Boundaries help us to maintain a sense of order in our lives. When we develop and assert our boundaries, we’re practicing a deeper level of self-care by looking after our own needs and emotional health. While we might initially think of emotional and psychological boundaries, they can also be physical, and applied across a range of relationships and situations. They may not always be easy to set and uphold, but they’re imperative to our identity and sense of self.
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What Are Personal Boundaries?
Personal boundaries set an area of space between you and another person to protect yourself mentally and emotionally. Boundaries can act as general guidelines for the way in which we wish to be treated. They help us to organise and assert our needs as we establish our identity and seek to develop a healthy state of well-being.
Boundaries can be emotional, mental and physical. They can also define what we will or will not hold ourselves responsible for, as well as set limits for ourselves and what we will or will not tolerate. Boundaries can be applied to our friendships and close relationships, as well as to acquaintances, strangers and workplace interactions.
For some people, boundaries may be loose and flexible, they may be strong and rigid, or they may fall in between. Some people may feel they haven’t set any personal boundaries at all. What your boundaries are, and indeed if you choose to set them, is a personal decision that only you can make.
Healthy Boundaries As A Form Of Self-Care
Self-care is comprised of the smaller, more surface elements like indulging in something you enjoy, taking care of your skincare routine or having a relaxing bubble bath. There are also the bigger, deeper and more meaningful elements of self-care, like being assertive, forgiving ourselves or saying ‘no’. Setting healthy boundaries is just one important aspect of self-care. It shows you value yourself and you’re making your needs a priority.
The Benefits Of Boundaries
Having basic guidelines in place should help ensure that your relationships and friendships are more mutually reciprocal, caring, respectful and appropriate, while healthy boundaries in the workplace can lead to less stress and greater levels of fulfilment.
Boundaries can help you make decisions more confidently based on what’s right for you, rather than what others want you to do. You’ll be considering what’s best for you, not just what’s right for those around you, in your day to day behaviours.
Having and asserting boundaries will enable you to grow your self-respect, self-esteem and confidence. It’ll reinforce your sense of self-worth and meaning. It’ll allow you to have mutually beneficial, healthy relationships. You’ll be more empowered to speak up and to consider your needs and wants, including how those may be different to the needs and wants of those around you. From there, you’ll be more confident in making choices that are in your best interests, not just what’s best for someone else.
Setting boundaries can help you get and maintain balance in your life, reducing stress, strengthening personal identity, increasing confidence and autonomy, improving relationships, and avoiding burnout.
What Happens Without Boundaries?
A lack of healthy boundaries can affect various aspects of a person’s life. It can result in “stress, financial burdens, wasted time and relationship issues, which can cause mental distress”. It’s also been argued that “in work or in our personal relationships, poor boundaries lead to resentment, anger, and burnout” (from Nelson 2016).
Unhealthy or non-existent boundaries could lead to a negative knock-on effect to all areas of life. For instance, it might be as simple as how you might feel you owe others an explanation and end up disclosing personal information or feelings you didn’t want to share. Sense of identity can weaken, as can confidence, self-esteem and the ability to assert yourself. This leads to disempowerment and lack of autonomy. Feelings of guilt, feeling you’re responsible for the happiness and wellbeing of others can become suffocating, and the fear of abandonment or rejection can amplify. Relationships may become one-sided, leading to resentment, disheartenment or frustration, and a lack of meaning and fulfilment in life.
Why Boundaries May Not Be Set
There are a few reasons someone may not insist upon their boundaries or even develop them. We don’t want to be treated poorly and we don’t want boundaries violated, yet it can be harder to enforce when push comes to shove. For instance:
- Guilt (for looking after ourselves, for feeling as though we’re letting the other person down)
- Upbringing (taught to not have boundaries or that you don’t deserve to assert your own needs)
- Concerns for safety (fear that in asserting our boundaries the other person may become hostile)
- Fear (of abandonment, ridicule or retaliation)
The Respect For Our Boundaries : Violations
While we’d like to hope that others will treat us the way we would treat them, that’s obviously not always the case. While we’d like to hope our boundaries will be respected, there’s no guarantee of that, either.
There are various reasons someone may break our trust or violate our boundaries. In the best of cases it may be unintentional, with that person meaning no harm. In other cases, it may be done with the intention of causing hurt and upset. Narcissists, for instance, notoriously push and violate boundaries with inappropriate and manipulating behaviours.
When boundaries are ignored or violated, it can leave us feeling anxious, hurt, confused, exhausted or personally attacked.
If this happens, it’s a case of continuing to reassert those boundaries and guidelines, and giving some thought as to why that person has done what they have. If your boundaries are fair and you have treated that other person with respect, then the problem is with them, not you.
You have the right to healthy, safe relationships and to be treated appropriately. Know your rights, identify what behaviours aren’t appropriate or helpful from another person, and be straight in your dealings with the breach of boundaries. Have a plan of how to deal with such instances. Stand your ground, be honest, be confident and be assertive. The other person may not like it, but they may be banking on you caving in and letting them get away with their treatment of you.
In the case of potentially damaging or dangerous violations, know when enough is enough. If you need outside support, seek it. This could be particularly crucial in the case of manipulative, controlling or abusive partners. Counselling is also worth considering if you’re feeling the mental health effects of these experiences. You don’t have to go it alone.
If someone violates your boundaries and you consider them to be a toxic influence in your life that you can no longer move forward with, for whatever reason, then it might be time to move on.You ideally want a support system of people in your life that respect and value you.
How To Set Healthy Personal Boundaries
Boundaries ensure we are stable emotionally and mentally, and they establish our sense of identity. As such, self-compassion and kindness are vital in developing these boundaries. Believing that you are worth protecting and being treated with respect will be at the core of your guidelines.
- The initial step is to reflect on what boundaries you currently have in place, if any, within your life. You might find you have some for certain areas, such as at work, but not others, such as with your friends. Then look at the pre-existing boundaries and ask yourself how well they’re working. Are they too loose or too rigid? Do they need to be adjusted, adapted or added to?
- Next, look at what’s lacking and where you might feel boundaries could be beneficial. Are there instances where boundaries would have been helpful or could be helpful in future? If you find yourself getting exhausted, frustrated, angry or resentful, it may be that boundaries are needed in those areas.
- If you’re setting a boundary that could, or does, get violated, what will the consequences be? How will you handle that? It’s also important to ensure that you would be willing to follow through on any potential consequences. Consider what you want from your relationships and what you need your boundaries to do.
- If you’ve not set boundaries before, or they’ve been very loose and not not asserted, then you might find yourself feeling bad or guilty or selfish for even thinking about it. Boundaries aren’t selfish, and neither is self-care. You’re looking after yourself in your relationships and interactions, which in turn will benefit your wellbeing, the wellbeing of the other person(s), and the wider situation, be that at home, in social settings, school, work or elsewhere.
- Once you’ve identified a boundary, communicate it clearly and simply. State what you need and why, without feeling you need to apologise or justify it. Set potential consequences that will highlight the boundary’s importance. Stay as calm and neutral as you can. You can only control your decision and how you communicate your boundaries and needs; you can’t control how that other person reacts and you’re not responsible for their reaction.
- You have the confidence within yourself to set and uphold boundaries, so don’t let low self-esteem, fear or anything else stop you from looking after yourself.
Setting healthy personal boundaries isn’t always easy, and some people will find it more difficult than others. Be patient and be kind to yourself. Persevere, be determined and dig deep for the assertiveness that’s waiting for the chance to bloom.
Saying ‘no’ in itself can be a form of self-care when you’re turning down something you can’t do or don’t want to do for whatever reason. If you’re putting your needs and preferences first, and you know it’s the right thing to do, then stick to it. If someone wants you to do them a favour, play a game or change your plans, calmly say ‘no’ and don’t feel the need to have to explain if you don’t wish or allow yourself to be made to feel guilty because of your choice.
Boundaries In Practice
> Professional & Employment
Professional boundaries in the workplace may include things like not divulging details of your personal life to colleagues. It can be difficult when you feel pushed into disclosing details of your home life or health because colleagues and managers are curious. You might also set a boundary to not interact with those from work on social media.
Another boundary might be deciding to be easier on yourself, which applies to any work, including being self-employed working from home. You might decide to hold yourself responsible for only your work and nobody else’s. You might decide that you wish to leave your work at the office and that, unless your contract stipulates otherwise, you don’t wish to be contacted at home.
Setting boundaries in your work life can help in preventing burnout, giving you more satisfaction in your work that leaves you with a little more physical and emotional energy at the end of the day.
A boundary might be to not take responsibility for the lives and choices of others. We want to be there for our friends and help them out as best we can, but we can only do so much. In some cases we may feel at fault, or be made to feel at fault, when they’re upset or something bad happens. At the end of the day, we can only take responsibility for our own actions and wellbeing.
Another boundary might be to not take on more than we can manage; if a relationship is becoming rather one-sided, where we seem to be there for the other person but they’re not there for us, or we’re always helping out as best we can but they’ve not reciprocated, we might want to ease off a little. It’s not tit-for-tat, it’s protecting yourself from being used or feeling resentful. The boundary here is to have a mutually respectful, equally reciprocal friendship. Boundaries can also ensure one respects the value of one’s time and energy, managing the demands on yourself by ensuring they’re fair, warranted and wanted.
Friends may want to know details that you don’t wish to share. For example, this might apply to disclosing details of your chronic illness & health issues, or something you’ve experienced in your life you don’t wish to talk about. In the case of those close to you, they may be curious, they may simply wish to help, or they may feel insulted that you won’t tell them. It’s totally your decision when it comes to something like this. If you don’t wish to disclose such information, that’s your choice, so don’t feel pressured. If you do wish to, do it on your terms.
> Acquaintances & Strangers
In a similar way that friends may want to know something, a personal boundary with acquaintances or strangers may involve not disclosing information you consider private and personal, and not feeling pressured into doing so. They may be curious, but it’s your call as to what you share and with whom you share it.
It may be a physical personal boundary, such as in the case of someone invading your personal space. You can take a step back to non-verbally indicate the boundary, and politely ask them to stop crowding you if they miss the cue.
Other violations of physical boundaries might include inappropriate touching and sexual advances, or someone going through your private property.
You could also consider boundaries in your dealings with medical professionals, such as to be able to speak without being spoken over, and to assert yourself without worrying about what the doctor or specialist is thinking.
> Parent-Child Relationships
To maintain a healthy relationship here of trust and respect, boundaries may be in terms of language used, or knocking on your child’s door before entering to gain permission. Boundaries might be in terms of not reading your child’s diary or emails, while the child is to respect boundaries for bedtime or returning home in the evening by a set time. Perhaps you’ll both decide on how to give each other space when it’s asked for
> Romantic Relationships
An example of a boundary in an early relationship might be to see that person once or twice a week, when they may be contacting you too regularly or putting pressure on you to see them more often than you’re comfortable with. In a stable relationship, we might feel we want to keep some of our personal life personal; boundaries might be in terms of not having to explain to our partner who we’re spending time with, not having them read our messages and emails, or not feeling pressured to talk about our ex partners and childhood if we don’t wish to.
Boundaries could also be in terms of taking responsibility for certain chores and tasks around the home or with childcare, to ensure each person in the relationship is taking on a fair share. Your boundaries could help you ensure a two-way street, where no one person is in control of the other. Another intellectual and emotional boundary might be to follow your own dreams, so while you could be open to negotiating, it would be a breach of boundaries for your partner to suggest or insist you sacrifice your goals and dreams so that they can instead fulfil theirs.
There are lots of ways in which boundaries can be set and instances in which they can be applied. These are just a couple of examples to give you a basic idea of boundaries in practice.
Boundaries aren’t always easy to set, maintain and assert, but they can be vital to our wellbeing and sense of self-worth. Boundaries might best be viewed as practicing a form of self-care with a myriad potential benefits. Having these in place can not only benefit us but also our friendships and relationships, having a knock-on effect to our day to day lives, our employment, our healthcare, and our future opportunities by encouraging greater fulfilment, satisfaction and wellbeing.
Have you found personal boundaries to be useful, or have you perhaps struggled with setting healthy boundaries?