Think back to a time when someone’s behaviour made you uncomfortable. Maybe it was a pushy salesperson, a meddling mother-in-law, or a friend who said something hurtful. How did you respond? Did you ignore your feelings and let things slide to avoid confrontation? Did you lose your patience and respond angrily? Or were you able to calmly assert your feelings and stand your ground?
Establishing healthy personal boundaries can help you to keep your cool with others — while still honouring your feelings and values.
What healthy boundaries achieve
Your boundaries teach others about how you would like to be treated. Healthy boundaries, which encourage others to treat you with respect, are a natural extension of self-love and strong self-esteem. They ensure that you take ownership of your own emotions and behaviours, while not taking responsibility for the emotions and behaviours of others.
By setting boundaries that are in line with your values and standards, you attract relationships that build you up and fill your life with happiness and peace. On the contrary, if your relationships are frequently one-sided, unstable, chaotic, or hurtful; your boundaries may need some improvement.
What is a personal boundary?
Boundaries are the limits we set on emotions, words, or behaviours within our relationships. They are the personal rules that indicate what we are comfortable with, and what we are not. Personal boundaries protect our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual safety and wellbeing.
Types of boundaries
Boundaries can be physical, emotional, intellectual, material or time-based. For example, a healthy intellectual boundary might be that you would like your ideas and questions to be respected — not put down or dismissed. An example of a material boundary might be expecting your best friend to ask permission before borrowing your clothing to wear.
Boundaries also exist on a spectrum, with rigid boundaries on one side, healthy boundaries in the middle, and porous boundaries on the other extreme.
People with rigid boundaries tend to keep others at a distance and avoid vulnerability for fear of rejection. They may come across as being detached, are very protective of their personal information, and avoid asking for help.
Those with porous boundaries areoverly reliant on the opinions of others, struggle to say “no,” people-please, are accepting of mistreatment from others, excuse or assume responsibility for others’ behaviour, and get overinvolved in other people’s problems.
People with healthy boundaries have a strong sense of self. They value their own thoughts and feelings and are not reliant on others for validation. They can assertively communicate their wants and needs while still respecting the boundaries of others.
Benefits of healthy boundaries:
Less interpersonal conflict and arguments
Increased respect from others
Well developed identity and autonomy
Improved mental and emotional health
Prevents feelings of burnout
Healthier, happier, more peaceful relationships
Symptoms of poor boundaries
Tendency to attract relationships with people who manipulate, disrespect, or take advantage of you
Friendships or relationships that are one-sided
A lack of ownership over your feelings, decisions and behaviours
Insufficient privacy, freedom, or time for yourself
A fear of expressing your true feelings
Feeling the need to people-please or fix other’s problems
Feeling stuck in relationships
4 steps to better boundaries
1. Define your boundaries
For boundaries to work, you have to know when a boundary has been violated. This means clearly defining where your boundaries stand. For example, what does honesty look like to you? What does loyalty look like? What does respect look like?
Particularly if you’re someone with co-dependent tendencies, it’s important to identify your boundaries to avoid letting others define them for you (e.g., by telling you what behaviours you should tolerate, or how their actions should make you feel). Take some time to define your values and boundaries so that you can confidently know and feel them for yourself.
2. Be assertive and speak up
Calmly communicate your boundaries to others. Avoid the temptation to over-explain or justify your boundaries (this opens up room for argument and self-doubt). Just state what your boundary is, in the simplest possible terms. For example, “I won’t be drinking alcohol at dinner tonight”.
It can also make it easier for your needs to be well-received if you keep the focus on yourself. For instance, instead of saying, “I don’t want you texting me every five minutes” say, “I’ll only have the time and energy to check in with you once on my lunch break.”
3. Recognise the signals that a boundary has been violated
In addition to having clearly defined boundaries so that you can know, logically, when a boundary has been violated, it’s also important to tune in to your emotions. Feeling angry, sad, frustrated or overwhelmed may be a sign that someone has violated your boundaries. You may also have a ‘gut feeling’ that something is off, feel squeamish, or creeped out. Pay attention to the signals your body is giving you. Do you feel relaxed and at peace around this person, or are you tense, closed-off, uncomfortable, or even sick-feeling? With practice, you’ll be able to quickly recognise when you need to assert a boundary or even remove yourself from someone’s presence.
4. Define and enforce consequences for boundary violations
Enforcing a boundary isn’t mean. In fact, it is one of the most loving things you can do for yourself and the people you care about. Enforcing a boundary can feel harsh if you’re not used to doing so, but it doesn’t have to be dramatic.
The simplest way to enforce a boundary is by calling the other person out on their behaviour in a calm, matter-of-fact way. For example, “Did you just say that I look fat? That comment was a bit unnecessary.”
If their behaviour continues, let the person know what the consequences will be for ignoring your boundary. Potential consequences include saying “no,” hanging up the phone, leaving a room, changing a password, cancelling a credit card, or asking them to leave. You may tell someone that you won’t help them out with something anymore, refuse to lend them more money, or even end your relationship.
If you’re deeply empathetic to others (and especially if you have porous boundaries), you may find it hard to enforce consequences. However, it is absolutely necessary if you want to uphold your values and protect your wellbeing. Ultimately, their behaviour is more likely to improve once you stop enabling their negative behaviour.
But shouldn’t we forgive others?
Upholding a boundary should not be confused with unforgiveness. Depending on your situation, it may be healthiest to limit your interactions with someone or cut them from your life entirely – even if you forgive them. If they like you less for it, that’s okay. Not everybody has to like you, and you don’t have to like everybody. When there are severe or repeat boundary violators in your life, it’s okay to let go of those relationships so you can welcome healthy, peaceful relationships into your life instead.
Today’s action steps
Think of someone who you struggle to set healthy boundaries with:
Are your boundaries too rigid (you need to open up more) or too porous (you need to set more limits or say ‘no’)?
Decide what needs to change. For example, “I don’t want my brother relying on me for rides home after 9 PM”.
Define a boundary you want to enforce: I’m happy to offer him a ride home if I’m within ten minutes of him and it’s before 9 PM. Otherwise, he will need to find and pay for his own transportation home.
Define a consequence for violating this boundary: The next time he calls me after 9 PM to ask for a ride home I will say ‘no’.
How do you think upholding these healthy boundaries will impact your life? Remember that their behaviour, and the consequences of their behaviour, are their responsibility — not yours.
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