You’ve likely heard the term boundaries, but there needs to be clarity when practicing boundaries. Is a boundary just telling people no? Should you cut off someone when they hurt you? Is a boundary selfish? Do you ever bend your boundaries for others? Does a boundary mean you communicate assertively, or are you domineering? Wherever you land on these questions, take some time as you read this to evaluate how boundaries look in your life. Research shows that 80% of chronic diseases are due to lifestyle issues, so setting a boundary could improve your health.
What’s the purpose of boundaries?
Boundaries are more than just saying no or self-isolating. Boundaries help you live out of peace and rest rather than being overworked or emotionally exhausted at the expense of your mental health. Sometimes boundaries are perceived as selfish or uncaring; however, the opposite is true. Your boundaries help you to take better care of yourself, which in turn allows you to have more to give to others.
A helpful way to understand boundaries is through the imagery of a house. Imagine that you are a big house filled with many rooms, and surrounding your property is a big gate. If you always kept the door to the gate wide open, anyone who wanted to could walk into your house and demand things of you. It would not be safe, nor would it give you any agency. However, if you kept the door to the gate shut and locked all the time and refused to let anyone enter, you would become very isolated and lonely. Neither extreme is healthy. Boundaries give you the power to choose when and to whom you decide to open the gate and allow to take up space in your life.
It is essential to understand that we have no true freedom without boundaries. When boundaries aren’t in place, we are not living for ourselves but to please others.
What are the signs that I need to set some boundaries?
You may find that a lack of boundaries can lead to guilt, resentment, or negativity in daily life. Here are some signs to look for:
- Frustration at others
- You may become more easily irritated at others – e.g., “How did my partner forget to take out the trash?” or “I can’t believe she canceled on me with such little notice.”
- Frustration at yourself
- “I should be capable of doing more.”
- Feeling burnt out
- Burnout can manifest as feeling empty inside and not finding pleasure in things that usually bring you joy. It may take a lot of energy to do even the simplest tasks.
- Lack of motivation
- You may experience a lack of motivation if you struggle to take care of things you know need to be done. You may also have difficulty allowing others to help you with these tasks.
- Feeling anxious or overwhelmed
- You may overcommit yourself and, as a result, feel anxious about your busy schedule and how you will get it all done.
- Feeling the need to be “on” all the time
- You may tell yourself statements such as, “It’s my job to be here for others.”
- You may wonder if you will ever not feel so exhausted all the time or how things could possibly change.
- Not having any time to practice self-care or hobbies
- You believe that working on yourself is a luxury and that you need to help others first
- Saying “yes” to people without thinking whether you can take on the commitment
- You don’t want to let others down because it’s hard to tolerate the idea of someone being disappointed in you, so you say yes to helping.
- Resenting those around you for asking things of you
- You may even resent others for asking for help because you feel that saying no is not an option.
- Comparing yourself to those around you
- You might compare your inner struggles to what you see others present on the outside and wonder how they have it all together. You may also feel as if others are more productive and capable than you are.
What kind of boundaries are there?
There are many types of boundaries — physical, emotional, and time, to name a few. Your physical boundaries can include any physical touch that is forced or inappropriate, abuse, or even getting in someone’s personal space. Your emotional boundaries may be compromised when someone overshares or vents or if you’re made responsible for someone’s feelings. You may also see an emotional boundary if you’re asked to keep secrets. Your time boundaries may be questioned if you’re always available for someone. This boundary breach may include the expectation that you text back immediately or help even though you have a packed schedule.
There are also two unhealthy categories of boundaries: porous and rigid. Like in the metaphor of the house discussed above, porous boundaries are when the gate is open, letting anyone in. Porous boundaries can look like always saying yes, doing things inconvenient for you, doing tasks out of obligation, or wanting to please others. On the other hand, rigid boundaries are when the gate is slammed shut, and no one is allowed in. This rigid boundary can emerge as always saying no, refusing to open up to people, avoiding intimacy or close friendships, and choosing to self-isolate so you won’t be disappointed by others. You can read about this in detail in Nedra Tawwab’s book, Set Boundaries, Find Peace.
Porous and rigid boundaries are two extreme ends of the spectrum. In the middle are balanced, healthy boundaries. Balanced boundaries allow you to act in a way that aligns with your values and prioritizes your health.
How do I start setting boundaries? Here are some starting steps to better understand what boundaries currently look like in your life.
3 Steps to Define and Enforce Your Boundaries
Before you set a single boundary, you first need to recognize and value the importance of your needs. It is essential to establish this, so you have a basis for why these boundaries need to be set. If you need help figuring out where to start, you can read more here if you’d like an in-depth list of different needs.
1. Start tracking how you spend your time each day.
Note how much time you spend doing something solely for yourself and not for others. For a week, use a notebook or a spreadsheet to track what you’re doing during each hour of the day – whether it’s on the phone listening to a friend, taking the kids to school, making dinner for the family, doing a favor for a friend, etc. Make a note of if this activity involves someone else or just you. If it’s just you, it may be an activity like going to the gym, watching a movie, reading a book, or journaling.
2. Decide how you would like to spend your time and what boundaries you require for your specific needs.
Are there hobbies you’d like to try, but never find the time? You may want to go to the gym more, or you’d like to start reading for an hour before bed. Or each day is scheduled to the max, and you need more downtime to relax. Figure out what kind of changes you would like to make.
3. Communicate your boundaries.
First, check to determine if this boundary is primarily just for you (e.g., putting your phone away an hour before bedtime). If so, decide what kind of accountability you need to implement, such as asking a trusted friend or partner to put a passcode on your phone.
If the boundary involves others, think about how you will communicate your boundary. You’ll outline your boundary in clear, respectful terms. Once you share your boundary, be prepared for how to respond if the person pushes back against your limits. Take time to consider the consequences if your boundary is ignored or violated.
Here are some examples of how to communicate boundaries.
Time Boundary, Work
Situation: Your boss consistently asks you to stay late at the office.
Response: I will only be able to stay until 5 pm today. These are agreed-upon hours in my contract, and I am not compensated for work completed after those hours.
Time Boundary, Personal
Situation: Your mother frequently drops by unannounced.
Response: I appreciate you wanting to spend time with me, but I’m often surprised when you show up unannounced. Please let me know when you’d like to see me. Then I can make sure I’m available, and we can enjoy our time together.
Emotional Boundary, Personal
Situation: Your friend frequently expects you to pick up the phone and listen to her vent for an hour about her relationship. You need to let her know you don’t have the capacity for that.
Response: I’m not free to chat right now. Can I call you back when I’m more available and listen fully?
Some may respond poorly to your boundaries, as they suddenly find you are not at their beck and call. Your friends, family, or colleagues may question your boundaries: “Are you sure you can’t help me?” “Aren’t I important to you?” Take time to think through how you will respond without giving in to their request. You can try clear and candid responses like, “Unfortunately, I still won’t be available to help,” or “You are very important to me, and that does not change even though I cannot meet your request this time.”
Where do I go from here?
A licensed clinician can help define and explore your need for boundaries and even roleplay boundary-setting conversations. Our clinicians can also help you with boundary issues through therapy. If you are ready to schedule an appointment and live in Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Texas, we can help. Contact us to get started.