Do you find it hard to really connect with other people? Or, do you feel like you’re a dumping ground for other people’s problems and demands? If you answered yes to either of these, your boundaries might need a tune up.

Boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits you create for yourself that clearly identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around you – and how you will respond if someone says or does something outside those limits.

In some ways, a boundary is like a property line. If you put up a “No Trespassing” sign at the edge of your property, this sends a clear message that if someone violates that boundary, there will be consequences. Obviously, this type of boundary is easy to understand because you can see the sign. You might even be able to see the border it protects if you have a fence. Personal boundaries, on the other hand, can feel hard to define because the lines are invisible, they can change, and they are unique to each person.

But just because personal boundaries can be a bit nebulous, that doesn’t make them less important. Just like the “No Trespassing” sign, your personal boundaries define where you end, and others begin. They’re determined by the amount of physical and emotional space you allow between yourself and other people, and they help you decide what types of communication, behavior, and interactions are acceptable to you.

Porous, rigid, or in-between?

We all have boundaries, whether we intentionally set them or not, and the types of boundaries exist on a spectrum, with rigid boundaries on one end, porous boundaries on the other, and healthy boundaries right in the middle (kind of like Goldilocks).

  • Someone with rigid boundaries keeps others at a distance (whether emotionally, physically, or otherwise).
  • Someone with healthy boundaries can say “no” to others when they want to, but they are also comfortable opening themselves up to intimacy and close relationships.
  • Someone with porous boundaries tends to get too involved with others and tends to “over share.”

Most people have a mix of different boundary types. For example, you might have healthy boundaries at work, porous boundaries in romantic relationships, rigid boundaries with a “toxic” friend, and a mix of all three types with your family.

Our boundaries often depend heavily on the setting and situation. For example, conversation (both topics and specific language) that’s appropriate when you’re with close friends might not be appropriate when you’re at work or around certain family members. You might freely chat and share (to an extent) with some nice strangers you meet on vacation, but refuse to engage with that guy at the bar who is kind of creeping you out.

Also, some cultures (both within the U.S. and outside the U.S.) have different expectations when it comes to boundaries. If you’ve never experienced this yourself, think of shows or movies you’ve seen where a very emotionally expressive character finds themselves around people who are more “buttoned up,” or vice versa. There’s a lot of discomfort (for the characters), even if we (the outside observers) are laughing. In some cultures, it’s considered extremely inappropriate to express emotions publicly, while in other cultures, emotional expression is encouraged.

Types of boundaries

Physical boundaries refer to personal space and physical touch. Healthy physical boundaries include an awareness of what’s appropriate, and what’s not, in various settings and types of relationships. For example, hug, handshake or kiss? Someone violates your physical boundaries if they touch you when you don’t want them to, or when they rummaging through your bedroom when they’re visiting.

Intellectual boundaries refer to thoughts and ideas. Healthy intellectual boundaries include respect for other people’s ideas and an awareness of appropriate discussion. For example, you might feel OK talking politics with some friends or family members, but stick to the weather with others. Your intellectual boundaries are violated when someone dismisses or belittles your thoughts or ideas.

Emotional boundaries refer to a person’s feelings. Healthy emotional boundaries include limitations on when to share, and when not to share, personal information. For example, gradually sharing personal information during the development of a relationship, as opposed to revealing everything to everyone. Your emotional boundaries are violated when someone criticizes, belittles, or invalidates your feelings.

Sexual boundaries refer to the emotional, intellectual, and physical aspects of sexuality. Healthy sexual boundaries involve mutual understanding and respect of limitations and desires between sexual partners. Sexual boundaries can be violated with unwanted sexual touch, pressure to engage in sexual acts, leering, or sexual comments.

Material boundaries refer to money and possessions. Healthy material boundaries involve setting limits on what you will share, and with whom. For example, you might lend your car to a family member, but not to someone you met this morning. Your material boundaries are violated when someone steals or damages your possessions, or pressure you to give them or lend them their possessions.

Time boundaries refer to how you use your time. To have healthy time boundaries, you need to set aside enough time for each facet of your life such as work, relationships, and hobbies. Your time boundaries are violated when someone demands too much of your time.

Why is it important to set boundaries?

Setting boundaries is essential for practicing self-care and self-respect, for communicating your needs in a relationship, and for making time and space for positive interactions.

Establishing boundaries makes you a safe person because people know where they stand with you. Boundaries are an essential act of self-care, because we have both a right and a duty to protect and defend ourselves. Setting boundaries also allows other people to grow, because it makes them aware of their behavior, which gives them the opportunity to change. (This is no guarantee they WILL change, of course, but at least you’re giving them the chance.)

If you fear that setting boundaries will make you seem selfish or stingy, consider this: If you don’t set boundaries, you are giving yourself away. When you do set boundaries, you only give what you feel comfortable with. This means you can afford to be generous to more people over a longer period of time. Setting boundaries also keeps you in control of your time and efforts which makes you feel better about yourself and helps you be more effective at activities that are important to you.

Healthy boundaries let you:

  • Have high self-respect and make healthy choices for yourself
  • Share personal information gradually, in a mutually sharing and trusting relationship
  • Protect your physical and emotional space from intrusion
  • Have an equal partnership with shared power and responsibility
  • Confidently and truthfully say “yes” or “no” and be okay when others say “no” to you
  • Separate your needs, thoughts, feelings, and desires from those of others
Tips for setting healthy boundaries

When you need to set a boundary, do it clearly, calmly, firmly, respectfully, and in as few words as possible. Don’t justify, get angry, or apologize for the boundary you are setting. For example:

  • “If you break plans with me by not showing up or calling me, I will call you on your behaviors and let you know how I feel.”
  • “If you continue (offensive behavior) I will leave/ask you to leave.”
  • “If you continue to repeat the behavior, I will consider all of my options including leaving the friendship/relationship.”

Note: If you’re not ready to end a relationship or conversation don’t say that you are. It is not enough to set a boundary — you have to be willing to enforce it, which means following through with consequences.

It’s important to understand that you are not responsible for the other person’s reaction to the boundary you are setting. You are only responsible for communicating your boundary in a respectful way. If they get upset, that’s their problem. If you’re setting a boundary with someone who is used to controlling, abusing, or manipulating you, they might test you. It’s can be helpful to plan for and expect this type of response, but you also need to remain firm.

Remember, your behavior must match the boundaries you are setting. You can’t successfully establish a clear boundary if you send mixed messages by apologizing.

If you feel selfish, guilty, or embarrassed when thinking about setting a boundary, do it anyway. Remind yourself you have a right to self-care. Don’t let anxiety or guilt prevent you from taking care of yourself.

Tip: When you feel anger or resentment towards someone or find yourself complaining about them, you probably need to set a boundary.

Time to practice!

Think about a person with whom you struggle to set healthy boundaries. This could mean that your boundaries are too rigid (you keep this person at a distance), too porous (you open up too much), or there’s some other problem that isn’t so easily labeled.

Imagine what it will be like when you begin to establish healthy boundaries with this person. If your boundaries are too rigid, that might mean opening up. If they’re porous, it might mean setting limits and saying “no” when you don’t want to do something.

  • What are some specific actions you can take to improve your boundaries?
  • How do you think the other person will respond to these changes?
  • How do you think your life will be different once you’ve established healthy boundaries?

Learning to set healthy boundaries is a process. Part of that process is spending more time with supportive people who respect your right to set boundaries. The harder part is eliminating toxic people from your life who want to manipulate, abuse, and control you — and refuse to honor the boundaries you clearly set with them.

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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