If you are a people pleaser, have difficulty saying no to others, or standing up for yourself socially, you might have very loose boundaries. If you have difficulties opening up to others, have been told you are too blunt, or find yourself arguing with others about your rights, you might have overly rigid boundaries. Personal boundaries are important and very personal to each individual. When they are not used appropriately it can have serious interpersonal consequences and even lead to mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and even PTSD.
What Are Boundaries Anyway?
When I talk about boundaries, I’m talking about interpersonal boundaries, not the great wall of China. Boundaries are ways that we as individuals express our needs and limitations socially. They allow others to understand when it is appropriate to touch us, what they can ask about us, when they can reach out to us, and how they are allowed to treat us in general. When we have very loose boundaries, others may believe that they can do whatever they want in our presence. They can poke fun at us, call us names, touch us inappropriately, force information out of us, take advantage of our kindness and leave us behind when we aren’t needed anymore. If our boundaries are too strong, others may get the idea that we are unapproachable, standoffish, might be less likely to want to get to know us, and be less likely to try to help us when we are struggling.
What Kinds of Boundaries Are There?
There are many types of interpersonal boundaries that we can build and care for including physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual boundaries. This list is not exhaustive but these are more common boundaries people focus on.
Physical boundaries are those that express who, when, where and how you are comfortable being touched by. You might feel comfortable with your friends giving you hugs but not to kiss you on the lips. If a stranger tries to hug you, you would probably push them away though. If someone physically assaults you, you will probably not want to be around that person anymore. Another physical boundary is the disclosure of your physical location at any given time. You might share your home or work address with people you trust, but not with someone that you went on one date with. You might want to tell a friend where and when you are going on a date with a new person but you might not want your ex to know about it.
Psychological boundaries include anything that is stored in your mind. You might only share certain types of memories and stories with certain types of people. If you meet a stranger on the street you might not want to tell them all about your traumatic history, but with a close friend or your partner of 10 years you would want to feel more comfortable discussing such information. We all have embarrassing moments in our lives that we tend to not disclose to anyone. We might pick and choose who we share news of illness or difficulties in life with also.
Emotional boundaries cover ideas such as who you share your emotional states with, who has access to your mental health information, and who you allow to load you with their emotional problems. If you don’t want people at work to know that you are depressed, that is your right and your boundaries can reflect this. Or, if your partner is insisting on coming with you to your girls night, and you don’t want him to (hello! It’s girls night, right?), that is also within your right to say no.
Spiritual boundaries relate to your spiritual or religious beliefs, or lack thereof. No one has the right to tell you what to believe, at least as an adult. So if you identify as agnostic, you can set boundaries with people who try to convert you to their religion and if you are religious, you can set boundaries around people insulting your beliefs.
Do Boundaries Ruin Relationships?
Many people who aren’t used to establishing boundaries express fear that the people they love and care for will leave them behind if they establish boundaries with them. This idea is both true and false at the same time, depending on the relationship. The reality is, that boundaries help us recognize toxic relationships in our lives more readily as well as identifying strong relationships that are healthy and respectful. When we establish boundaries and maintain them, the people in our lives that do love and respect us will stick through the boundaries because they value the relationship and don’t want to lose us. Those that don’t care, will tend to distance themselves or show disrespect of our boundaries until we distance ourselves from them. The question you need to ask yourself really is: Why do you want to hold on to people who don’t respect you?
So How Do You Establish Boundaries?
The first step to establishing boundaries is to identify the relationships that need them and what boundaries are needed. If your best friend calls you at all hours of the day to complain about their partner, for example, you might want to establish a boundary of when it is appropriate to call. Now that you have identified your boundary, it’s time to inform your friend about them either through conversation or through action (or inaction in this instance). If you decide to talk to them about it, be straightforward, empathize with your friend but also express how disruptive the behavior is and how this change will strengthen the friendship. If you prefer to express through action, start to ONLY answer their calls during what you consider appropriate times so that your friend eventually recognizes that calling at other times is futile.
Once you have identified and established boundaries, it is important to continually maintain them. This means that if your best friend calls you in the middle of your work day after months of respecting your boundary, you still ignore the call until an appropriate time. The most important thing is to be consistent in maintaining your boundaries. If you give in once in a while, the person will believe that you don’t take your own boundaries seriously and will act like there are no boundaries. On the other side of things, if you show respect for your own boundaries, over time your own self-respect will grow also and you will feel more empowered to set and maintain boundaries with others. Over time, you will see that your life becomes better overall because the people in your life will be the ones that care about you, respect you and support you wholeheartedly.