The definition of boundaries means anything that marks a border. It’s a real or imagined line that marks the edge or limit of something or the limit of a subject, principle or relationship.
Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits. They are built out of a mix of conclusions, 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. Boundaries are essential to healthy relationships and, really, a healthy life. Setting and sustaining boundaries is a skill.
Why Are Boundaries Important?
Healthy boundaries are necessary components for self-care. Without boundaries, we feel depleted, taken advantage of, taken for granted, or intruded upon. Whether it’s in work or in our personal relationships, poor boundaries may lead to resentment, hurt, anger, and burnout.
Boundaries help us take care of ourselves by giving us permission to say NO to things, to not take everything on. Boundaries draw a clear line around what is ok for us and what is not. While some behaviours clearly cross the line for almost anyone, we all have different comfort levels when it comes to everything from intimacy and privacy to lateness. When someone behaves in a way that doesn’t feel ok to us – that crosses our line, we need to take care of ourselves by letting them know and making that line much clearer.
Boundaries are important for both individuals in a relationship, and for the health of the relationship itself. Without clear boundaries, we may feel resentful, taken advantage of and eventually shut down and withdraw. It can affect our sense of self-esteem, self-worth and overall personal and interpersonal comfort level. Clear boundaries allow us to remain connected and communicating these boundaries shows our respect for the relationship, because we’re willing to put in the work to ensure that the relationship stays strong and safe.
UNHEALTHY Boundaries are characterised by:
- Sharing too much too soon or, at the other end of the spectrum, closing yourself off and not expressing your need and wants. Feeling responsible for others’ happiness.
- Weak sense of your own identity.
- You base how you feel about yourself on how others treat you.
- You allow others to make decisions for you; consequently, you feel powerless and do not take responsibility for your own life.
HEALTHY Boundaries allow an individual to:
- Have high self-esteem and self-respect.
- Share personal information gradually, in a mutually sharing and trusting relationship.
- Protect physical and emotional space from intrusion.
- Have an equal partnership where responsibility and power are shared.
- Be assertive. Confidently and truthfully say YES or NO and be OK when others say NO to you.
- Separate your needs, thoughts, feelings, and desires from others. Recognize that your boundaries and needs are different from others.
- Empower yourself to make healthy choices and take responsibility for yourself. If you are dealing with someone who is physically dangerous or threatening to you, it may not be safe to attempt to set explicit boundaries with them. If you are in this situation, it can be helpful to work with a counsellor, therapist or advocate to create a safety plan and boundary setting may be a part of this.
Setting boundaries isn’t always comfortable and people may push back if you say NO to some things or try communicating your needs more clearly. People may try to test your limits, to see how serious you are about drawing the line. Or they may be used to you responding in a certain way (agreeing to take on everything), and they may push back when you try to make some changes. That doesn’t mean that you’re doing something wrong. It may just mean that you need to be clear and consistent until people adjust to the new way of interacting.
“Your personal boundaries protect the inner core of your identity and your right to choices.”
– Gerard Manley Hopkins
Boundaries by Dr Henry Cloud and Dr John Townsend
Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin by Anne Katherine
Self-Care 101: Setting Healthy Boundaries by Dr Dana Nelson 2016