Boundaries protect us from harmful people and energies. They ensure we have enough personal space to engage in activities that nurture us. However, defining and communicating them to others is up to us. Boundary-setting is a skill set we can develop to enhance our relationships – these seven steps and knowing the differences between healthy vs. unhealthy boundaries will help you master them. (Estimated reading time: 11 minutes)
“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others.”— Brené Brown
These days, there are many relationship types to suit different people. Polyamory, situationships, and casual connections where exclusivity is not required, are becoming more common. Even couples who are committed may choose not to get married and be live-in partners instead.
The traditional model of relationships where two people are romantically and sexually exclusive, which often leads to marriage and raising children, is no longer expected in most cultures. Consequently, there’s a struggle between the old and the new. Some want traditional courtships, while others want to make their own rules and live on their own terms.
No matter the relationship type you choose, good communication and a willingness to negotiate is essential. However, those in exclusive relationships and marriages have an advantage because their roles are socially defined. Couples entering them know what’s expected based on the vows they take.
Without the container of tradition, people in non-committal relationships are left to their own devices to define their needs and expectations to ensure that both parties are on the same page. A big part of that negotiation involves defining what constitutes healthy vs. unhealthy boundaries. Committed couples also need boundaries, but don’t require discussions about exclusivity, as it’s implicit in their social contract.
Regardless of the labels we use for our relationships, boundary-setting ensures high-quality connections where we can show up as our best selves. Knowing the difference between healthy vs. unhealthy boundaries will empower us to find the ideal balance between give and take.
What are boundaries, and why do we need them?
If you’ve ever read a story, watched a movie, or seen pictures of ancient castles, you may have noticed that they have a wide, deep body of water surrounding them. These are called moats, and their primary purpose was to protect the castle from invaders.
Similarly, we, too, need psychological moats to protect the sanctity of our inner castles. These boundaries protect us from harmful people and energies. They also ensure we have enough personal space to engage in activities that nurture our mind, body, and soul.
While a boundary is clear-cut, psychological limits are subjective and malleable. We must define and adjust them depending on the circumstances. It’s an imaginary line we must draw based on our comfort levels and emotional, physical, and mental capacity.
Setting rules, standards, and limits requires a high degree of self-awareness and understanding of our values, goals, and priorities in life. Good boundaries are a sign of self-respect and tell people how they can and can’t treat you. People will know when they can get closer or back off based on how they perceive your boundaries.
It takes strength and courage to set boundaries – but when you do, you’ll feel more comfortable and liberated to be yourself. Here are some of the other reasons why you need personal boundaries:
- They help us navigate our lives and relationships with confidence and self-assuredness.
- We avoid stress, burnout, and anxiety from overextending ourselves.
- We protect ourselves from emotional and financial burdens placed on us by others.
- They allow us to be our authentic selves because we can make our own decisions and have our own opinions, feelings, and discernment.
- We learn to say “no” to things that don’t align with our priorities or because we don’t have the bandwidth for them.
- Our partners, friends, family, and co-workers know what to expect and find it easier to deal with us.
- We feel safer, both emotionally and physically, because we know we have the power and agency to keep out anything that is hurtful or uncomfortable.
Six types of boundaries everyone needs
If you’re confused about where to begin when it comes to setting healthy vs. unhealthy boundaries, a useful first step is to consider which of these six types of boundaries you most need right now:
1. Physical boundaries
Physical boundaries include your need for personal space, privacy, body, and tolerance for touch (being hugged, greeting people with a kiss, etc.) It also refers to your physical needs, such as eating, resting, and hydration.
It’s okay to tell people you don’t want to be touched or need more personal space. When people demand more from you than you’re physically capable of, you have the right to say that you need to take care of your needs – whether that includes getting rest or eating a healthy meal.
2. Emotional boundaries
Emotional boundaries are essential to maintain internal equilibrium. To establish emotional boundaries, you should be tuned into your feelings and know what uplifts and what drains you. It requires knowing when to share and limiting what you reveal to others. With whom it’s safe to be vulnerable and who it’s not. It’s about asking others to respect and honor your feelings while doing the same for others by creating a safe space for them.
3. Time boundaries
Time is one of the most precious resources you have because you can never get lost time back. That’s why you must protect it at all costs.
Setting time boundaries in the workplace lets your management know that you won’t work overtime without compensation. In your social life, it means letting a friend who is perpetually late know that you will leave after a certain amount of time. It’s protecting the time you have reserved for your priorities – whether it be your children, creative projects, or workouts.
4. Sexual boundaries
Sexual boundaries are needed to let a partner know your expectations and limits around physical intimacy. This is especially important in the early stages of courtship when partners need clarification on the other person’s comfort level.
For instance, some people prefer to wait until they are married or in a committed relationship to be physically intimate, while others don’t mind doing it as early as the first date. Whatever your boundaries are, there should be consent, understanding respect for each other’s comfort level.
5. Intellectual boundaries
Intellectual boundaries encompass beliefs and ideas. Having boundaries in this area means that you expect to receive and offer respect for other people’s thoughts, opinions, and ideas. Our intellectual boundaries are violated when someone does not take us seriously and considers us inferior, incompetent and not smart enough.
If you feel that certain people don’t respect what you have to say and belittle you, setting intellectual boundaries means calling them out and finding others who see the value in what you share. Every one of us deserves to be heard and understood.
6. Material boundaries
Material boundaries refer to your possessions. Items like your car, home, clothing, equipment, books, and any objects of significant value to you. Placing a boundary here prevents others from stealing, taking them away, using them to manipulate you, or borrowing them without returning them within a certain timeframe.
Your material possessions include money. Financial boundaries ensure people don’t waste your money without permission or pressure you into spending.
An example of a financial boundary is having separate bank accounts and defining how much goes into savings and how much expendable income you can use per month. Financial boundaries are essential in connections where someone else depends on you, like a child or a partner.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Boundaries in relationships
Not all boundaries are healthy. Rigid boundaries are just as harmful as porous ones. Boundary setting is intuitive and specific to each person and relationship. However, there are some general guidelines you can keep in mind to ensure that you’re creating boundaries that feel right for you. Knowing the difference between healthy vs. unhealthy boundaries can help you do that.
A healthy boundary is a limit that protects your sense of health, well-being, and self-esteem. It is a vital element in your mental, emotional, and physical health. It communicates to others what you will and won’t do and what behavior you will not allow in your personal space.
Healthy boundaries are an invisible barrier that prevents the wrong people from entering. You define and communicate those boundaries with others. Most people who overstep your limits aren’t aware they’re violating boundaries, and it’s up to you to let them know.
Boundaries serve as a guide for you to know when to say no and when to say yes. This becomes more important when you’re dealing with people who are pushy and trying to force their agenda on you. In intimate connections, boundaries dictate how open and vulnerable we are to be with another person.
Setting healthy boundaries also means letting people know the consequences of disrespecting those limits. You don’t have to threaten them, but let them know you will hold them accountable.
Examples of healthy boundaries:
- Saying “no” when a situation does not feel right or makes you uncomfortable.
- Carving out time in your schedule to engage in interests and hobbies outside your connections.
- Only sharing information you’re comfortable sharing, not because you feel obliged to.
- Standing up for your beliefs and actions without feeling guilt or shame.
- Not taking blame or letting others guilt trip you when it isn’t your fault.
- Advocating for your interests and needs while also those of others.
- Knowing your needs and wants and communicating them to others when appropriate.
- Not compromising on your values and integrity.
Unhealthy boundaries can lead to mental, emotional, spiritual, and even physical pain. People with poorly enforced or ill-defined boundaries may lack the knowledge or courage to do it and often have to settle for less than they deserve in relationships.
There are two types of unhealthy boundaries: rigid and porous.
Rigid boundaries prevent anyone from getting close. People who have rigid boundaries appear detached, aloof, and keep others at a distance. It’s tough for them to develop meaningful bonds and emotional connections with others; consequently, they tend to be alone and feel unsupported.
Porous boundaries are the kind that allows everyone to get close. A person with porous boundaries tends to overshare personal information and manages to get over-involved in other people’s problems.
They fear not being loved and respected, so they do their best to please and comply with others. Because of their compliant ways, they are easy targets of abuse and disrespect and often get involved with toxic people like narcissists.
Examples of unhealthy boundaries:
- Saying ‘yes’ when you really want to say ‘no.’
- Believing that you’re responsible for the feelings and happiness of others.
- Being afraid to ask for what you want and settling for less.
- Feeling the need to ‘fix’ or ‘save’ others regardless of what it will cost you.
- Allowing others to say mean and disrespectful things to you and not defending yourself.
- Letting others get close to you or touch you without your consent.
- Allowing others to use your resources, whether time, money, or energy, without offering anything in return.
- Feeling stifled and controlled without enough personal space and privacy.
How to set healthy boundaries
Boundary setting is a skill set we must develop as part of our self-care practice. Everyone benefits from healthy boundaries because relationships are enhanced when both people have a healthy amount of space to be themselves. Here are seven steps to keep in mind:
1. Build self-awareness: Defining healthy boundaries may require some trial and error in the early stages of a connection. Observing yourself and noticing your feelings when you’re around people is essential. When you notice your threshold, you’ve identified your limits.
2. Develop self-worth: You must love yourself enough to know that you deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. You are worthy of it by virtue of being alive, and asking for it is never unreasonable. If someone tells you otherwise and guilt-trips you, they don’t have your best interests at heart.
3. Maintain a self-care practice: Good boundaries give you enough time to meet your needs. When you engage in self-care practices, like meditation or reading a book, you’re less likely to be resentful towards others because you’ve taken the time to recharge.
4. Define your boundaries and start small: Define and acknowledge what boundaries you need and want to set. What are some needs and wants that still need to be met? Where do you feel short-changed or even violated? Developing boundaries can be tricky, especially if you’re not used to setting them. If that’s the case, start small and build on each success.
5. Know that you can have different boundary types: Most people have a mix of boundary types. You might have firm boundaries at work, more porous ones in your intimate relationships, and a combination of both in your family.
The appropriateness of boundaries depends on context and setting. For instance, it’s more appropriate to shake hands with someone you just met, rather than hug them.
6. Learn how to communicate your boundaries: Direct communication is necessary to let others know where you stand – after all, people can’t read our minds, and it’s up to us to communicate our expectations effectively.
This does not permit us to be rude or aggressive – we can communicate our boundaries respectfully yet firmly, which will land much better with the other person.
7. Consider culture and personality: Each culture has different ideas of what is appropriate and inappropriate regarding boundaries. For instance, some cultures prefer more physical space than others and would not appreciate strangers getting too close to them.
Some cultures express their thoughts and emotions more openly than others – the same is true regarding personality types. Extroverts tend to be more expressive than introverts.
Keeping people’s backgrounds in mind can inform the type of boundaries we need and how to communicate that with others. It can also help us be mindful of others’ limits.
Your personal space is sacred. As the gatekeeper, you want to ensure that you only allow quality people to enter it. When we surround ourselves with the right people, our energy is elevated, and we can do bigger and better things that improve the lives of those around us.
All my best on your journey,
Questions for you: In understanding the differences between healthy vs. unhealthy boundaries, which stands out most? What did you learn about boundary-setting abilities?
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Reading this article has reinforced my understanding of the importance of setting healthy boundaries in relationships. It’s a reminder that boundaries are crucial not just for maintaining healthy relationships, but also for protecting my mental health. I’m inspired to reassess my own boundaries and make necessary adjustments to ensure they are healthy and respectful of my well-being.