Healthy personal boundaries are the key to healthy relationships. Without them, healthy relationships are impossible. Yes, you heard that right. Impossible. That is because boundaries provide a necessary and very important distinction between yourself and other people. It is where you end and others begin, and vice versa. Every kind of relationship can benefit from healthy personal boundaries, whether it’s a spouse, boyfriend, co-worker, family member, friend, child, or parent.
What Are Boundaries?
Boundaries are described as guidelines, rules, or limits that determine the safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around you or treat you. They are based on your beliefs, values, preferences, likes, and dislikes, and help you develop a healthy and secure sense of “self.” They also help you determine how you will respond when someone crosses those limits. A personal boundary has been compared to a yard surrounded by a fence with a gate. The gate is the point of access through which you can admit people into your yard. You decide who to let in, when, and how far. It may be just past the gate, into part of the yard, or the entire yard. The decision is yours and no one else’s.
The following are five types of boundaries. Some schools of thought say there are as few as three, including physical, mental, and emotional, while others expand the categories into as many as six. The best choice is whatever makes the most sense to you. This list makes the most sense to me.
- Physical boundaries—these include your body, personal space, time, and privacy. You determine if and how someone will touch you, who you will allow into your personal space, who utilizes your time and how much, and what you consider private.
- Sexual boundaries—these define your comfort level with sexual activity. You decide what is acceptable to you sexually including what, when, where, how much, and with whom.
- Material boundaries—these define your property and determine what others are allowed to do with it, and when. These include things like money, bank account, car, clothing, food, your home or apartment, or anything else that belongs to you.
- Mental boundaries—these define your thoughts, values, opinions, and beliefs. Just like your car, these are your property. No one has the right to determine any of these for you, nor are you obligated to alter them if you don’t want to.
- Emotional boundaries—these define your feelings. Like mental boundaries, these belong to you. Others may not like your choices, but that is their own choice. You have the right to set limits without guilt, regardless of how others feel about them.
Why Are Boundaries So Important?
Boundaries help us establish limits to protect ourselves from being manipulated, used, controlled, injured, or violated. They allow us to separate who we are and what we think and feel from other people, and what they think and feel. Often people have no idea that they are crossing your boundaries until you tell them. On the other hand, some people may notice that you have weak or no boundaries and then choose to deliberately exploit them. Poor or weak boundaries stem from low self-worth and lack of personal identity. Healthy boundaries come from a position of personal assurance and strength. They allow us to take control of our own destiny. They also help others take responsibility for their own lives. That is what healthy relationships look like.
How can you tell if you lack boundaries or have weak ones? Here are some indicators. This list is not exhaustive, but it will give you some perspective.
- You say yes when you mean no.
- You feel guilty about saying no.
- You compromise your own values and beliefs to please others.
- You don’t speak up when you have something to contribute.
- You assume the ideas or beliefs of others to be accepted.
- You allow physical touch or even sex when you don’t want it.
- You consistently change your plans to meet someone else’s wants or needs.
- You become excessively involved in the problems of others.
- You permit behaviors from others that make you uncomfortable.
How Are Boundaries Established?
First, let’s define what boundaries are not. Boundaries are not revenge or punishment. They are not something you “put” on someone. Establishing and enforcing boundaries with someone is never motivated by anger or resentment. Boundaries are loving limits you set, enforced by your words and actions. The individual may not like your boundaries, and they may even feel hurt by them, but boundaries allow both of you to take responsibility for yourselves.
Boundaries are also not the same as a wall. A wall is a solid, impenetrable structure designed to keep you in and other people out. Healthy boundaries are flexible and penetrable. Remember the fence with that gate? Walls isolate, limiting connection and intimacy. Boundaries build deep, rich relationships at the pace of your choosing.
You begin establishing boundaries by first defining your limits. Start with one individual. Examine previous experiences with that individual where you felt discomfort, resentment, anger, or frustration. Review the boundary types and determine how they might apply. Did she ridicule you for your opinion, criticize you? Did he touch you inappropriately? Did she make demands you are unwilling to meet? Writing it down will help you organize your thoughts, reflect on what you’ve written, and add or subtract what you need to.
The second step can be a little more difficult. It requires that you communicate your boundaries to that individual. Do not corner that person or come at him or her out of the blue. Instead, determine in advance how you will respond if and when that person again crosses your boundaries and carry out that response when it happens. Be assertive, but also be calm and respectful, such as, “I feel uncomfortable when you stand that close to me. Please step back.”
Some individuals will dislike it or may even resist. Others may be completely clueless and simply need a few words to encourage a change in behavior. If communicating your boundaries doesn’t solve the problem, then you will need to establish consequences using the “If/Then” equation. “If you continue to stand so close to me, then I will ask you to leave my office,” or “If you leave the car on empty again, then you will no longer be able to use it.” This allows that person to take ownership of their behavior and assume the consequences. But this method will only work if you follow through with the consequences—and do it consistently. Otherwise, your boundaries carry no weight and will not be taken seriously.
Start developing healthier relationships by giving yourself the gift of boundaries. If you want to learn more about boundaries, read Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. You can also access the many resources here at The Grit and Grace Project to help you develop confidence and a stronger sense of self.
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