Boundaries are literally our rules of engagement for how others interact with us.
But, the idea of creating some kind of wall around ourselves, our property and our time can seem foreign to us. In fact, we can be made to feel wrong or bad for trying to erect boundaries and be labeled as selfish. In reality, boundaries are essential to healthy relationships and a healthy life. Having healthy boundaries are the building block for great relationships because they mean that you know and understand what your limits are.
By recognizing the need to set and enforce limits, you protect your self-esteem, maintain self-respect, and enjoy healthy relationships. Unhealthy boundaries cause emotional pain that can lead to dependency, depression, anxiety, and even stress-induced physical illness.
On the other hand, having too rigid boundaries can lead to emotional distance, isolation and loneliness.
What Are Boundaries?
Boundaries are literally the guidelines that you set that establish what you will or won’t tolerate, and this can be in literally any situation or relationship (friendships, romantic relationships, professional relationships, etc.). Boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify for themselves what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around them and how they will respond when someone steps outside those limits.
When it comes to boundaries, we often think about physical boundaries. It’s our personal space or who is allowed to touch in what way and who isn’t. The easiest way to think about a physical boundary is a property line. We have all seen “No Trespassing” signs, which send a clear message that if you violate that boundary, there will be a consequence. This type of boundary is easy to picture and understand because you can see the sign and the border it protects.
Physical boundaries include your body, sense of personal space, sexual orientation, and privacy. These boundaries are expressed through verbal instruction and body language. An example of physical boundary violation: a close talker. Your immediate and automatic reaction is to step back in order to reset your personal space. By doing this, you send a non-verbal message that when this person stands so close you feel an invasion of your personal space.
Other examples of physical boundary invasions are:
• Inappropriate touching, such as unwanted sexual advances.
• Looking through others’ personal files and emails.
• Not allowing others their personal space. (e.g., barging into an office without knocking)
Emotional boundaries are even more essential to creating healthy relationships. And they can be harder to define because the lines are invisible, can change, and are unique to each individual. Emotional boundaries, just like the “No Trespassing” sign for our physical boundaries, define where you end and others begin. These boundaries help you decide what types of communication, behavior, and interaction are acceptable.
Emotional boundaries protect your sense of self-esteem and ability to separate your feelings from others. When you have weak emotional boundaries, you expose yourself to being greatly affected by others’ words, thoughts, and actions and end up feeling bruised, wounded, and battered. These include beliefs, behaviors, choices, a sense of responsibility, and your ability to be intimate with others.
Emotional boundaries are what keep us from feeling disrespected and resentful within our relationships. But it’s our responsibility to not only decide on what the parameters are for engaging with us, but also to communicate that to the other person.
Examples of emotional boundary invasions are:
• Not knowing how to separate your feelings from your partner’s and allowing his/her mood to dictate your level of happiness or sadness (a.k.a. codependency).
• Sacrificing your plans, dreams, and goals in order to please others.
• Not taking responsibility for yourself and blaming others for your problems.
Stop asking why they keep doing it and start asking why you keep allowing it.
HEALTHY BOUNDARIES allow you to:
• Have high self-esteem and self-respect.
• Share personal information gradually, in a mutually sharing and trusting relationship.
• Protect physical and emotional space from intrusion.
• Have an equal partnership where responsibility and power are shared.
• Be assertive. Confidently and truthfully say “yes” or “no” and be okay when others say “no” to you.
• Separate your needs, thoughts, feelings, and desires from others.
• Empower yourself to make healthy choices and take responsibility for yourself.
UNHEALTHY BOUNDARIES are characterized by:
• Sharing too much too soon or, closing yourself off and not expressing your need and wants.
• Feeling responsible for others’ happiness.
• Inability to say “no”.
• Weak sense of your own identity.
• Disempowerment: You allow others to make decisions for you.
How to Set Healthy Boundaries
Setting healthy boundaries is a crucial part of life and an important aspect of any self-care practice. Boundary setting and enforcement is also empowering for most people. Someone who’s not used to setting boundaries might feel guilty or selfish when they first start out, but setting boundaries is necessary for mental health and well-being. Appropriate boundaries can look very different depending on the setting, and it’s important to set them in all aspects of one’s life. Boundaries aren’t just a sign of a healthy relationship; they’re a sign of self-respect.
Think of these as your rules of engagement. What boundaries are necessary for you to have a healthy relationship with a person. Whatever person: A coworker, friend, spouse, dating partner…whomever. These parameters will be specific to the individual, they will change depending on the type of relationship and they will be fluid or dynamic over time. Think of this as your ‘what am I willing to accept’ terms.
Setting boundaries takes practice and determination. Don’t let anxiety, fear or guilt prevent you from taking care of yourself. When you feel anger or resentment or find yourself whining or complaining, you probably need to set a boundary. Listen to yourself, determine what you need to do or say, then communicate assertively. Learning to set healthy boundaries takes time: It’s a process. Set them in your own time frame, not when someone else tells you. Develop a support system of people who respect your right to set boundaries. Eliminate toxic people from your life— those who want to manipulate, abuse, and control you.
So, how do you start?
- practice saying no
- practice having an opinion and expressing it
- ask for what you need
- be diligent in creating your ‘rules of engagement’
Remember, others will treat you exactly how you treat yourself.
Finally, while setting boundaries is crucial, it is even more crucial to respect the boundaries that others have set for themselves. Respect is a two-way street, and appreciating the boundaries others have set for themselves is as important as setting boundaries for yourself.
For more help with establishing boundaries in your life, click here.
Katrina Murphy is a Professional Intuitive Mindset and Confidence Coach in Ontario, Canada, serving clients across Canada and internationally. Katrina helps professionals to change the relationship that they have with themselves so they can reconnect both in their relationships and at work. She’s been featured in various publications and is the creator of the Power-Passion-Purpose Framework.