Updated: Sep 3, 2020
Boundaries help us to protect our sense of identity and establish safety/security in our relationships. Without boundaries, we may experience burn-out and resentment, or become victim to abusive or otherwise unhealthy relationship dynamics.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries define what is acceptable or unacceptable in the context of a relationship. They set basic guidelines for how we want to be treated by others.
There are different elements of boundaries within our relationships, including:
Physical & Sexual: Personal space, physical touch.
Emotional: Respecting feelings, maintaining appropriate levels of self-disclosure.
Intellectual: Respecting thoughts and ideas, recognition of appropriate topics for discussion.
Time: Appropriately balancing time between personal needs vs. others' needs.
Material: Money and possessions, setting limits on what you will share and with whom.
Boundaries aren't "all-or-nothing," but can exist on a spectrum from excessive to poorly defined, with a healthy balance somewhere in the middle.
Rigid: A person with rigid boundaries would be more detached and distant. They would be more inclined to avoid intimacy and under-share their thoughts/feelings. Often people with rigid boundaries have walls and barriers to protect themselves.
Porous: A person with porous boundaries can become easily enmeshed in relationships, to the point that they experience a loss of identity and autonomy. They tend to over-share their own thoughts/feelings, and get overly involved in other's problems. They are more likely to accept abuse and disrespect in their relationships, often due to a fear of rejection. They depend on approval from others, which explains why they often struggle to say "no."
Healthy: A person with healthy, permeable boundaries value themselves and their own opinions, while still being respectful of others. They know how to strike an appropriate balance on sharing personal information (without under-sharing or over-sharing). They are comfortable saying "no" when necessary, and allow others the right to say "no" as well. They have developed an awareness of their thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs (and have developed effective communication skills). They are able to maintain autonomy and independence, while staying connected in relationships.
How to Set Boundaries?
1) Clearly define the boundary. This step requires a lot of self-awareness and introspection. Tune into your feelings. Anger, resentment, and bitterness may be indicators that your boundaries have been violated. Write down your feelings and boundaries, as this may help to clarify your thoughts.
2) Communicate the boundary assertively. See our blog post on assertive communication for more assistance with this! You can stay simple in your explanation, and don't get caught up in over-explaining or justifying your boundary. Be direct, and name your limits.
3) Enforce the boundary. Healthy boundaries need to be enforced. If you have experienced a violation, ask yourself what you need to establish safety in the relationship? Boundaries should be enforced with respect and direct language, not with anger. Disclaimer: People can and do abuse the term "boundaries." Boundaries are not meant to be used as a punishment, or as a tool to control and/or manipulate others.
It is not uncommon for people to fall into unhealthy relationship patterns if they haven't been taught better. Developing a greater understanding of what boundaries are and learning to effectively set and enforce boundaries may be the key to greater personal peace and relationship satisfaction. If you need more individualized help in implementing boundaries, don't hesitate to reach out to one our therapists today!
Carrie Nicholes is a Maryland Board approved Licensed Certified Social Worker - Clinical (LCSW-C) and the founder of Cedar Counseling & Wellness. Recognized as one of the top therapists in Annapolis, she has a lifelong passion for teaching people tools to improve their lives.