Learning to explore and honor our own needs, instincts, and desires is a crucial life skill. It’s the key to setting boundaries in platonic and intimate relationships, and in all other areas of our lives. Plus, it’ll make you better able to recognize other people’s needs and boundaries. Tuning in to our gut instincts and practicing boundary setting in low-stress encounters can help us feel more comfortable setting boundaries when the stakes are higher.
This process can be transformative. “I had been a meek person and had trouble setting my own boundaries,” says Diana Adams, an attorney based in New York City. After being sexually assaulted in college, she embarked on her own journey of empowerment. “I went from being one of the last kids picked in gym class to a national champion at a martial art. That was a personal revelation to me about my own strengths and finding my own voice and agency.”
The opportunities to communicate what you want and what to push back against are around us every day, not just during hookups or in intimate relationships.
1. Stand up for yourself and set boundaries
☀︎ In everyday life
Standing up for yourself doesn’t mean being impolite or aggressive, but it does mean being assertive and honoring your own feelings and desires. Being explicit about your boundaries is crucial, but you can communicate them to others in a way that is tactfully indirect, if that is more comfortable for you. If they don’t pick up on your cues, then by all means, be direct.
For example, if you’re talking with someone in a social setting who’s making you uncomfortable, you can just excuse yourself (e.g., to get a snack or go to the bathroom). They should get the point and leave you alone. If they ignore your polite signals, feel free to be blunt: “I’m heading back to my friends now.” If you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, it’s always OK to just walk away.
✖️ Practice setting boundaries and respectfully saying “no”
- With service people: “Actually, this isn’t the sandwich that I ordered.”
- With your roommate: “It’s not OK to borrow my things without asking.”
- With the older student who’s pushing a drink on you: “Thanks, but not tonight.”
- With a parent: “I’d love to come home this weekend, but I’ve got an obligation to my campus job.”
❤︎ In romantic encounters
“Sometimes, when someone leans in to kiss me for the first time, I stop them just to see if they’re cool with me setting a boundary,” says Jaclyn Friedman, a sexual assault survivor, speaker, author, and consent activist. This kind of boundary setting—and making sure that your partner is listening—can happen explicitly (e.g., “I asked you to stop. Did you hear me?”) or implicitly. An implicit way to do this would be taking a step back if you feel someone is getting too close.
Practicing boundary setting can help with stopping things when you start to feel uncomfortable, whether in a hookup situation or not. Be wary of any situation where you feel like you’re being pressured, and take that red flag seriously. However, there are times when pressure escalates into assault, and it’s not always possible to stop that. A victim is never at fault for someone else’s choice to assault. Trusting our instincts, though, can make it easier to spot red flags early on, when it can be easier to get out of a potentially dangerous situation.
“It helps me to set boundaries when I come to a place of not caring so much about being accepted by that person—by realizing that if setting a boundary means the relationship may not go any further, then oh well,” says Delaina E., a first-year student at Boise State University in Idaho. “I think one of the challenging things about standing up for yourself is fear. You want to be liked and accepted, but if you can let that go for a moment, you can have the strength to stop a situation when you feel uncomfortable and walk away with a sense of greater respect for yourself.”
2. Stand up for your friends
☀︎ In everyday life
As we become more attuned to our own boundaries and desires, it’s easier to spot other people’s. Pay attention to what’s going on. If you’re out with a friend and they’re stuck in an uncomfortable conversation, help them out and give them an exit strategy.
Try subtle: “Hey, I need to talk to you.”
Or explicit: “Not feeling this. Let’s get out of here.”
“Setting up a code word with a friend is also an easy way to let each other know what’s up. Mine and my BFF’s is ‘pumpernickel’—it’s not something we would normally say in conversation, and people around us laugh, thinking it’s an inside joke,” says Macenna T., a second-year student at Ashford University in California.
❤︎ In romantic encounters
The stakes can feel high in college, when everyone’s getting to know each other and they’re excited to try new things. But it’s vital to check in with your friends, especially those who are in relationships or who are hanging out with someone new. For example, ask things like:
- How are things going?
- Do you feel like being with your partner makes you happy?
- Do they listen to you?
Pay attention if your friend seems uncomfortable or isn’t sure how their romantic encounters are making them feel. If something seems off, suggest they talk to a counselor or a trusted adult about how they’re feeling.
3. Think and talk about what you want
☀︎ In everyday life
One thing I’ve always loved about some of my best friends is that they know what they like to do—whether that’s going to a party on a Friday night (pre-pandemic) or camping and hiking alone. They don’t get there by just going with the flow—these friends have thought about what they want and what types of people they like to hang out with.
Thinking and talking about what you want doesn’t always mean you’ll get it, but it’s a giant step in that direction. Even when your desires or boundaries are different from your friends’ or partners’, you’ll likely find some areas of overlap—and you’ll get there more easily if you can notice those differences and engage in open conversation. One way to gauge your enjoyment of something (in the bedroom or out) is to ask yourself: How do I feel in my body when I’m doing this activity? Notice if you feel relaxed/joyful/excited/calm vs. tense/anxious/nervous/icky. If you are feeling any of the latter, take note and consider changing what you are doing so you can get back into a calm state.
Likewise, “when someone says, ‘No, I’d rather not,’ respond in ways that support them,” says Adams. “When your friend says she can’t come to dinner because she needs to study, try saying, ‘Thank you for taking care of yourself; I’m glad you said that.’” You could also ask if there’s another time you two can get together, once her workload lightens up.
❤︎ In romantic encounters
Ask yourself these questions about the person you like, are in a relationship with, or are hooking up with:
- Am I feeling happy, comfortable, and rewarded when I’m with them?
- Does this person listen to me and respect my signals?
- Are my boundaries being pushed or violated?
- Do I feel safe?
- Do I feel conflicted? Why?
- Am I pushing myself to do something I don’t really want to do?
- Am I putting pressure on myself to take things faster than I want to?
4. Take your feelings seriously and make sure others do too
☀︎ In everyday life
Think about what matters to you and talk to your friends about what matters to them. College is full of decisions and life changes—picking a major; restructuring relationships with family, friends, and community at home; finding new connections; and beginning to figure out what you want to do with your life. Sometimes it will feel like one major issue after another.
☆ Surround yourself with people who support your decisions
Good friends and partners:
- Ask you questions that don’t make you feel pressured.
- Make it safe for you to change your mind.
- Encourage you to assert yourself and communicate.
“Students should respect each other without forcing or [making] their peers [feel afraid],” says Ariana P., a recent graduate in Massachusetts.
❤︎ In romantic encounters
It’s especially important to make sure that hookups or romantic partners care about what you want and desire out of your interaction or relationship. Are they paying attention to the cues you give them? Do they ask you what you want to do and care how you answer? And when you set boundaries, do they respect and observe them? Do your needs and desires basically align with theirs? That’s how you’ll find a good partner—whether for the long term or just a few hours.
“Imagine you’re at a party dancing with someone, and they’re getting right up to you and you’re feeling uncomfortable. Now switch places with that person and imagine you’re making them uncomfortable and they never told you. You’d feel terrible because you’re a decent person. Telling someone you’re uncomfortable is showing them respect, assuming they would want to know,” says Friedman.
What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety, by Jaclyn Friedman
Seal Press, 2011
Diana Adams, JD, Esq., managing partner, Diana Adams Law & Mediation PLLC, New York City.
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