What is a boundary?
If you read anything about relationships online, you’ve probably come across the word “boundary” a time or two. But what are boundaries? This is an important question because many people get boundaries confused with controlling or callous behavior. Our ability to set boundaries can have a great impact on our life and on each personal relationship we have.
Boundaries are the difference between you and someone else
Boundaries are, in essence, what is you and what is not. Think of a boundary as a fence. If you have a fence around your property then it can keep things out or in. It can keep your toddler from running into the street, or keep your neighbor’s dog from pooping on your lawn.
A boundary is a fence around your time, energy, emotions and body. Does everyone have the right to these things? No one? That’s what setting boundaries is about.
The purpose of boundaries
Boundaries help you stay, and feel, physically and emotionally safe. Imagine yourself in a situation where you can’t say no. How comfortable does that feel? What if you don’t say no, or tell people you don’t like something and they continue to do it, upsetting you constantly?
Boundaries are for our protection. They keep us from being taken advantage of, from being codependent, and from taking on more than we can handle. They keep us from being emotionally and physically abused. And they promote healthy relationships.
While there are boundaries with yourself, I am using this article to focus on boundaries in relationships. As a marriage and family therapist, this is where I do much of my work.
What does it look like if I have poor boundaries?
You can’t say no
One of the easiest ways to spot poor boundaries is if someone has trouble saying no. It doesn’t matter who it’s with, it could be your friends, children, spouse, partner, friends, business associates or family. If you can’t say no to someone, then your boundaries with them are poor.
Maybe you want to tell them no, but you feel uncomfortable or guilty when you do. Maybe you put everyone else first and your needs and your self come last.
Maybe instead of telling someone you don’t want to do something, you agree and then later “forget” or “get sick”. This is another way to tell that your boundaries need work.
And finally, if you’re felling like you resent someone because you are doing more for them than they are for you, this is a sure sign of bad boundaries.
You won’t say yes
Do you have a “my way or the highway” attitude? Are you “set in your ways”? This could be a sign of bad boundaries. This one can also be hard for us to identify, since it’s often affecting others more than it affects us. But it is a key to having healthy boundaries.
Most people think that folks without boundaries are doormats that get walked on. The opposite can also be true. If your boundaries are too rigid this is also a problem. It can cause you to crash right through other’s boundaries and cause them pain.
Rigid, inflexible boundaries can also affect you in negative ways. It can cause you to have unstable relationships and even to have problems at work.
Examples of healthy boundaries in relationships
Healthy boundaries are appropriate
If you have healthy boundaries in a relationship you will be able to say both yes and no to people when it’s appropriate. For example, when it comes to boundaries at work, you won’t say no to a project just because someone you don’t like suggested it. With boundaries at work you also won’t say yes to anything your boss suggests because you’re afraid to say no.
Healthy boundaries around our bodies
Physical boundaries in relationships help you set boundaries around your physical body. With physical boundaries in relationships, you will be able to tell someone that you don’t want that hug, that you aren’t ready to increase physical intimacy, etc. You will be able to say yes when you want to do something as well, without feeling guilty. For instance, yes, I’d love that hug!
Healthy boundaries around time
Time boundaries allow us to be in control of our time and energy. Healthy boundaries around time mean we can tell that friend who shows up at our place unannounced that they need to call first or we aren’t answering the door. They also mean we can ask our partner for their time when we want it.
Healthy boundaries in our emotional life
Healthy boundaries around feelings and emotions can help protect your mental health. Healthy boundaries around feelings and emotions can be harder to spot than physical boundaries. For example, it might look like telling your partner that when they are interacting with you in a very angry way (yelling, being condescending) you are going to stop the fight and walk away for a while until you can both get things under control. They may also look like you being able to accept love, affection, help and other positive feelings and emotions from others when they are appropriate.
Accepting other’s healthy boundaries
Boundaries don’t only flow one way. Being able to take a no for an answer is also a part of healthy boundaries. I like to tell my clients that if someone can’t say “no” then their “yes” is meaningless.
Being able to accept a “no” can also be difficult to spot in the push-pull of relationships. But it is essential to healthy relationships, no matter if they are with friends, family, partners, parents, coworkers or another person.
This may look like someone telling you that they don’t feel like going out this weekend because they want to stay home and recharge our energy, and you feeling ok about it and not feeling resentment or entitlement to their time. It may look like you being disappointed that someone cannot do something for you or with you, but realizing it is ok for them to make that choice.
Setting healthy boundaries, how do I do that?
Setting boundaries or limits can be difficult when we’ve not done it before. Sometimes we’ve been practically trained by our parents and family as children that setting boundaries is bad. Family and friends can sometimes give us the impression that setting boundaries is selfish or that if we set boundaries it means we don’t love them enough.
Let’s just say that all of that is bunk meant to make us feel guilty for not doing what they want. You don’t need to feel guilty for setting clear boundaries with your friends and loved ones. Now, lets talk about how to set those clear boundaries without being a jerk.
Getting started at setting boundaries
Boundaries are limits on what we will accept in our life. They are our personal line that we want others to not cross in a relationship. Let’s take a look at some things we need to get started when setting boundaries.
Setting boundaries with the right attitude
The first thing we need to do is set boundaries from a place of love and kindness, not anger or frustration. This helps us to keep the relationships with family, children and friends stable, and help reduce resentment on all sides.
I know it’s easier to set boundaries when you are angry. Anger is often how we know we need to set a boundary. However, trying to set boundaries when we are very emotional can wreak havoc on our relationships. It also shows others that we respect them when we can define, maintain and practice boundaries from a place of love and kindness.
Keeping setting boundaries simple
When it comes to boundaries the simples way is often the best. Communicate them in a way that is as straightforward as possible. At times a simple “no” or “no thank you” is enough in response to an ask that is outside of our comfort zone. What we don’t want to do is start giving reasons for our personal property line that someone else can refute or knock down to try and convince us to do what they want. Sometimes even the best of friends and partners can do this unintentionally.
Make it about us, not about them
This is a very important part of holding our personal property line. Our boundaries are about us, not our friend, family or partner. When we put it in those terms, and are not blaming, it makes setting these easier, and helps keep the relationship with family or our partners healthy. So saying, “I would like you to call before you come over because it makes me feel calmer” is much better than saying, “If you respected my time you would call before showing up at my house.”
Having a boundary conversation
At times the boundary conversation needs to be more than a reaction to someone else’s ask. We need to set (or reset) a boundary with someone by starting the conversation. Being able to have this conversation is important to our mental health. Here are the steps in the boundary conversation.
Be clear on what the boundary is
First off, we need to be clear on what our boundary is. Sometimes when setting boundaries, we are unclear and that leads to us thinking someone is not respecting our boundaries when in reality they don’t understand them. For instance, “I want to feel safe driving with you.” is unclear. “I want you to drive the speed limit when I’m in the car with you.”, is very clear.
Consequences for running over our boundaries
Boundaries need to have consequences. Often that consequence is lack of access to you. This is not meant to punish the friend or loved one. Instead, it is to keep you safe. Consequences should be related directly to the boundaries we set. For instance, in the example above, “If you continue to speed with me in the car, I’m going to drive separately from you.” Another good example is, “If you continue to talk about politics at the dinner table, I’m not inviting you out with my friends who have different view points from you.”
You can see how the first of these is to safeguard your physical self, and the second protects your emotional energy and other relationships. They are not intended to punish, but to preserve.
Sticking to our boundaries
Finally, you need to stick to your boundaries. If you don’t they are useless. If you partner continues to speed with you in the car after you set the boundary above, and you still drive with them, you are not setting a boundary, you are making a threat. Boundaries are only useful if we will stick to our consequences.
Examples of setting specific types of boundaries
Because boundaries can be a complex topic, I thought it would be helpful to give some examples of how to set healthy boundaries in our relationships in a few different situations.
Setting healthy boundaries around our bodies
Setting boundaries around our physical bodies can be easy for some people, and difficult for others. However, it is important to keep us physically safe.
One example that comes to mind is someone who wants to touch us or be in our space more than we would like. This can be one of the more difficult boundaries to set because we don’t want to accuse someone of being creepy, but we want them to respect our space. Here’s a quick example of what that conversation would look like.
“I appreciate that you are an affectionate person, but I am not in the same place as you are with that. I would like you to ask before you hug me, and respect my answer when I give it. If you can’t do that, I’m going to have to quit hanging out with you.”
Setting healthy boundaries around our time
Setting time boundaries is one that can remove a lot of stress from your life and relationships. It helps others to know your limits and allows them to show you respect. An example of setting healthy boundaries around time looks like the following.
“I love spending time with you, but I also need to make sure I get to bed on time in order to feel good at work. I need to wrap up our weekday hang outs by 9 pm so that I can function well the next day. If we can’t do that, I’m only going to be able to hang out with you on the weekends.”
Setting healthy boundaries around our emotions
Boundaries in relationships around feelings and emotions are very important. They help us keep our emotional and mental self safe. This is something that many of us are not taught well as children, so we never learn to set limits to safeguard our emotional self. An example of setting a boundary to protect our emotional self looks like:
“When you roll your eyes at me when we disagree, I feel dismissed. I want you to stop doing this. If you roll your eyes at me in a discussion, I am going to remove myself from the discussion for an hour to allow us both time to calm down and re-evaluate our position.”
What if my boundaries aren’t respected?
It’s difficult when we are trying to set boundaries but feel they aren’t respected. It can feel incredibly personal when someone steamrolls over our boundaries. The question often is, should I put up with it, should I get help, or should I leave?
Should I put up with violations of my boundaries?
The short answer here is you should not put up with violations of your boundaries. However, at times, this isn’t realistic. For instance, you may have a boss that does not respect your boundaries, but you just can’t quit.
The answer here isn’t to simply accept the boundary violation, but to address it. If you’ve addressed it and there is no change, you need to realize that there will not be and start the job hunt. You may have to accept boundary violations in the short-term, but it is never a healthy long term solution to let someone consistently push past your limits.
Getting help with boundaries
Sometimes getting a little help with setting and holding boundaries in relationships can be just what you need to set and accept boundaries going forward. It can help you protect yourself, your loved one and your relationship.
If you are having a difficult time setting or holding boundaries, or are not sure if you or the other person is the one with the issue, then a therapist can help. A therapist can work with you one on one to help you understand how to set, accept and hold boundaries. They can also work with you with your family, friend, or partner so that you have a functioning set of boundaries in the relationship.
Removing yourself from the relationship
When someone pushes past the limits of your boundaries pretty routinely, you may want to ask yourself if it is a good idea to continue the relationship. This behavior is often a sign of a bigger problem in the relationship. If you have tried setting healthy boundaries with the other person, and they have not responded you need to ask yourself how important the relationship is going forward.
If you feel the relationship is important, family member, spouse, child etc. as opposed to a friend you go to lunch with occasionally, then get help with the boundary work. If you’ve gotten help individually, and it’s still not working, you may need to get them in with you to see a therapist.
If none of the above has worked, then it’s time to limit their access to you. This may take the form of only seeing them in public, only at family gatherings, or not at all.
Sometimes, when people violate our boundaries they are telling us that they are more important than we are. Some people will never respect your boundaries no matter how healthy you are in setting them. In this case, the only thing you can do is leave, or if that’s not possible, limit their access to you so they cannot do much damage.