Setting Up Personal Boundaries

Personal boundaries are limits we place for ourselves and others in our interactions with others. They define the kinds of behavior that we are both comfortable and not comfortable with. However, the process of setting up boundaries can go awry if we choose boundaries that are either too harsh or too permeable. For instance, rejecting intimacy altogether is a sign of the former, while being too afraid to speak up for yourself is an example of the latter. 

A personal boundary is a rule or limit we set up to moderate our interactions with others and the outside world. It’s a conditional statement that lets us decide whether something is acceptable or unacceptable to us. A violated boundary is a signal to us to protect ourselves when necessary.

There are two ways this process can go wrong: having overly rigid boundaries means that you shut people out and deny yourself intimacy; but on the other hand, boundaries that are too permeable can be just as bad. The balance is somewhere right in the middle—a healthy boundary.

How do you know where your boundaries fall? Well, that’s the joy of boundaries. Nobody can (or should) answer this question but you! You get to decide your own preferences of engagement with people—and you can change your mind at any time. That being said, there are some telltale clues that your boundaries are not really working for you. All boundaries are permitted, but not all of them are beneficial. Your boundaries may be considered a little too rigid if you:

  • Avoid intimacy in general
  • Dislike asking for help
  • Try hard to avoid rejection or criticism
  • Feel lonely
  • Keep people at arm’s length
  • Seldom compromise
  • Feel detached, protective or extremely private
  • Have few close relationships
  • On the other hand, your boundaries may be too porous if you:
  • Often find yourself settling for disrespect or outright abuse
  • Never speak up for yourself
  • Feel dependent on others and their approval
  • Have trouble saying “no”
  • Overshare the details of your life
  • Are deeply sensitive to and aware of other people’s emotions, sometimes making those emotions your personal responsibility
  • Find it hard to make a decision on your own, and are not confident in your own judgment
  • Have relationships that are dramatic, difficult, or codependent
  • Frequently feel manipulated, bullied, taken advantage of, dominated, controlled, pushed, violated, pressured, used…
  • Sometimes resort to passive aggression to get what you want
  • Feel that you’re not really sure who you are, deep down
  • Regularly feel guilty, anxious, overcommitted, or resentful at others’ demands
  • Feel very responsible for others’ happiness
  • Constantly feel like you put more into every relationship than you get out
  • Feel run-down and depleted of energy often
  • Feel like the victim a lot of the time
  • Are deeply fearful of being abandoned or judged as a bad person

If you’re reading these lists and see some of yourself in both, that’s understandable—humans are complex and may have boundaries that are too weak one moment and too strong the next, almost to overcompensate. Alternatively, we may find ourselves relatively stern and self-contained in one aspect of life (for example, work) but it’s a completely different story in another area of life (say, romantic relationships).

Whether they’re too strong or too weak, unhealthy boundaries have a predictable effect on us: they interfere with our ability to connect healthily and meaningfully with those around us. Intimacy is something to negotiate—and a poor boundary fails to find a balance.

Those with overly strong boundaries may feel they are protecting themselves by being “independent,” just as those with porous boundaries may feel they are being good, kind people. But ultimately, our healthiest relationships occur when we can seek intimacy while still maintaining a robust sense of our own autonomy.

You’ll know your boundaries are in good shape when you can say and hear “no” without feeling bad. When you can value your thoughts, opinions, and feelings, as well as consider those of others. When you feel confident enough to never have to change who you are in order to be approved of by others, but are mature enough to compromise when needed. Most importantly, whatever you do is because you consciously choose to do it, according to your own values.

We’ve already considered the different types of boundaries, but we’ll be focusing in this book primarily on those that are usually the most challenging—interpersonal and emotional boundaries with others. In any case, all boundaries are strongly linked to one another. For example, poor emotional boundaries can leak into all areas of life, including our work, our sexual relationships, or our daily habits.

The Conditional Statement

Later in the book, we will spend a little more time on considering how boundaries can be not only set up, but enforced. The important thing about a boundary is that it actually means something. It’s essentially a conditional statement saying, “If this happens, this is what I will do.” It only has power as long as you and everyone else believes you will act on it.

A boundary with no real-world consequences for violation is simply no boundary at all.

Let’s consider an example. A very basic physical boundary of yours might be that you dislike being hugged by strangers. To enforce this boundary, you could keep your distance from others, politely decline hugs, or kindly explain to people that you generally avoid hugs. You could consider what would actually happen if this boundary was violated—what would you do? Would your response be effective?

By outlining all of these potential scenarios, you take control of your own desires, limits, and personal space. You turn your beliefs about yourself into concrete action that has a real effect on others. It can be hard in the moment, for example, to let someone know you are uncomfortable with how close they are standing to you, but if you spend the time to figure out a polite way to voice your boundaries beforehand, you can feel more empowered in social situations to simply say what you feel without feeling uncomfortable. The inner work informs the outer work.

No matter how big or small your needs seem, it’s important to take the time to understand what you want and are comfortable with. But this is only half of the story. It’s also necessary to know how you’ll respond when and if people don’t respect these boundaries. Your reaction to the violation of different boundaries is sure to vary, and you’ll need to think of how severe of a reaction each violation deserves. This is where the real power comes in—you teach others to respect and be considerate of you when you communicate that your boundaries are nonnegotiable and that you mean them.

It can feel scary at first to assert a boundary, but it only becomes easier with time, and your confidence can only grow.

As you learn to define and defend your boundaries, you may learn something interesting—that there are genuinely good people out there who are happy to respect them. On the other hand, some of your closest friends and acquaintances will stubbornly continue to treat you in disrespectful ways. Acknowledge this and be mindful of those people who make you feel guilty or punish you for not being as they’d like.

What are they communicating when they fail to respect a boundary set up to protect you? Do you agree with that message? This might be a useful indicator of an overly harsh boundary in some cases, but the fact that they chose to violate your boundaries instead of communicating clearly with you is also telling.

It can be a vicious cycle—when we are disrespected, we may internalize the belief that we are not worth much, and then conduct ourselves in a way that courts and allows further disrespect. But we can turn this cycle the other way around. The more we say what we want and need, and the more we act to align with that, the more we shape a life that supports our well-being, filled with people who respect and care for us.

That might take the form of saying “no” to sexual activity that we feel goes against our spiritual beliefs.

It might mean politely telling your bosses that it’s not your job to fetch coffee for them.

It may look like you firmly making your purse or handbag off limits to your children, and following up with consequences when this boundary is violated.

It may be the realization that in your relationship, you are sick of being the one to do 90% of the work.

It may mean telling your super extroverted friend that you cannot go out with them for the third night this week because you’re tired, you’re cranky, and your bank account is suffering!

A wonderful thing happens when we sharpen up and reinforce our boundaries. It’s as though our identities come into clearer focus, and we feel more empowered and certain in who we are. We can look life straight in the eyes and say, “This is who I am and what I stand for. I don’t have to be any way I don’t want to. I’m valuable and there are right and wrong ways to treat me.”

A boundary is an idea of self-worth put into practice. Working on better boundaries can be a slow process, but it’s a positive feedback loop. The more you affirm and value who you are as an individual, the stronger you’ll feel, and the more clarity you’ll have on exactly how you want to live your life. Because it is, after all, your life.