Let’s start out with a very important question: What exactly is a boundary? As far as the definition goes, a boundary is a line, whether it be real or imagined, which marks the edge or limit of something. 1 This can be seen through boundaries on properties, such as a household having a fence up to show the end of their property line. However, as stated, it can also be imagined, such as lines that separate one state from another, one country from another, etc.
Boundaries are a topic of great interest among the mental health community. If you have ever been in therapy before, you have likely discussed boundaries in some capacity. If you have not, or if you are not entirely clear on what the term boundary refers to, we often discuss it in the context of our relationship with loved ones. These lines are important to draw in order to protect one’s own mental wellbeing. Boundaries are there to separate one’s own problems and feelings from others. 2
Healthy, Loose, or Rigid?
Whether we realize it or not, we all have boundaries with others, yet these boundaries may vary from being rigid, loose, or healthy. Individuals with rigid boundaries may find themselves keeping distance from others, avoiding becoming close with others, and can appear detached from relationships, even those they are intimate with. On the other end of the spectrum we find those with loose boundaries, who oftentimes find themselves becoming overly involved with other people’s problems, ignore their own desires out of fear of disappointing others, struggle to say ‘no’ to requests, and overshare information about themselves. Lastly, there are individuals who have healthy boundaries. These people share information about themselves, but do not often cross the line of sharing too much, are personally aware of their own needs and wants and are able and willing to communicate this with others, and are accepting of when someone says no to them. 3
It is important to acknowledge that typically we all have a mix of different boundary styles based on the situation. For instance, one may have boundaries that are incredibly loose with friends and family, yet incredibly rigid in the workplace. 4 In addition to having different boundaries based on the environment or situation, there are five main areas where boundaries apply: physical, sexual, intellectual, emotional, and financial.
Types of Boundaries
Physical boundaries refers to one’s own personal space, such as how we each feel in regards to being touched. It is likely that some people consider themselves huggers and enjoy hugging friends and family when they see them, while other people prefer not to be touched. This can be respected and voiced in many ways. For instance, some summer camps will tell campers that before bed they can have a high five, handshake, or hug. This allows them to have the comfort of being told good night, as they would if they were home, without feeling like their personal space is being invaded. 5
Physical boundaries also refer to basic needs you may have, such as sleeping, eating, and drinking.
Sexual boundaries refers to the expectations one has regarding sexual interactions and anything related to sex. This can be sexual comments, touches, inuendos, etc. This is where consent comes into play. For individuals in an intimate relationship who have differing sexual boundaries, this can lead to problems if not properly communicated. For example, one individual in a relationship may think it is okay to playfully slap their significant other’s bum as a way of flirting, while the other person may view this as a sign of disrespect. 6
Intellectual boundaries concern one’s own beliefs and ideas. One may feel their intellectual boundaries were not respected if their ideas are put down by another or if they misunderstood by the other person. For example, someone who acts condescending towards others may not be respecting another person’s intellectual boundaries. By acting like the individual’s opinion is irrelevant or moronic, they are disrespecting the individual’s intelligence and opinions. 7
Emotional boundaries refers to one’s feelings and how they express these feelings. While an individual may only feel comfortable revealing their thoughts over a long period of time, others may refer to themselves as ‘an open book’, sharing their feelings with others in the moment and often. For example, say that person A has gone through a breakup and decides they do not want to talk to others about how they are feeling quite yet. That is person A’s emotional boundary. However, person B may take offence to this and make this into something personally offensive towards themselves, feeling they have a right to hear what is going through person A’s head. 8
Financial boundaries refers to how you feel about spending and the way that you do or do not lend money to others. For instance, while one person may be strict about their money and decides to to save up, another person may make them feel like their extra money means they are required to share that money with others, or that they are expected to pay for things due to having more money than those around them. 9 Financial boundaries place limits on your personal comfort for spending, saving, and sharing.
Importance of Boundaries
As a therapist, I oftentimes find clients becoming frustrated with those in their lives that make decisions that impact them negatively. It is imperative to have boundaries in order to recognize that we all have control over ourselves and no one else. Regardless of the relationship we have with another individual, whether it be a spouse, parent, child, friend, etc., we cannot control the actions of others. In order to maintain a healthy mindset in regards to other people’s choices, it is important to maintain autonomy. Creating boundaries with others is essential in order to find the balance between ourselves and others.
So how do boundaries translate on a more basic level to our personal relationships? Boundaries in relationships can be something as simple as declining an invitation when you know that you need time to yourself, or as concrete as cutting ties with someone who seems to be a toxic person in your life.
Define your Boundaries
In order to set boundaries, first examine what areas in life you have healthy boundaries and which areas you need to work on boundaries. After identifying this, certain lines can begin to develop. The most important part of this is to be able to say no to different requests, while also not feeling a need to explain. 10
Be Clear with Your No
For instance, we often feel that when declining an invitation we must give an explanation for why we cannot attend. This is absolutely not required! It is okay to simply say no and to leave it at that. This is also where we see emotional and intellectual boundaries come into play, as one is allowed to make decisions and feel how they feel without judgment or question.
Be Firm and Consistent
Another important thing to consider with setting boundaries is that when implementing firm rules around the boundary, one should be consistent to follow through on it. 11 For example, if the problem being addressed is that a significant other or family member is calling too often, the individual can say that they need them to cut down on the phone calls or they will not answer anymore. This should be put into place only if they are willing to follow through on this. If the family member or significant other ends up calling multiple times and the calls are answered, this shows the person that this boundary can be broken.
Most of all, boundaries need to be communicated with others. Those we associate with are not able to read our minds, and therefore we cannot expect them to respect lines that are drawn if we have not told them what those lines are. 12 Not only do other people need to be clear on the boundaries, but individuals need to be clear on their own boundaries, in order to maintain them. When we make exceptions in regards to these boundaries, we are letting ourselves and others know that they can be crossed without consequence.
Therapy Can Help
If boundaries are something you struggle with and you need extra support working through them, we would be more than happy to work with you! Boundaries are an area that our in-house therapists are trained in working with, especially those who specialize in relationships. We are here to help with any questions or concerns you have, so if you are ready to get started, head over to www.online-therapy.com
1. Boundary. Cambridge Dictionary.
3. Pattemore, Chantelle. (2021, June 2). 10 Ways to Build and Preserve Better Boundaries. PsychCentral. 4.https://psychcentral.com/lib/10-way-to-build-and-preserve-better-boundaries
5. Selva, Joaquin. (2022, February 4). How to Set Healthy Boundaries: 10 Examples + PDF Worksheets. Positive Psychology. https://positivepsychology.com/great-self-care-setting-healthy-boundaries/