Healthy boundaries protect your mental health, foster nurturing relationships, reduce stress and eliminate resentment.
So why does it feel so hard to establish them?
Well, setting healthy boundaries can be tough if no one's ever shown you how to do it. But just like with any skill, you can learn.
Read on to see what healthy boundaries look like and how you can set them so you can experience better relationships.
First of all, what are boundaries? I love the simplicity of research professor Brené Brown's definition: "what's okay and what's not okay."
And what's okay and what's not okay differs for each person, which is why your boundaries are truly your boundaries.
But the very term "healthy boundaries" implies that "unhealthy boundaries" exist.
So, what's the difference?
“Healthy boundaries are boundaries that are clearly communicated, and the consequences of violating those boundaries are understood between everyone involved,” explains Dr. Marcuetta Sims, a licensed psychologist and the founder of The Worth, Wisdom, and Wellness Center in Atlanta. “Healthy boundaries also focus more on the person setting the boundary, what that person will and will not allow, but are not focused on changing the behavior of another person.”
On the other hand, Sims says, “Unhealthy boundaries are ones that result in completely cutting everyone out of your life. Unhealthy boundaries are boundaries that are inconsistent, unclear, or constantly subject to change without notification or clarification.”
Rigid boundaries and porous boundaries can be seen as opposite ends of the unhealthy boundary spectrum.
Rigid boundaries leave no room for growth, while porous boundaries fail to protect us. For example, let’s say you have a bad experience on a date, so going forward, you set a rigid boundary of “I do not go on dates with anyone.” While that will certainly protect you from ever having a bad date again, it’ll also prevent you from experiencing a healthy romantic relationship.
On the flip side, let’s say you set a boundary of “I will only go on dates with people who respect and value me,” but you don’t actually enforce that boundary; you still go out with people who talk over you, ignore your concerns, and don’t respect your personal space. That would be a porous boundary because it’s never upheld, and people violate it without any consequences. Porous boundaries can be a sign of low self-esteem.
How do you know when you need to set better boundaries? Keep an eye out for these warning signs of potential boundary issues.
If you’re suffering from exhaustion, it could be that you’re taking on more than you can handle, which may be a result of failing to know and communicate your own personal limits.
This is probably the most common sign of boundary issues. Saying “yes” when you mean “no” is a clear indication that you aren’t comfortable communicating your boundaries.
Venting can be a healthy way to process a bad or hurtful experience, but if you're doing it all the time, you may have boundary issues. Think of it this way: Venting is often a means of saying to a third party what you wished you had said to the person who violated your boundaries. Because of this, it could be a sign that you’re failing to tell people what’s okay and what’s not okay.
Feeling the need to say sorry when you’ve done nothing wrong is another indicator of boundary issues. People who are uncomfortable setting boundaries often apologize because they’re overly concerned with what other people think.
Related to apologizing excessively, having an excessive fear of letting other people down could be a sign of boundary issues. Often, when someone has this irrational fear, they’ll do anything they can to keep other people happy—even if it means ignoring their own boundaries.
Being that friend who’s down to do anything can be seen as a positive; you’re so easygoing! However, dig a little deeper, and this might just be a sign that you’re too afraid to say what you really want.
Are you “too nice,” or are you just too afraid to assert your boundaries? Being a kind person is a good thing, but if people constantly tell you you're being “too nice,” examine how you feel during the interaction.
For example, if someone owes you money, but you say, “Oh, it’s okay, you don’t have to pay me back.” Are you just being nice? Or do you secretly feel resentment for not being paid back? If it’s the latter, then that’s a sign of a boundary issue: You’re too afraid to uphold a boundary.
If this sounds like you, we have a free Personal Power online coaching program that helps you boost confidence so you can stand up for yourself.
“Think about how you treat yourself and others, and how others treat you,” suggests Sara Makin, a licensed professional counselor and the founder of Makin Wellness in Pittsburgh. “Try to recognize if your interaction might fit into any of the categories of boundaries such as rigid, porous or healthy. A great starting point will be identifying which ones fall into the 'unhealthy' category and brainstorm how you might change them."
Pay attention to your emotions; they’re trying to tell you something, but you don’t have to go where they lead.
When you feel a negative emotion over someone else's behavior, it's a fitting time to ask yourself: "Do I feel this way because one of my boundaries has been violated?" Likewise, anytime you feel a positive emotion over someone else's behavior, ask yourself: "Do I feel this way because one of my boundaries has been respected?"
For example, maybe you’re having dinner with your mom, and she makes an off-handed remark about your decision to homeschool your kids. This bothers you well into the next day, and when you stop and think about it, it’s because you’ve told her before that people’s criticism of your parenting skills is really wearing you down. This points to a boundary that you may need to clearly communicate to your mom: To protect your mental health, you request that she only give parenting advice if you ask her for it.
Your boundaries can change, as long as that's healthy for you. To make sure you're not inadvertently violating your own boundaries due to outside pressure, however, it's essential to identify the non-negotiables in your life-those personal values and beliefs that you hold dear.
For example, you might have a boundary that you don't accept work calls after 5 p.m. Later, it's okay if you tweak that boundary to 6 p.m. or to anytime, really. The value behind that boundary is your family. If moving the boundary by one hour doesn’t hurt your family time, then that’s perfectly acceptable.
If it's your first time setting boundaries, it can be nerve-racking to say what you mean in the heat of the moment. Because of this, it's helpful to rehearse saying your boundaries out loud or writing a script before the encounter.
For example, let's say a coworker constantly asks you to help them with projects, and you always say “yes” out of pressure. If you’re preparing to set a boundary with them for the first time, it can help to practice your lines before they ask you again. You might say this in the mirror until it feels comfortable: “I appreciate that you trust me to help you, but I’m already overwhelmed with the tasks I need to do for my job. I don’t have the capacity at the moment to take on more work, but if that changes, I’ll let you know.”
You can tell a lot about someone by how they react when you set a boundary. Unfortunately, there will be times when people, including those you love, will choose not to respect your boundaries. When this happens, it's up to you to uphold your boundaries.
If it’s safe for you and you have the energy, talk to them about why they’re reacting this way and what they feel they need for the relationship to work. But ultimately, if you've communicated your boundaries and they continue to violate them, it might be time to walk away.
Need extra support? It’s useful to gain the perspective of a neutral third party. That’s where having a coach can help. We have a free online coaching program called Vital Wellbeing that develops skills to manage personal boundaries.
What happens if a friend pushes back on your boundaries? Does that mean your boundaries are unreasonable?
No, not necessarily.
“When someone is setting a boundary, it is based on a need that they have in that particular situation,” says Sims. “Can the friend respond and say that this is unreasonable? Sure. People will have reactions and responses to your boundaries based on their perceptions and experiences, but that doesn't mean that the boundary is actually unreasonable. It's an opinion based on the other person's experience, and that friend gets to then make a decision about whether they want to honor that boundary or not.”
And what if you decide to change your boundaries based on feedback from a loved one?
“If it is something that the person is willing to explore, I support that when it is in the confines of a healthy relationship,” she says. “But other factors might also need to be taken into consideration.”
Establishing boundaries for the first time can be scary. Maybe you’re afraid that by being clear about what’s okay and what’s not okay, you’ll scare everyone away. But actually, the opposite is true. By setting healthy boundaries, you are inviting the right people into your life and showing them the best way to care for you.
“While people might think that setting boundaries is mean, I believe that being clear is kind,” says Sims. “So if you are being more clear with people, you are actually being more kind.”
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