What are boundaries? Why are they important? How do they help us in our relationships with other people? How does one go about setting boundaries and why may it be challenging to do so?
Boundaries are limitations we create to help us maintain a sense of self. The purpose of setting boundaries is to help protect us, to help protect our bodies and to help us live from our own values. There are various types of boundaries, including physical, mental and emotional.
The physical boundaries we establish demonstrate to others the amount of physical distance and amount of personal contact with which we are comfortable. For example, how much physical space do you need between yourself and other people when you are talking? How does that amount change if the person is a family member, a close friend or a complete stranger?
Sometimes people talking very close to our faces can be uncomfortable, but other times, it can make us feel safe and connected with them. Physical boundaries also establish limits of physical touch, both how we approach other people and how other people approach us. We may know someone who loves to hug other people, even when they are meeting them for the first time. However, for other people a handshake, a high-five or even just a friendly smile is the most appropriate form of greeting.
It is also vital to consider how you know if someone has violated your boundaries. Does the hair on your neck stand up, do you get a funny feeling in your stomach, do you avoid eye contact or do you unknowingly step back from that person?
Often times our body can alert us when we are uncomfortable, even if we do not know exactly what we are feeling. Physical boundaries may be established in all types of relationships such as with friends, roommates, family members or romantic partners. It is important to be clear and directly name your physical boundaries and what physical touch is most appropriate, it is not necessary to explain or justify your boundary.
For instance, state firmly and respectfully, “I don’t like it when you touch me like that, please stop,” or with a roommate, “let’s keep our belongings on our own sides of the room.” Mental boundaries act as a filter and determine how much impact other people will have on our own way of thinking, feeling and behaving. This type of boundary allows us to choose for ourselves what we think about and what actions we take.
While we are able to look at the whole picture and consider the multitude of options, each person has the ability to use that information to inform their own opinion. It is okay to have opinions that differ from others. Defining your own opinions and commitment to your own values is what makes a person a unique individual.
This type of boundary can be established by stating, “I respect your opinion, however, I am going to stick with my own view.” Or in some cases a boundary can be created by expressing you do not want to talk about a particular topic.
Walking away is another option to reinforce that boundary. Emotional boundaries include how much emotional energy we put into relationships. You may notice a difficulty with emotional boundaries when some relationships or interactions with some people leave you feeling tired, regardless of the amount of time you spend with them.
Emotional boundaries also include how much personal information we share with people. For example, someone who shares their whole life story or tells you intimate details early in your interaction may have minimal boundaries. On the other hand, someone who shares very little, or is quite slow to open up, may have restrictive boundaries. Both of these extremes can be problematic in relationships. Emotional boundaries can be created by stating “I need time for myself,” or “I can try to hang out with you later but let me see when I have time in my schedule.”
These two statements demonstrate someone expressing their needs, allowing them to determine how they spend their own time. There are many reasons why creating boundaries can be tough. One main reason is that we often worry about how other people will respond or what they may think of us.
Common myths about boundaries include ideas that setting boundaries makes you selfish, boundaries are signs of disrespect, boundaries are meant to hurt others or boundaries are permanent. These are just myths. Setting boundaries does not make you selfish and they are not meant to hurt others, although at times others will not like your boundaries.
Boundaries are integral to keeping us safe physically, mentally and emotionally. Developing and practicing healthy boundaries can lead to developing a deeper sense of yourself, being open to others but also protected, improving your confidence and self-esteem and trusting yourself.