Setting Boundaries as a College… | Counseling | Therapy

Setting Boundaries as a College Student

Raegan — Intern therapist

Setting Boundaries as a College Student

Are you a new college student wondering how to find success in school? Are you returning to college for a new semester feeling burnt out, stressed, or overwhelmed? If so, I have one word for you: boundaries.

College life is an exciting and transformative time filled with opportunities, experiences, and challenges. While it can be exciting to be in an environment like this, many students also find themselves strained under the demands of academics, extracurricular activities, and new social capital. Whether this is something you’ve experienced or something you want to avoid, boundaries are a fundamental skill that can help college students navigate this challenging new arena. In this tip, we will explore what boundaries are, how they can help with the particular challenges faced by college students and some practical tips for how to begin setting boundaries as a college student.

What Are Boundaries?

Boundaries are the limits that we establish for ourselves to protect our physical, emotional, and mental health. Boundaries are here to help us from overextending ourselves and to create a framework for healthy relationships. Boundaries can be physical, emotional, or based on time or space.

Here’s an example of setting a boundary: You and your roommate don’t get along very well and often get into arguments about the dishes. When your roommate gets upset they raise their voice and begin to yell at you. Despite your best efforts you shut down as a response to the yelling and are unable to have a conversation with them. You decide that you do want to work things out with them, but you know you won’t be able to have a productive conversation if they are yelling at you, and in fact, it's impacting your mental health to be yelled at all the time. You tell your roommate, “I want to work this out with you, but I get worked up when you raise your voice. Would it be possible for us to try and discuss this more calmly? I want to let you know that I might need to remove myself if things get heated again, but am happy to come back to the conversation if you agree to not raise your voice.”

What Boundaries Are Not:

Boundaries are not things put in place to control others, but rather boundaries are what you can put in place to let others know what you will do in response to them. You are still communicating what you will accept, but you are not trying to control them.

In taking the same example of you and your roommate, here is what a poor example of boundaries would be: You tell your roommate, “Stop yelling, you make me feel so horrible every time we talk, I’m never going to talk to you again…” In this case, even though you may not be in the wrong, you are placing the responsibility of how you feel on your roommate, and are trying to control them by making them talk calmly. This approach differs from the one above, and it may or may not bring success. It’s important to know the distinction between setting a boundary and trying to control someone else.

Sometimes boundaries get confused with requests. Just to make sure it’s clear let’s define what a request is. Knowing the difference between the two might make it easier to effectively set boundaries in your relationships. Requests are different from boundaries in a few key ways. Requests are asking someone to do something, to change their behavior. Requests seek cooperation or collaboration from others. They can be direct or indirect. An example of a request to your roommate might be “Can you please do your dishes?”

Boundaries focus on personal limits and define how we wish to be treated, while requests seek cooperation, assistance, or understanding from others.

Boundaries are about self-control and determining what’s acceptable in your own life. Requests seek a level of cooperation or action from another person.

While both boundaries and requests are essential components of healthy communication, it’s really important to know the difference between the two! People won’t always do what you ask of them, but you can always decide what you will or won't accept and control your behavior.

The Importance of Setting Boundaries:

There are many reasons why setting boundaries as a college student is important! There are several challenges college students face, such as academic pressure, social expectations, time away from family, and personal growth! To face these challenges students can use boundaries to protect themselves and others.

Maintaining Mental Health: Setting boundaries is essential for maintaining mental health. It can prevent burnout, and exhaustion, and can help students prioritize caring for themselves! When learning to appropriately set boundaries students can experience relief from engaging in activities that lead them to over-exert themselves and can help them prioritize activities that bring support.

Improving Focus and Productivity: It’s clear that being a college student comes with many academic demands. By establishing clear boundaries students can create an environment where it’s easier to focus on academic responsibilities. Boundaries can help students better manage time, which can lead to an improvement in overall academic performance.

Building Healthy Relationships: Setting boundaries can help college students build healthy relationships. When beginning college, there can be so many new relationships to explore, such as peers, roommates, or professors. Boundaries help manage expectations and avoid unnecessary conflicts that arise when navigating these new relationships.

Personal Growth and Identity Development: Setting boundaries can allow students to explore new interests and develop personal values without undue external influences. Students who learn to set boundaries with others may experience growth in their sense of self and personal identity!

Practical Tips for Setting Boundaries as a College Student:

Look into starting therapy, or ask your therapist to discuss setting boundaries: Therapy can be a very impactful way to help understand what boundaries you might need to set. If you grapple with how to set boundaries therapy might be a great place to get some support. Here are some signs that it might be time to look into therapy, or discuss boundary setting in session.

  • Feeling overwhelmed by the demands of academic expectations.

  • Difficulty in saying no to additional commitments or requests.

  • Having trouble balancing work and life

  • Feeling resentment or feelings of burnout

  • Having difficulty expressing needs

  • Having a desire for personal growth!

Schedule Self-Care Activities: A helpful way to conceptualize scheduling self-care is a metaphor for filling a jar with rocks and pebbles. Rocks represent the important and high-priority tasks in your life. These are big or significant activities that contribute to your well-being, like self-care! Pebbles symbolize the smaller or less critical tasks that still require your attention but aren’t as crucial as the rocks. These pebbles could be your routine daily tasks, like small homework assignments, cleaning your room, etc. This metaphor is used to illustrate the concept that if you start by filling your schedule with the pebbles you might find it challenging to fit in the rocks later on. However, if you schedule the rocks first, you can fit the pebbles around them. It’s often easy to leave out the rocks and forget to do the things that you need to help yourself. Filling the jar with the rocks first is a great way to set a boundary; it allows you to prioritize the most important things in your life. Take some time to See if you can create a list of academic or personal priorities. Notice how much time they might take. You might even try labeling them as “rocks or pebbles.” Scheduling them into your week first can help you set boundaries with additional commitments that might otherwise cause you to run out of time for these responsibilities.

Setting Digital Boundaries: Digital boundaries are often overlooked as a profound way to help yourself. A helpful way to begin to set digital boundaries is to establish limits on screen time and social media use. Try designating specific times for checking emails and messages to prevent constant interruptions. Alternatively, take note of how screen time makes you feel. You could use some of these questions to identify when you might need to set digital boundaries.

  • Do you find it difficult to disconnect from your devices?

  • Is screen time affecting your sleep?

  • Are you distracted or unable to focus on tasks?

  • Do you feel overwhelmed by information overload?

  • Is your online life impacting your relationships with friends or family?

  • Have you noticed any physical or mental health changes related to digital use?

  • Is screen time causing you to fall behind on personal or professional responsibilities?

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Being open to changing boundaries and adjusting to your current needs can be important to consider, as your specific boundary needs might change over time. For example, there might be boundaries that are no longer needed, or boundaries that need to be strengthened due to circumstances changing. This is ok, and this is normal! Some boundaries are useful only for a season. Setting boundaries as a college student is an ongoing process. By recognizing the challenges faced in academic, social, and personal aspects of college life, you can establish and maintain boundaries that contribute to a successful college experience.


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