In geography, a boundary is a real or imaginary line that separates different regions of the Earth. Things like rivers, mountain ranges and oceans all serve as physical boundaries, while state and country borders serve as imaginary boundaries.
When it comes to our own personal relationships with others, however, boundaries aren’t always so cut and dry. Most of the time, we don’t have a literal barrier or a large geographical separation between us and other people. At times, it can be difficult to identify when our boundaries are being crossed. We may even fear what might happen if we set them.
Besides being told to keep our hands to ourselves growing up, most of us were never schooled in the art of boundaries. But setting healthy boundaries can lay the groundwork for healthy relationships with others — whether it’s with a friend or family member, coworker or boss or strangers you encounter.
What are personal boundaries?
A boundary is a limit and a rule we set within relationships that helps each individual define what they will or will not allow. Most importantly, boundaries are set for yourself, not for others.
“In all situations, it helps to remember you’re setting a boundary of what you will allow, not what the other person must do,” said Scott Bartlett, LCSW, case management director at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital. “When we speak of boundaries in counseling settings, we’re asking someone to identify what can help support their growth, healing or protect them from harm, usually involving other people in their lives.”
Boundaries help define you as a person and create mental space for you to exist. Healthy boundaries allow you to achieve goals you set for yourself and understand your own preferences and opinions, and then act on them. Your sense of self-worth is directly tied to the choices you make and the actions you take. Those actions come from your values and principles that define you.
Why are healthy boundaries important in relationships?
Boundaries give you room to live without the intrusion of another person’s thoughts, opinions or needs overwhelming you.
“In relationships, your ability to clearly state your wants and needs lets the other person know where you stand,” Bartlett said. “With healthy boundaries, both partners contribute equally to each other’s well-being, and both partners feel mutually supported.”
Signs it’s time to set some boundaries
If you have a lack of personal boundaries, you probably sense that already. But you may not be fully aware of just how weak they’ve become. Bartlett shared 12 signs that could indicate you need stronger boundaries:
• You have the chronic inability to say no (a people pleaser).
• You fail to speak up when you’re treated badly (lack of assertiveness).
• You have a toxic relationship (i.e., letting others direct your life; they habitually take, take, take).
• You feel responsible for other people’s feelings or behaviors.
• You harbor anger or resentment toward others for not reading your mind and meeting your needs automatically.
• You over-share details about your life with others.
• You value other people’s opinions more than your own.
• You can’t make your own decisions, share your own opinions or stand by your own moral values.
• You put others’ needs before your own.
• You are the target of any form of abuse: physical, emotional, sexual, verbal, or you or the other person abuses substances, alcohol or food.
• You are abusing others or violating reasonable boundaries with them.
• You depend on others to rescue you from painful emotions.
• You neglect your own self-care, nutrition, exercise, sleep or finances.
• How to set boundaries (and stick to them)
Now that you’ve got a firmer grasp of what healthy boundaries look like and signs your boundaries need some work, you may wonder how exactly to set them.
Five steps to help you get started:
• Recognize your limits.
Understand that boundaries are set on you and not on others. You can’t change others. You aren’t responsible for what they do, say or how they even react. Since you can’t change others, change yourself.
“Rather than becoming a list of what other people need to do, phrase the boundaries in terms of what you will or will not allow,” Bartlett said. “Writing a list or journaling can be a very helpful way to look at your life and where the boundaries are lacking or needing adjustment.”
• Listen to your thoughts and emotions.
Often, personal boundaries are given up gradually — you give a little, then a little bit more, until finally you’re exhausted and upset by how little time and energy you have for yourself. “Identifying areas of personal resentment or discomfort that you have been keeping to yourself is a good starting point,” Bartlett said.
• Questions to ask yourself:
Have I violated my own moral values?
How effective am I in basic self-care of my physical, emotional and spiritual life? Am I aware and listening to my emotions?
Do I respect myself and others in my life?
What are some things I’d like to stop doing? What are things I’d like to start doing? Are there some healthy actions and choices I’m currently doing that I want to continue?
For boundaries, what is getting in the way of me taking action?
• Say what you mean and mean what you say.
The most important, and sometimes the hardest, is clearly communicating your boundaries with others to avoid confusion. Be firm but remain as calm and kind as possible, but don’t apologize or justify your behavior.
Be sure that your actions are not self-serving, at the expense of others. Your interactions shouldn’t be about “winning” or taking as much as possible. Consider what’s fair for everyone, given the setting and relationship.
• Reinforce your boundary.
Don’t be surprised if your issues don’t magically disappear overnight. Your boundaries won’t carry much weight if you don’t reinforce them. Set realistic consequences before the boundary is violated. If you promised to remove a certain privilege if a boundary is broken, follow through.
“Maintaining boundaries requires daily practice and repetition,” Bartlett said. “In some situations, the other person may have been unaware how unhappy you’ve been and will support you. In other instances, they may react negatively, since they may now feel you are withdrawing support.”
If it starts to become overwhelming, seek guidance from a neutral party, such a licensed behavioral health specialist, who can objectively look at your situation and help you through the process.
• Reconsider the relationship.
If the other person truly values and respects you, and your boundary is something any reasonable person would support, they will respect your boundary. If they refuse, you have all the information you need about what the future holds if you stay in the relationship.
“Ending unhealthy relationships makes room in your life for healthy ones,” Bartlett said. “Think of your boundaries as a way to weed out bad or toxic relationships.”
If you need help navigating this decision, this is also another time to seek guidance.
Setting boundaries can be difficult, but it’s worth it — you’re worth it. Healthy boundaries are the foundation to healthy relationships and self-preservation.
If you feel like you’re being taken advantage of, are unhappy, resentful, insecure or have lost all sense of self, think about whether you have healthy boundaries or need to set new ones.
“All relationships involve a give and take, but if this is out of balance, and you’re always the person who’s giving or taking, there might be a problem,” Bartlett said. “When each partner has a strong sense of self, the relationship has resilience and can withstand differences of opinion without becoming a major conflict.”
If you continue to struggle with healthy boundaries, seek support. To find a behavioral health specialist at Banner Health, visit bannerhealth.com.