Setting Healthy Boundaries

Setting Healthy Boundaries

Rose MacDowell

We've all heard the phrase "to have boundaries." What are boundaries, and why are they so important? How are boundaries different from having standards, or simply saying no?

Let's take a look at what boundaries are, and why they can make a significant and positive difference in your life. 

What Are Boundaries?

Boundaries are clear limits that help define who we are and how we expect to be treated. Healthy boundaries are necessary for our mental health and wellbeing. 

Though the word "boundary" may sound like a wall, healthy boundaries don't distance us from other people. On the contrary, they make clear who we are and what our responsibilities are in relationships. Boundaries actually allow us to become closer and be more vulnerable with others because we don't need to fear they will overwhelm or take advantage of us. We can rely on ourselves to state our boundaries clearly if needed so we don't feel exhausted or taken advantage of.  

Boundaries should be flexible enough to allow you to adapt as you change and grow, but firm enough to protect you from feeling exploited or overwhelmed. 

Types of Boundaries

Boundaries take many forms, and apply to all aspects of your life. Personal boundaries examples include:

1. Physical Boundaries. Physical boundaries concern your physical body, and can refer to your personal space, how comfortable you are with being touched, your need for sleep, and your preferences for certain foods. Physical boundaries also include the health of your body, and your needs for movement and exercise.

Physical boundaries let people know if you need space or want to be touched. Boundaries also help you make your needs clear, and tell others when you're hungry or need to sleep.

2. Emotional Boundaries. Emotional boundaries refer to your feelings and emotional energy. When you set emotional boundaries, you make clear how much you're willing to give and receive, what you're willing to share and what you choose to keep private, and how you protect yourself from people you don't consider emotionally safe.

When you respect your own boundaries and those of others, you can validate each other's feelings and be vulnerable in a way that doesn't feel engulfing or excessive. You don't probe for personal information, dismiss the feelings of others, or ask them to justify their emotions, and you expect the same in return.

3. Sexual Boundaries. Sexual boundaries help you communicate what kind of sex or touching you're comfortable with, with whom, and for how long. Communicating with your partner is key to establishing boundaries and allowing yourself to feel vulnerable.

Sexual boundaries can change over time as you get to know your body and learn more about your partner or partners. Sexual boundaries are just as important for asexual folks and those with lower libidos. 

4. Intellectual Boundaries. Intellectual boundaries refer to thoughts, beliefs, and ideas, including your career and political orientation. You may be comfortable discussing topics like politics or sex with others, or only with people you know well. You may prefer to keep the conversation lighter at dinner parties or enjoy delving into potentially controversial subjects. 

5. Financial Boundaries. Financial boundaries concern your feelings about money and income. You may not be comfortable sharing finances with a partner, or sharing financial information with certain people. It may be important to you to have a shared bank account with your spouse, or you may not like to lend money to friends or family.

Making your financial boundaries clear can help others understand what is appropriate to discuss with you, and how to handle money matters such as shared rent, groceries, or other expenses. 

6. Relationship Boundaries. Relationship boundaries allow you to take responsibility for your own actions and allow your partner to take responsibility for theirs. If you have poor boundaries, you may take blame for the actions of others or take responsibility for their emotions.

Many of us who grew up in families with poor boundaries also have poor boundaries in our adult relationships. We may get involved in circular arguments and drama and feel the need to fix problems in other peoples' lives. 

How To Set Healthy Boundaries

Be aware of your boundaries and what you're willing to do to protect them. When you think of boundaries, put them in "I" terms that are clear and unequivocal. For instance, I don't tolerate abuse or manipulation from others. I take care of myself first. I don't put up with disrespect. I don't give away my power. I stand up for myself when necessary.

Boundaries are an essential part of self-care. Setting boundaries helps you manage your time and energy, and gives you more control over your life.  Boundaries also let you say no to things that drain your energy and remove yourself from uncomfortable situations.

These techniques can be useful in setting healthy boundaries:

  • Be Aware Of Your Body. Your body gives you signals when you're close to a personal limit. Honor what your body tells you. Take some time to examine how you feel and understand which boundary you need to set to feel comfortable.
  • Understand Your Priorities. Think about what means the most to you in your life. Healthy boundaries take into account your priorities, the people you love, and the way you want to spend your time. Be aware of your physical and emotional limitations, and learn to honor who you are and what you need. 
  • State Your Needs Clearly. Letting someone know exactly what you need is an important way to avoid misunderstandings. If you have a specific need, such as needing rest, time alone, or a discussion about a particular topic, make it known in unambiguous language. Stating "I need to rest," "I'd like to talk when it's convenient for you," or "I need some space right now" makes your needs clear and help others respond appropriately.
  • Listen To Your Gut. Our intuition helps us understand and act on unconscious information. This allows us to make more appropriate decisions that are safer and healthier for us. Practice listening to your gut and respecting your feelings. If you sense something isn't right, trust your gut instinct and draw a boundary, or remove yourself from the situation entirely.
  • Be Honest With Yourself. Don't pretend to like something just because you think you should. Check in with yourself often and pay attention to how you feel. Get comfortable with saying no and putting limits on your time when it feels appropriate. Be honest with yourself and other people about what you're able to give.
  • Avoid Unnecessary Apologies. Many of us have learned to apologize even when something isn't our fault. Take note of how often you apologize, and do your best to stop apologizing for your feelings or events you can't control. Women in particular may apologize excessively to avoid appearing aggressive or pushy, and begin sentences with the words "I'm sorry" to soften the impact of their words. Reserve apologies for times when you've genuinely hurt someone or should have done better. Allow your statements to stand as is, without feeling the need to diminish them by prefacing them with apologies or excuses.