Protecting Your Mental Health: 7 Ways to Establish Strong Boundaries With Friends

Published on 3/15/2023

Every year, Oxford Dictionary chooses a word of the year.

In 2015, it was “Emoji tears of joy”. In 2021, it was “Vax”. In 2022, it was ‘Goblin mode’.

For 2023, I bet the word is going to be ‘boundary’. As more than ever, I’m seeing people talk about boundaries. It feels like we’re all collectively deciding to stop accepting the crap that people dump on us and to start demanding what we deserve.

We’re no longer content allowing life to happen us and losing our work-life balance.

We want more. We want everything life has to offer, we want to feel good about ourselves, we want friendships that benefit both parties equally.

Because the real test of boundaries is in our relationships. We find it easier to tell our workplace to stop taking advantage of us, while we wouldn’t dream of saying the same to a close friend. We assume that we’re the issue or over-sensitive, but this is not the case.

Today, we’re going to establish 7 boundaries in our friendships. We’re not going to let friendships impact our mental health for one moment longer. We’re fighting back.

1. Stop apologising so much

Okay, let me start this by saying that of course, you should apologise if you do something wrong or awful to a friend. I’m not saying that you should punch them in the face and claim that you’re not saying sorry because you have boundaries. Just don’t punch anyone in the face, please.

I’m talking about all the needless times we throw out the word ‘sorry’. When we’re one minute late to dinner or take an hour to reply. We’re going to stop doing that.

Because you don’t need to be sorry for having your own life and looking after yourself.

Let’s take it back to that example of taking an hour to reply. Or even if you take several hours or a day. Unless it was an urgent message, they can wait. If they were just asking about how your day was going or whether you had watched the latest Netflix show, they were not in any rush.

So don’t apologise for taking time to reply, as that suggests to you and them that you did something wrong. You’re allowed to take time off your phone and stay present in life, so don’t let yourself feel guilty for it.

Don’t apologise for doing the things you need. Maybe that’s staying offline on your next holiday. Maybe that’s taking more time for yourself. Maybe that’s not wanting to discuss a topic, or not telling them something private. Especially that last one, as we’ve somehow started to feel as if we owe our friends information that is ours to share or not.

Don’t apologise for it as you’re then highlighting to yourself that you did something wrong and should feel shame. You’re creating a habit of saying sorry for being what you need to be in a moment.

2. No plans is a plan

Part of looking after our mental health is taking the rest we need. Wearing yourself thin will only fuel issues like depression or anxiety. I know that whenever I’m exposed to a lot of social situations or getting little sleep, I find it harder to quieten my anxious thoughts and feel any joy.

I used to always intend to have a quiet weekend or spend time on my own. I wanted to do this, and yet as soon as someone contacted me suggesting we meet up or inviting me to a party, I’d relent. Because I felt like I couldn’t say no, as I wasn’t busy. It felt like the only reason for declining an invite was having a blocked calendar.

A plan with yourself is still a plan. Choosing to have no plans is a plan in itself. I sound like one of those riddles you have to answer to pass the sphinx, but bear with me.

You won’t just magically find the time to be alone and do restful activities, you need to make it happen. So open the calendar on your phone or your day book, and mark off that weekend. A whole weekend or at least a day. You are not making plans for it. Scribble all over it so there is no going back.

Then when someone akss if you’re free, you can say you’re not. You don’t even have to specify what you’re (not) doing, just say you’re not free and suggest the weekend after.

I am a huge advocate for time alone. Whether you spend that time watching a show, reading a book, going for walks, cleaning your home or any other activity you feel like, just do it. This is the best thing I have done for my mental health, and I spend a full weekend on my own every month.

3. Take your time to decide

It can be really difficult to say ‘no’ to people.

Even though you rationally know they won’t get mad at you or suddenly hate your guts, it feels impossible to say ‘no’.

And as a result, I end up agreeing to things that I later don’t want to do. I say that I’ll come to a party that I know will make me miserable. I say that I have time to meet for coffee when I know my day is packed and deadlines are looming.

Then you’re left with two options: cancel or begrudgingly go. Both options aren’t great.

But there is a way to avoid this. All you need to do is buy yourself some time.

Instead of agreeing or turning down plans when they’re pitched, just say that you’ll get back to them.

“Oh, fun idea! Can I let you know?”

You can say that you need to check your schedule or you’re waiting to hear back about something. Or you can just be vague. I have found that people really don’t question vagueness.

This buys you the time to reflect. Consider whether you actually want to go. Will this event or friend give you energy or take from it? Will this outing be too much on top of a busy week? Are you agreeing to be polite or because you want to go?

This mental space allows you to consider everything and only agree if it’s in your best interests. Otherwise, you get back to them and say you’re not actually free then. Maybe you suggest an alternative, maybe you don’t.

4. You can cancel

But sometimes you’ve agreed to something, and when the moment comes, you do not want to go. It could be that you’ve had a busy week, maybe you’re having a tough day with your mental illness, or maybe you’re feeling under the weather. Perhaps the mere thought of socialising right now makes you feel dread to the pits of your stomach.

You want to cancel, and you’re desperately wishing that the other person would do it for you.

In these moments, you need to suck it up and cancel.

Oh, trust me, I know that is far easier said than done. I am terrified of cancelling on people, even when I have the most legitimate reason ever. I still feel like a liar, and I’m still convinced they will hate me.

I have dragged myself to dinner with a burning fever and tonsils the size of tennis balls. To see my best friend, who was horrified to see the state I was in. I brushed off her concern and claimed I felt fine.

I used to find it impossible to cancel on people. But it was a conversation with my therapist that changed things for me. It was right after this tennis ball tonsillitis incident, when I told her that I had wanted to cancel but didn’t.

She gave me that intense therapy stare and said, “How would you feel, if your friend was so sick they could barely crawl out of bed, but they dragged themselves to plans with you because they didn’t feel like they could cancel?”

I stammered back, “I would feel really awful that they didn’t feel like I’d understand if they cancelled.”

Then she smirked in an all-knowing way and drawled, “So why are you putting your friends in that position?”

Boom. Therapy mic drop.

I want my friends to be able to cancel on me. Partly because I’m often hoping they will, and partly because I want them to trust me enough that they feel safe doing so. I don’t want someone to drag themselves to plans with me when they’re feeling unwell or struggling with their mental health.

And the only way to show them that is to reassure them when they do cancel, and practice what I preach. If they see that I feel comfortable cancelling to them when I need it, I can hope that they know I’m someone who will accept it back.

5. If you’re worried, just ask

Like I mentioned previously, I have a tendency to think absolutely everyone is mad at me. I read between the lines of every interaction and assume they hate me. As you can imagine, my mind is a great place to be.

Then a few years ago, when I was deep in my therapy era, I developed a new trick for quietening this fear. I approached it directly, and simply asked the person.

99% of the time, they’re confused and ask why I would think they’re mad at me. And that 1% when they are actually a bit miffed at something I’ve done, it gives them the space to tell me so we can handle it right there and move on.

This allows me to feel reassured that no one is secretly mad at me, because I’ve directly given them the space to air that grievance.

And yeah, if I do it too much, people find it very annoying. My ex-boyfriend used to get mad at me for asking that question so often. It was enough to make him actually mad at me.

But I’ve found that I need to do it less and less, because just asking this question has shown my friends that if they are annoyed, I need them to outright address it. So that for the rest of the time, I don’t have to worry, as I know they would just say it.

6. Stop thinking you owe so much

I recently discussed this as a work-life boundary, but I think it rings true for creating boundaries with friends as well.

It’s easy to feel like we owe people more than they owe us. We’re our biggest critics, and so we assume we’re not as good as other people. I always felt like I had to earn my friends, as if I started several rungs lower on the ladder. So I would give and give, even when I had nothing left for myself. I told myself I was just loyal and generous, but in reality, I felt like I wasn’t entitled to my friends unless I was taking from myself.

You don’t owe your friends that much. You don’t have to earn the right to their friendship, they’re not better than you. Friendship should be a constant give and take. One day I listen to you rant, the next day, you get a front seat for my rant. One time I choose what we do and the next meetup, you decide.

There will be periods when you or your friends need more and gives less. When my father passed away, I was probably a terrible friend. And I was fortunate enough to have a few close friends who dropped everything and came when I needed them. They were there for me, and I relied heavily on them. And when they need me, I will be there in return. That’s not because I owe them anything, but rather that I want to be there for them when they need me.

One of the most important boundaries you set with friends is recognising what you owe each other, and what you don’t. If a friend messages me that they’re having a personal emergency, I will drop everything and call them. If a friend messages me that they just had something funny happen at work, I’m entitled to wait and reply when it suits me, even if that’s the next day. And the same goes for them.

I have a friend who will take 2-3 business days to get back to me. But I don’t mind at all. Because when she replies, she will acknowledge every single message I have sent her in that waiting period, even if it’s just a “haha” or “omg!”. And I know that if I needed her, she would get on the first flight over. She is someone who doesn’t want to be on her phone often during the day, but she is here for me in her own way, and I am not entitled to quick replies.

7. Be your own priority

If I could choose only one tip for establishing boundaries with friends for your mental health it would be this one.

Make sure you are always your priority.

At the end of day, everyone is looking out them for themself, and you should do the same. You can’t be a good friend to people if you’re not looking after yourself. If you run yourself ragged and power through your mental health struggles, you won’t be able to be the friend they need. They care about you, and so you should too. So keep an eye out for signs you need a mental health break.

If going to parties makes you feel anxious, then don’t. Find other ways to hang out with your friends that makes you feel good. If you always feel exhausted after hanging out with a certain friend or you don’t like the version of yourself you become with them, consider whether they should be in your life.

When you make yourself your priority, you become the best version of yourself. It’ll be different for everyone, but you get to meet who you are, and that’s an incredible thing.

Once I started prioritising myself for the first time, I realised that I used to always resent my friends for how much I gave them. It also made me expect too much from people, as I assumed they would do the same and felt irritated when they followed their own needs. I would over-sacrifice and then get mad when people accepted it. I was being unfair, and a bad friend.

But now I see people when it suits them, and me. Now I agree to plans that I want to do rather than pretending I enjoy the same things that they do. And it means that when I see my friends, I feel excited to see them, and I relish in our time together. I’m an extroverted introvert, so I know that I can’t make too many plans or I get tired and irritable. I follow all plans with a day to myself.

These 7 ways to create boundaries in your friendships will allow you to protect your mental health. They’ll give you the emotional and physical space to do what you need to do, whether that’s going for more walks, getting a better sleep schedule, or meeting new people that understand different parts of you.

Establishing boundaries with friends not only protects your mental health, but also your friendships. When you’re the best version of yourself, you’re the best friend that you can be. Don’t be scared to set your boundaries, as good friends will want to respect them. But they can’t do that if you don’t clarify what you need, they can’t read your mind. What works for them might not work for you, so give them a hand and highlight what you need in a friendship.



Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.

Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.

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