I recently read Set Boundaries, Find Peace by Nedra Glover Tawwab. Her book breaks down the concept of boundaries in such a straightforward, easy-to-digest way that I have started recommending it to my clients. I was also inspired to start a blog series on this topic.
This week’s post is an introduction to boundaries—perfect for anyone new to the concept. I’ll answer the common question “What are boundaries?” and explain why boundaries are important. I’ll also provide examples of the types of boundaries people usually set.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries are the lines and limits you create between yourself and other people. They allow you to define what is acceptable and healthy for you in your relationships. The boundaries you communicate and maintain can protect you both physically and psychologically. They can also safeguard your time and material possessions.
Everyone has different values, needs, and sensitivities, so the process of defining personal boundaries varies from person to person. Your boundaries will also change over the course of your life as you learn more about yourself, grow, and possibly shift your priorities.
Boundaries are often described as being either rigid or porous. Rigid boundaries are unyielding and absolute. For example, if you never go out to lunch with your colleagues because you think it is a waste of time and money, that could be considered a rigid boundary.
Rigid boundaries do a good job of protecting you, but they do so at a high cost. They create a lot of distance between you and the people in your life, potentially isolating you and harming your relationships. If you have a fear of vulnerability or a history of relationships in which you were taken advantage of, you may be more likely to adopt rigid boundaries.
While overly rigid boundaries are often unhelpful, they do make sense in certain make-or-break situations. For example, some people have a firm policy that they never have sex on a first date. In cases like this, rigid boundaries are often the best approach.
Porous boundaries fall at the other end of the boundaries spectrum. They are weak and easily breached. For example, you have a porous boundary if you hate going out to lunch with your colleagues every day, but you go anyway to avoid disappointing them. People who are deeply afraid of rejection or are emotionally enmeshed with others are more likely to have porous boundaries.
Most healthy boundaries involving ordinary, everyday situations fall somewhere between rigid and porous. Having a little bit of flexibility allows you to be fully present in your relationships while still honoring your own needs. An example of a healthy boundary given your dislike for lunches out might be that you agree to go no more than once per week (or even once per month), making exceptions only for special occasions.
Why are boundaries important?
If you don’t set reasonable boundaries, some people will walk all over you. They’ll make demands on your time, energy, and other resources, leaving you depleted and overwhelmed. Some people will disregard and dismiss you emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually—often without even realizing they’re doing it. After all, they may have no idea their actions are distressing you if you’ve never told them!
People without boundaries often have anxiety issues. Here’s an example that illustrates how weak boundaries can be a source of stress: Imagine you’ve been losing sleep because your spouse watches television with the volume turned up after you’ve gone to bed. Rather than rocking the boat by talking to them, you lie awake stressing about how much sleep you’re not getting. By communicating your need for quiet with your spouse, you can reduce stress, ensure you get proper sleep, and avoid resentment.
Another reason why boundaries are so important is that they help us to push back against unreasonable expectations. For example, suppose your boss regularly expects you to drop everything and come into the office on weekends. Unless you’re working in a field where on-call weekend work is unavoidable and fairly compensated, you would likely be annoyed and frustrated by this situation. Over time, you will end up burned out, resentful, and angry unless you draw a line with your boss. You also risk becoming depressed if you have insufficient time for hobbies and self-care.
If you lack personal boundaries, you may also unintentionally harm your loved ones. For example, perhaps you routinely give your dependent adult child money whenever they ask, despite their poor financial management skills. Even though you’re just trying to help, your lack of financial boundaries may be taking away their motivation to find their own source of income.
Weak boundaries can also create relationship problems. For example, sometimes one partner fails to set boundaries around the division of household labor, and they end up resenting the other for it. Meanwhile, the partner who isn’t pulling their weight might not even realize it. They can sense their partner’s displeasure but don’t understand it, confusing and frustrating them.
Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries can help you reduce anxiety, overwhelm, resentment, and many other problems. Setting boundaries early in your relationships can also prevent these issues from happening in the first place.
Boundary types and examples
You never know what life will throw at you. There are an endless variety of ways you might need to protect yourself in your relationships, depending on your values and circumstances. That means there are an infinite number of boundaries you could potentially create. That said, most fall into a few common categories:
For my busy clients, this is often the biggest area for potential improvement. We live in a society where long hours are the norm. Productivity is a cherished value, and FOMO (fear of missing out) runs rampant. In our attempt to “do it all,” we end up committing to far more than we really have time for.
Many people fail to set enough time boundaries, not realizing that they’re sabotaging themselves. They agree to work overtime without extra pay. They answer their mom’s “urgent” phone calls and text messages immediately, even at work. They agree to attend their company’s Christmas party, kid’s basketball tournament, and high school friend’s baby shower—all on the same weekend.
As a result, they end up feeling overwhelmed and burned out. They sacrifice their free time and self-care opportunities in an attempt to please everyone all the time. Setting time boundaries helps them allocate their availability in accordance with their own needs and values (rather than those of others).
Physical boundaries have to do with corporeal objects, including your body. Unless you set physical boundaries, some people will infringe on your personal space. That infringement could be anything from standing too close to physically assaulting you. Unwelcome comments about your body also fall into the category.
There are many contrasting views regarding what kinds of physical proximity/touch are acceptable in various situations, but that doesn’t make your own views any less valid! You are entitled to your bodily autonomy and preferences, no matter what they are.
Another type of boundary that could be considered physical is material boundaries. This type of boundary has to do with your belongings and other resources. For example, you might set a boundary with your neighbor that they may borrow your lawnmower so long as they return it full of gas.
You can protect your privacy, autonomy, beliefs, emotional health, and other values with these kinds of boundaries.
For example, perhaps you place a high value on privacy. You strongly prefer to limit the number of corporations that have access to your personal information. Yet you have a hard time saying no to cashiers when they pressure you to sign up for their rewards programs. Due to the discomfort you feel when asked, you might avoid shopping at places with aggressive sales staff. Setting a boundary in this area would empower you to continue visiting these stores while protecting your sensitive information.
Intellectual boundaries—which take many different forms—are incredibly important. They can protect you from being ridiculed, insulted, invalidated, and dismissed for your opinions, feelings, and opinions. For example, suppose your brother-in-law has a habit of questioning your political beliefs during holiday gatherings. If so, you might decide to set a boundary with him that you will not discuss politics at the dinner table.
We can teach you how to set healthy boundaries
If you find yourself struggling to set healthy boundaries, we can help. Getting executive coaching with a psychologist can help you overcome cognitive and emotional blocks to setting needed boundaries to live a better balanced, more fulfilled life. Send us a message to see how we can help or book a free 20 minute consultation call with Dr. Lee or Dr. Barajas.
Also, continue coming back to read more about boundaries. We’ll be posting more about this foundational skill for emotional well-being.