Boundaries can best be described as imaginary lines that separate you from other people. These are guidelines, rules, or limits that you create to separate your identity and worth from others. Your boundaries convey how others can treat you. What is okay and what is not okay. And what you will and will not tolerate. And I imagine that there are people you respect because of their ability to set boundaries. They’re not afraid to say no, and they do it in a way that you admire and wish you could do for yourself.
Often we don’t say no to people because we’re afraid of how they might respond. That we might make them upset or cause tension by saying no. And sometimes we worry that they’ll make us feel guilty for saying no like it’s a bad thing.
Because we’re taught from childhood to bend and mold ourselves to make others comfortable and be kind to others, but there needs to be a balance between being kind to others and being kind to ourselves. Otherwise, we give others permission to take advantage of us. We’re essentially teaching others how to treat us. And what we end up discovering by not having boundaries. We have taught others a lesson that we regret teaching them as we find ourselves burnt-out and exhausted in our relationships. So it’s no wonder that some of us find it difficult, if not practically impossible, to set boundaries as we get older. We don’t want to offend or hurt others even when that avoidance ultimately means hurting ourselves.
And I know this is an area that many people struggle with because I spend a lot of time talking with people about setting boundaries in their relationships, whether those relationships are with their romantic partner, friends, family, or work life.
So, let’s get down to discussing the art of boundary setting so you can stop people-pleasing and take control of your choices and your life.
An Important Note to my People-Pleasers
Setting boundaries, in the beginning, is going to feel uncomfortable. And it may even feel scary because you’re reluctantly used to letting people ignore your needs or take advantage of your lack of boundaries. Especially if you had the courage to try and set a boundary once before to have someone stomp on it. And you were too intimidated to try again. I’m here to tell you that it is 100% OK to set boundaries. And it’s 100% OK not to do it right the first time. And to try it over and over again until you do get it right. Because the art of setting boundaries is a skill, and with any skill, you will have to practice it. But with practice comes ease. And over time, you may find it comes so easily that others may begin to admire it and wish it were that easy for them.
Why are Boundaries Important?
Without boundaries, you may find yourself feeling depleted and taken advantage of. You can also find yourself in less than desirable or dangerous situations. Typically, when people lack boundaries, it is because they have a desire not to disappoint and to belong. So high in fact that they will place themselves into situations that make them uncomfortable. With the hope that their need for connection, belongingness, love, or affection will be met.
What are the 4 Types of Healthy Boundaries?
Boundaries are how you take care of yourself and keep yourself safe. And not just physically, but also emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. And some of these boundaries are easier to see than others.
-Physical Boundaries –
This boundary is the easiest to see and define because it’s external. And can look like personal space (people being in your bubble). Physical contact such as touching and who, how, where, and when you are or are not comfortable with being touched. Personal possessions, property, and finances are also forms of physical boundaries.
This can be as simple as letting someone know when they are invading your personal space.
-Mental Boundaries –
This boundary can sometimes be a difficult boundary to set with others because it can consist of topics of conversations or discussions that you are exposed to. And can be a sensitive area to address because we all have opinions. But you do have the right to place a boundary around topics that make you uncomfortable. This also includes how much, what, and when you want to share information about yourself with others. As well as the right to invoke your 5th Amendment right – the right to remain silent or to choose not to answer questions that you are not comfortable answering.
– Emotional Boundaries –
This, too, can be a difficult area to set a boundary around. And you’ll know if you have a hard time with setting emotional boundaries if you find yourself taking other people’s emotional baggage on as if it were your own. This also includes trying to fix other people’s problems that are not yours to fix. Especially when you don’t want to help. Emotional boundaries also include your right and the right of others to privacy, the pace of your relationships, and your ability to self-regulate your own emotions.
If you find yourself in a situation where someone is trying to offload their problems onto you, the beauty of this boundary is that you don’t have to bite. Meaning if someone is trying to coax you into fixing their problems for them and don’t want to. It can be as simple as saying, “Wow, that sounds really rough, and I hope everything works out well for you.” And then change the subject.
-Spiritual Boundaries –
We all have the right to have spiritual boundaries. This consists of the right to determine your own values and beliefs. To practice your own spiritual beliefs without interference as well as exploring your gifts and talents. As well as your purpose in life. This also includes honoring other people’s rights to their own beliefs and values too.
Healthy boundaries are not designed to change other people. They are limits that you set for yourself that guide what you will do and when you need to leave a situation. Boundaries guide your choices. Any choice that you make that honors your physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual health and safety can be considered a boundary. Boundaries make life a lot easier.
What healthy boundaries look like
- Being able to speak up for what you need instead of staying quiet and possibly being taken advantage of.
- Saying no when you need to focus on yourself.
- Voicing what you will do instead of just hoping that the other person will pick up on it.
- Respecting yourself and stepping away from unhealthy situations.
- Not fixing other people’s problems unless you really want to – not because you think you need to.
What they are not.
Healthy boundaries are not manipulating someone else into changing. They’re not about exerting control over another person. And are not demands that must be followed or else. They are not for others to guess at or manage for you. Boundaries are not ‘in hindsight’ (they are aforethought that are intentional and let you assert yourself).
Indications that you have problems setting healthy boundaries.
- Not feeling like you can tell others no because you don’t feel like you can.
- Doing something that makes you uncomfortable because others think you should, and you fear disappointing them more.
- Feeling like you’re being taken advantage of that, you’re a victim, and it couldn’t be avoided because you might disappoint others.
Or the opposite end of the spectrum.
- Unwilling to compromise because your boundaries are extremely rigid.
- Keeping everyone at a distance because you don’t want to risk people getting too close and may not trust yourself to set healthy boundaries.
People who blame others for their emotional reactions and actions do so because they believe that you will take responsibility by doing this. It’s like a guilt trip for you to take responsibility for what the other person wants and needs and thus provide it. If they’re constantly playing the victim, then there is the hope that eventually, you will swoop in and save them.
And if you take the blame for other people’s emotions and actions, you may want to ask yourself if you’re looking for someone to save. Especially if you believe that if you can ‘fix’ that person, you’ll receive what you’re wanting and needing from that person.
What causes poor boundaries.
Poor boundaries are almost always the result of low self-esteem and can be caused by low self-worth. Self-esteem is what you think you bring to the table based on what you think others are bringing. And when self-esteem is poor, what you think you have to offer becomes skewed. People tend to devalue themselves as they desperately hope that someone will fulfill their need for connection, belongingness, love, or affection to be met. And as a result, boundaries may be set aside or never established in the first place.
Self-worth is the value that you place on yourself. You don’t think that you know what you bring to the table. You know what you bring. And it’s you. When your self-worth is healthy, your self-esteem is also healthy, and you are more likely to set healthy boundaries.
As self-worth and self-esteem become higher, healthier boundaries tend to take form naturally. You may begin to instinctively recognize what you will and will not tolerate from others. And become more comfortable with drawing the imaginary lines that separate you from other people. Be comfortable with enforcing them. And if you discover they are not being respected, you are comfortable moving out of an unhealthy relationship or situation.
How to set healthy boundaries.
- Know your limits. Identify your physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological limits. What you can tolerate comfortably and what you cannot tolerate and causes you discomfort. Please note that these limits may fluctuate over time and across the lifespan. What you were comfortable with and willing to tolerate at a younger age may look different as you get older.
Your limits may also look different across different relationships. What you can tolerate comfortably with family may look different with friends and may look different with a romantic partner, and so on.
- Identify your emotions. A big RED FLAG that a boundary is being pushed or needs to be established is finding yourself feeling uncomfortable or resentful with the other person. If you find yourself uncomfortable, take a moment and ask what is possibly causing the discomfort. Is it the person, the situation, or the expectation, whether implied or voiced, causing the discomfort? If you’re feeling resentful, this typically comes from feeling like you are being taken advantage of. That either your limits are being pushed beyond their threshold, and you feel too guilty to put a stop to it. Or again, it goes back to the expectations that you think are being placed onto your shoulders to carry.
- Decide on the consequences. Inevitably someone will at some time violate one or more of your boundaries. Identify what the consequences will be before it happens. If you wait until it happens to figure this out, you may not know how to respond at the moment. So, make this decision early on so you know how you will respond before it happens. And can do so with confidence.
- Communicate what your boundaries are. Do this early on and make your boundaries known. You cannot expect others to guess what your boundaries are, so you literally need to say them out loud. You especially need to communicate these to the people that are the closest to you. These are the people that will most likely cross a boundary in your life. And they may choose not to cross a boundary if they are aware of its existence.
- Hold yourself accountable. A boundary is only good if you honor it. A boundary with unenforced consequences is just an empty threat. And other people will pick up on empty threats pretty quickly. What ends up happening is anger and resentment with yourself and with the other person, followed by maybe a sense of hopelessness.
When you hold yourself accountable, you know what it is that you need to do. Holding yourself accountable to uphold your boundaries gives you the strength to do what you need to do, whether to have a courageous conversation or know that it is time to move on.
Ultimately, your boundaries will let you know.
A simple sentence to communicate a boundary.
A simple sentence that can be used to communicate your boundary, regardless of whether it is a physical boundary, mental boundary, emotional boundary, or spiritual boundary.
“I feel ____ when you ____ because ____. What I need is ____.”
An example of this for a physical boundary can be: “I feel uncomfortable when you stand so close to me because I like to have personal space. What I need is for you to take a few steps back.”
An example of this for a mental boundary is: “I feel uncomfortable when you ask me personal questions about my life because I’m not comfortable with sharing that information. What I need from you is not to ask those questions.”
An example of this for an emotional boundary is: “I feel like we’re moving too fast in our relationship. What I need is to slow it down.”
An example of this for a spiritual boundary is: “I have a right to my own spiritual beliefs and what I need from you is to honor this.”
Keep in mind that “NO” is a complete sentence on its own. And if those two small letters are sufficient enough for you to express them and establish a boundary. Then, by all means, please make use of them.