There are several different types of boundaries that one can have. These include physical, emotional, spiritual, sexual, digital, time, and even energy boundaries. All of these various categories, however, reinforce the same message—that you are important and deserve to be respected. Whether this is with respect to your body, your feelings, your time, your sexual preferences, or something else, you have a right to demand what you desire in an appropriate manner.
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Types of Boundaries
For people with “boundary issues,” the idea of great boundaries seems simple enough, but it can be incredibly challenging to know what exactly that means. Let’s start by imagining that there are different kinds of boundaries. You, as a human being, have a selfhood that is autonomous, separate, and with value and worth completely independent of the value you provide others. As a human being, you also possess many different selves: a physical self, an emotional self, and so on.
Physical boundaries affirm that your body belongs to you and nobody else. You can share it with others when you want to, but it is ultimately yours. The most basic right we all have is a right to our own bodies; your physical limits, preferences, and needs are important—as important as anyone else’s. Women who have been in abusive relationships can have their physical boundaries eroded over time—they stop believing that their bodies are 100% theirs.
Even a woman who hasn’t been abused may buy into the sexist idea that if a man is nice to her and pays for dinner, she “owes” him sex, or that if a partner pushes or intimidates her one day, it’s OK because she must deserve it somehow. A physical boundary is also something that we draw to keep out any behaviors, substances, situations, or activities that undermine our body’s safety and health.
A physical boundary says: I am here. I belong, and my body is mine and mine alone. I’m allowed to take up space, to say “no,” to be tired or sick, to be on my own, to see to my needs. My body is not for others—it’s for me.
Emotional boundaries communicate exactly the same thing, but on an emotional level. Your emotions are yours—they can’t be wrong or right, and they are not something you should be blamed for or made to feel guilty about. Some people try to control others by controlling their narrative.
They’ll say, “Oh, you’re being dramatic,” or, “You’re overreacting.” But nobody can tell you what you feel, how you should feel, or what your feelings mean. We’re all allowed to feel what we feel. On the other hand, the rights come with responsibilities—we’re free to own our own feelings, but not to make others responsible for them or demand that others feel the way we think they should feel.
An emotional boundary says: I feel how I feel. I accept, love, and trust myself. I am the ultimate arbiter over my emotional reality. I know what I feel, and I don’t need permission from anybody to feel it.
Mental and spiritual boundaries exist, too. We set up a mental boundary whenever we have the wisdom to say, “That’s enough social media for today, it’s getting me down. I’m going for a walk instead.” Firm mental boundaries allow us to hold opinions or ideas, even when others don’t like them, and prevent us from being bullied, coerced, or manipulated away from what we know is best for us.
Spiritual boundaries are similar—with spiritual boundaries, you have the confidence to fully own your spiritual or religious beliefs, and to share them with who you choose to, as much as you choose to. You have the ability to defend and nurture your spirit and soul in just the same way that you’d defend and nurture your body.
Material boundaries involve drawing an empowered line around all of the material possessions we own, most commonly money, but also assets, personal items, clothing, and other belongings. We are not obligated to give and give and give materially, and we don’t have to share with others continually to our own detriment. We are allowed to have privacy and to have our own things for our own use.
Mental, spiritual, and material boundaries all say: My life is important. The way I am matters and I’m allowed to pursue what’s important to me without feeling guilt or shame.
We can also talk about time boundaries (“I will not spend all of my life working when I have a family I care about!”). Your time is valuable and you have a right to spend it on activities you consider important. Such boundaries are necessary at home and work, as well as in your social relationships. Asking professionals to perform extra work without overtime, being disturbed repeatedly by a friend at inappropriate hours to help solve their problems, and even showing up excessively late are all examples of time boundary violations.
There are sexual boundaries (“I only engage in sexual activities that I want to when I want to, and I deserve to have these boundaries respected”). These are often prone to eroding over time, especially in relationships when partners insist on trying things that you might be uncomfortable with. We can fall into the trap of violating our own boundaries by giving in, but it is important that we respect ourselves enough to stand firm.
Digital boundaries are yet another type of boundary that you might want to consider. This includes discussing with another person whether it is appropriate to use each other’s devices, discuss a relationship on social media platforms, share passwords, befriend each other’s friends online, etc. This one might require some negotiation and compromise, making communication key in arriving at a workable arrangement.
Finally, energy boundaries are also important in your relationships with others (“I refuse to let myself be drained or depressed by certain people or events”). Some people are naturally more attuned to the positive or negative energies that individuals radiate, and this can have a significant impact on their own mood. If this sounds familiar, try identifying the types of situations or people that act as triggers. Distance yourself from these triggers.
You might find spending time with a particular family member bothersome, yet worry about appearing rude for avoiding them. In such cases, you must prioritize self-care over social norms. It’s hard to imagine either woman in our examples thinking or believing any of the above.
So, why do people like these women have poor boundaries in the first place? The answer is complex, and we’ll explore cultural, familial, and historical reasons in more detail later. Whatever the reason for it, a poor boundary is an external manifestation of an internal reality. Ultimately, poor boundaries likely accompany any set of beliefs that tells us that we are less important than others.
We might tell ourselves:
I can’t be bothered to say something.
I don’t want to cause any drama.
People might dislike me if I’m not exactly how they want me to be.
I don’t have a right to demand more.
I might be punished if I am too assertive.
I hate being “aggressive.”
People who set boundaries are mean and selfish, and I don’t want others to think that of me.
I’m only a “good” person if I help others feel better somehow.
I’m not entitled to be happy.
Other people’s wants are more legitimate and important than my own.
For now, it’s enough to know that a boundary is something we draw around our valuable and distinctive selves, in accordance with our needs and values. Many of us lack boundaries simply because we falsely believe that we don’t deserve them.
A boundary can look like a tolerance (“I will end a relationship with anyone who tries to control or manipulate me”), a limit (“I will not work on the weekends”), or an expectation (“I expect my family to treat me with respect”), but they all communicate a nonnegotiable degree of value you place on yourself and the minimal conditions for interacting with you.