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Alcohol and Mental Health

How To Set Healthy Boundaries in Friendships

July 19, 2023
12 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
July 19, 2023
12 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
July 19, 2023
12 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
July 19, 2023
12 min read
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Reframe Content Team
July 19, 2023
12 min read

Life is a fascinating journey, and integral to that journey are the relationships we build, particularly our friendships.

These connections can be like the sun, bringing warmth and light into our lives — or like a heavy storm, creating unexpected challenges. Consider that friend who always insists on ordering cheeseburgers when you're trying to eat healthier, or the one who monopolizes conversations without lending an ear.

Or maybe, like James, a diligent college student, you find that your friendly study sessions often morph into late-night benders. The delicate balance of maintaining our friendships while also prioritizing our well-being can sometimes feel like a tightrope walk. Can you relate?

If you’re wondering how to set boundaries with friends, read on! Let's understand how we can draw upon principles of neuroscience to set healthy boundaries in our friendships and make lasting improvements to our well-being.

Brain Science and the Impact of Setting Boundaries in Friendships

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Did you know that our brains actually thrive on strong social connections? The quality of our friendships can have a profound impact on our stress levels, mental health — and even our habits.

What’s more, our brains are equipped with mirror neurons. These are involved in ‘emotional contagion,’ which is the tendency of one person to ‘catch’ the feelings of another. In friendships, mirror neurons can play a role in emotional bonding and empathy. When we observe our friends experiencing emotions, our mirror neurons fire in a way that allows us to feel those emotions too.

While mirror neurons can help us to better understand and empathize with our friends, it's also important to set healthy boundaries in friendships to avoid emotional exhaustion and burnout. This makes us inherently susceptible to the influence of our peers, contributing to the phenomenon known as peer pressure. This is why it’s important to surround yourself with people whose values and goals align with yours.

What’s more, the act of creating boundaries has a profound effect on the prefrontal cortex (PFC), a critical brain region involved in our decision-making process, social behavior, and personality.

  • Stress reduction: By setting healthy boundaries, we facilitate a reduction in our stress levels, which positively impacts our PFC. Chronic stress can impair this brain region, so mitigating stress through boundary establishment boosts its performance.
  • Improved decision-making: Boundaries pave the way for superior decision-making, allowing us to make choices that align with our core values and priorities. This helps our PFC function more optimally.
  • Better emotional control: The process of boundary setting amplifies our capacity to manage our emotions. Emotional instability can impede our utilization of the PFC — thus, by setting boundaries, we improve our emotional control and efficiently engage this brain area.

Through healthy boundaries, we can effectively reduce stress, improve our decision-making, and strengthen emotional regulation. In the meantime, we might cultivate deeper and more meaningful friendships — those in which both of your needs are met and each of you is seen.

The Bittersweet Reality of Friendships

Healthy social interactions can lead to the release of oxytocin, a hormone that reduces the effects of the stress hormone cortisol, fostering feelings of relaxation and trust. This means that strong social relationships can actually lower stress levels, contribute to longevity, and enhance our overall well-being.

On the other hand, unhealthy relationships can become a source of stress — especially if they steer us towards behaviors that are detrimental to our health. For example, our drinking habits could escalate if we're frequently around people whose main form of social bonding is heavy drinking.

How do you know if your boundaries with friends are unhealthy? Look for the following:

  • You feel drained: If you feel mentally and emotionally drained after spending time with a friend, it may be a sign that your boundaries are being crossed.
  • You feel guilty: If you feel guilty for saying no to your friend or for setting boundaries, it may be a sign that you are not prioritizing your own needs.
  • You feel like you're always giving: If you feel as though you're always giving time, attention, or emotional support to your friend and not receiving anything in return, it may be a sign that your boundaries are not being respected.
  • You feel like you can't be yourself: If you feel like you have to change who you are or compromise your values to maintain the friendship, it may be a sign that your boundaries are being crossed.
  • You feel taken advantage of: If you repeatedly get hit up to loan money or clothes or facilitate work connections, your friend may be more interested in what they can extract from you, rather than seeing your friendship as its own gift. Move on. You deserve friends who heartily accept the gift of you — without needing material gain.
  • You’re always chasing: If you are the one always initiating meet-ups or chats or visits, or remembering important dates or events –– and not seeing any of this reciprocated –– it may be a sign of disinterest or devaluing of you as a friend.

If a friendship once brought value and joy to our lives but does no longer, it’s worth establishing healthy boundaries or patterns.

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How To Set Boundaries in Friendships

Remember, setting healthy friendship boundaries is not about creating distance or ending the friendship. It's about creating a positive and mutually beneficial relationship in which both of you feel respected and valued.

  • Communicate: Open a dialogue with your friend, and be explicit about what you need. Ask them what they think, how they feel, and if there may be any boundaries they would find helpful, too.
  • Be specific: Identify the specific behaviors or actions that are causing you discomfort or stress –– and communicate them to your friend.
  • Compromise: Be willing to compromise and meet in the middle. Being flexible and willing to compromise can be a healthy way of maintaining your friendship while respecting differing boundaries.
  • Say no: It's okay to say no to your friend if you need to prioritize your own needs or if you don't have the capacity to help them with something.
  • Prioritize yourself: Only offer to help friends with things that you genuinely have the capacity for. Otherwise, suggest alternative ways they can get help with the situation.
  • Be consistent: Once you've set boundaries, be consistent in enforcing them. This will help your friend understand that you are serious about your boundaries and that they need to respect them.
  • Know when to move on: If your friend isn’t responding to your needs, it may be time to make new friends.

Remember, friendships should be mutually beneficial, and they should align with your values and goals. 

Establishing Boundaries in Friendships and Boosting Brain Plasticity

Asserting healthy boundaries in friendships centers on decisions that safeguard our well-being.

This is where our fascinating brains come in: neuroplasticity is our brain's remarkable ability to rewire and adapt itself in response to experience.

Every time we make decisions that prioritize our health — such as refusing an additional drink or choosing sleep over late-night social events — we're building new neural pathways in our brain.

With repetition, these new pathways grow stronger, making it progressively easier for us to stick to these healthier behaviors.

The Key Takeaway

Our brains, friendships, and well-being are interconnected in complex ways. But the beauty of it is that we have the power to use this understanding to make lasting changes.

Let's start here:

  • Embrace self-awareness: Identify the situations or friendships that might be encouraging unhealthy habits.
  • Express your needs: Communicate your well-being goals to your friends. True friends will respect your boundaries.
  • Enjoy the journey: Remember, it's about progress, not perfection.

We all have the power to transform our well-being. The science backs it up — our brain is a powerful ally in this journey.

So let's set those healthy boundaries, reduce stress, and make lasting changes together!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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