Developing and Keeping Healthy Boundaries

Spring has arrived, and the event invitations are piling up. Your calendar is getting fuller by the minute. One of the invitations on your table has your heart racing. It’s from your sister who is unable to take no for an answer and has treated you like a doormat for years.

Your best friend’s wedding is on the same day as her 10th wedding anniversary party, and you know she is not going to take the news of your decline well. You’re fearful of the call, the conversation, and the hurtful words that will follow. You are boundary-less and have allowed her to bully you with her sharp tongue and short fuse for years. Your inability to deal appropriately with your sister’s behavior has once again created anxiety, stress and resentment in your life. Understanding boundaries and learning what’s acceptable to you in your relationships are key to protecting yourself and developing healthy relationships.

Boundary-violators can be family, friends, partners or even strangers on the street. A family member or friend may overstep boundaries by calling you at all hours of the day and night to talk about their struggles, without checking in to see if it’s a good time to talk. They may center the conversation solely on themselves without asking about you. Or you might have that one friend who invites herself over to your house – and maybe even goes through your food pantry or closet without asking. This blatant disregard – for you your property, your belongs or your comforts – is a violation.

What are Boundaries?

Personal 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 him or her. Boundaries define how a person will respond when someone steps outside those limits. They are built out of a mix of beliefs, opinions, attitudes, past experiences and social learning. Personal boundaries help to define an individual by outlining likes and dislikes, and setting the distances one allows others to approach.

According to author Anne Katherine of “Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin”, boundaries bring order to our lives, strengthen our relationships with others and ourselves, and are essential to our mental and physical health.

We learn about our boundaries by the way we are treated as children. Then we teach others where our boundaries are by the way we let them treat us. Most people will respect our boundaries if we indicate where they are. However, with some people we must actively defend them.

When we establish psychological or emotional boundaries, we can choose what to let in and what to keep out in order to protect our well-being. We can choose how close we let people into our lives and exclude negativity and hostility.

What do I mean by let-in? Think about the above example about a woman and her sister. How we let someone in means how we let them talk to us, treat us, describe us in front of others, and what we let them push us to do.

In order to better understand boundaries, let’s review some fundamentals:

Types of Boundaries

  • Material boundaries: money, car, clothes, food. Are you more inclined to give or lend things to others, without really wanting to? Do you let others take advantage of you and your stuff?
  • Physical boundaries: personal space, privacy, and body. How do you feel about hugging, kissing, or handshaking when greeting people? Do you prefer to undress alone and behind closed doors? Do you let people get in your face when they talk to you?
  • Mental boundaries: thoughts, values, and opinions. Are you certain about what you believe, and can you stay true to your opinions? Do you stick to your values or do you give in when someone disagree with you? Without healthy mental boundaries, you may be easily persuaded by others and change your values and opinions without meaning it.
  • Emotional boundaries: feelings. Do you often feel guilty about someone else’s negative feelings or problems? Do you take others’ comments too personally? Without emotional boundaries, you might have a difficult time knowing your own feelings and your responsibilities to yourself and others.
  • Sexual boundaries: sexual touch and activity. In order to have healthy sexual boundaries, you need to know what you’re comfortable doing sexually, where you’re comfortable doing it, when is an appropriate time, and with whom.
  • Spiritual boundaries: religious beliefs. Each person has the right to take comfort in his/her own spiritual or religious beliefs. When healthy spiritual boundaries are in place, there is room for differences in each person’s perspective.

Setting Healthy Boundaries 

Learning to be assertive is a very valuable tool in terms of setting healthy boundaries. Many people confuse being assertive with being aggressive or nasty, or creating conflict.

Take for example, the woman and her sister earlier in the blog, – if you were in her shoes can you imagine yourself saying, respectively and calmly, “I am not comfortable with the way you are talking to me now.” (See my next blog for how to be assertive).

Setting boundaries is essential if we want to be both physically and emotionally healthy. 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. You may even feel angry, guilty or passive aggressive. A lack of boundaries is like leaving the door to your home unlocked – anyone can enter whenever they choose, even when uninvited. On the other hand, when your boundaries are too rigid, you begin to isolate yourself. It’s like staying in your home locked away without even stepping foot outside or letting anyone enter.

Let’s review some signs of healthy versus unhealthy boundaries:

Signs of Unhealthy Boundaries  Signs of Healthy Boundaries 
Telling everything to everyone or anyone Revealing a little of yourself at a time, checking to see how the other person responds
Allowing yourself to get romantically involved with anyone who reaches out Deciding whether a potential relationship will be good for you
Going against personal values or rights to please others Maintaining personal values despite what others think or want
Taking from others without asking Respecting others– not taking advantage of someone’s generosity
Allowing someone to take from you, without you wanting them to Not allowing someone to take advantage of your generosity
Touching a person without asking or invading personal space Asking a person before touching them or respecting personal space
Accepting things that you don’t want, such as gifts or advice Refusing those things you don’t want
Allowing others to talk over you Being able to assertively stop someone from interrupting you

 Gender and Boundaries

Gender can actually play a significant role in whether or not you set healthy boundaries. Women have a harder time saying “no” because they are raised to nurture and help. At a young age, girls are socialized to be nice and to be more in touch with their own and other people’s feelings than are boys. Also, women often play to get along, whereas men often pay to win. Women have a difficult time saying no, especially if they think someone’s feelings may be at stake or if it causes them not to be liked.

Take Liz for example. Liz has a friend who loves to shop for clothes. However, Liz isn’t much of a shopper and would rather go out for coffee or a causal walk in her spare time. But since Liz fears her friend might be disappointed with her if she declines shopping outings, she goes with her anyway and even spends money on things she doesn’t want because her friend influences her to do so.

While Liz has trouble worrying about pleasing her friend, Gina has a hard time refusing her husband’s needs. Gina feels the need to give into each of her husband’s requests, even if she is too busy or is not in the mood. She fears he will think about divorce. Even if this thought is irrational, she fears saying no will disappoint him and cause him to fall out of love with her.

Gender and boundaries go beyond personal life and into the workforce. Many women have described being at meetings where they and not the men are asked to get coffee or take the meeting notes.

To sum up, developing and keeping healthy boundaries might not always be easy in some situations, but keep in mind that boundaries are important for your well-being and protection. When you say “yes” to someone when you actually want to say “no” you are really saying “no” to your self. Over time, you will find it becomes easier to be assertive and maintain healthy boundaries.

If you feel that private therapy would be beneficial to helping you maintain healthy boundaries, please feel free to contact me to schedule an appointment.


Signs of Healthy & Unhealthy Boundaries

Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin— How to Recognize and Set Healthy Boundaries by Anne Katherine

4 Tips for Setting Healthy Boundaries by Donna M. White, LPCI, CACP

If You Set a Boundary, Expect to Deal with Anger

What Are Personal Boundaries? How Do I Get Some?

cover photo: Flickr/A.Shazly