similar to how we would look at a healthy romantic relationship,” Maighdlin Talo, LCSW, tells HelloGiggles “You’re able to accept the other person for who they are and also feel as if you are able to be yourself around this person… you support one another to the best of [your] abilities, and are honest and direct with one another when there is conflict.” And much like in romantic relationships, Talo adds that it’s important to consider each other’s love languages. Whether you’re a believer of love languages or not, understanding the way you show affection and care is vital to understanding your friends holistically. This can also help us evaluate our expectations, especially when it involves boundaries.

However, Jaynay Johnson, LMFT, describes a healthy friendship as having “shared interests, shared understanding of how you will support one another, and also providing space.” While we love our friends dearly, making sure you’re respecting each other’s space is essential. This includes respecting that you can’t have this person all to yourself. “It becomes unhealthy when people want their friends to themselves and they don’t want them having any other friends,” explains Johnson. Providing space can also look like understanding that your friends may want to be alone and that doesn’t mean they don’t cherish your company.

What are boundaries?

“Boundaries are really about staying in alignment and harmony with ourselves and what we want in our lives… so if you have boundaries, then, you can [choose] friends that are going to be congruent with who you are,” Johnsons tell HelloGiggles. For example, a friendship boundary can look like telling your friend you’re unable to listen to them vent when you’re busy at work or requesting for them not to discuss a touchy subject because it triggers you.

“I think it’s important for us to be able to stay in tune with ourselves and to be able to communicate that effectively and respectively to the people we care about.” As we experience transition in our lives, it’s completely valid for our boundaries to change as well—but the key is to respectfully communicate our boundaries with those around us so everyone is on the same page.

Why are boundaries important in friendships?

Although boundaries, in general, are important, it’s worth exploring their significance in friendships. Setting boundaries with our friends allows us to share our time and energy in a sustainable way, which supports our friendship in the long run. But remember: setting boundaries doesn’t make us bad friends. “You are allowed to say ‘no’ or are allowed to recognize your limits and still be a good friend,” explains Talo.

Things come up and we are not always able to be there even at times when we wish we could and that’s perfectly fine. The compassion and understanding we should have toward ourselves should also be given to our friends. “We still have to be aware of what our friend is going through… I don’t think that a friend should be there for you wherever or whenever because we don’t know what they have going on [in their life] and we don’t know if they have the capacity to show up for you in that [moment],” says Johnson. Having realistic expectations of our friends allows them to have room for error—which is bound to happen because they’re human—and space to care for themselves.

How to set boundaries with friends:

The best way to share your boundaries with your friends is by communicating about them directly. Let your friends know what you’re comfortable with and your capacity. But if you’re wondering what your friend’s boundaries are—just ask! Check in with them and ask them what they are comfortable with, and if you feel like something is up with them, it’s best to just address it directly.

However, if you want to explore the deeper issue of attachment you or your friend may have when it involves boundaries, it may be a good idea to bring it up in therapy. “Everybody always talks about going to therapy for themselves and going to therapy for their romantic relationships but you can go to therapy for friendship relationships, too,” says Talo.

But while romantic relationships are often held in higher regard than friendships in our society, friendships play a significant role in our development. “What most people don’t realize is that your friendships can really say a lot about the way you process information and how you manage relationships in general,” says Johnson. “Our friends are our longer-standing relationships…If we pick the right friends, they’re our life partners and I just think that requires a lot more investment as well.”