What are boundaries?
Boundaries are limits, specifications and communication tools that facilitate healthy interpersonal interaction and behaviour. They safeguard your personal space and choices, and keep you connected to the people that comprise your social circles. Thereby, boundaries aid in improving the overall quality of your relationships.
Boundaries are like fences surrounding a property. The lack of a fence can imply porous boundaries, meaning anyone can enter your property, at any time, without your permission. This can have an impact on your personal safety and sense of agency, and also lead to you feeling used and taken for granted. Porous boundaries tend to sow the seeds for interpersonal resentment, and also have poor outcomes for your mental health leading to anxiety, depression, burnout and unhealthy relationships.
On the other hand, if your property is surrounded by intense military-style barricades such that it is nearly impossible for anyone to even remotely approach you – that would mean rigid boundaries. A person with rigid boundaries tends to be isolated and disconnected from others.
Boundaries tend to differ from one relationship to another. A person might have rigid boundaries with co-workers but porous boundaries with family. Healthy boundaries require reflection and evaluation of what is okay and not okay in a given relationship, and then communicating this information to others.
Why does having healthy boundaries matter?
Boundaries help with identifying where one person ends and another begins (Katherine A, 2010). They are like invisible borders that define you as an individual – separate and differentiated from others.
That said, human beings are social beings that are built for belonging and connection. Healthy mental health requires a balance between individuation and connectedness. Boundaries play an important role in communicating your needs, positions, expectations and permissible ways for others to behave around you. Thereby, they make it possible to foster safe, trustworthy and authentic connection.
According to therapist and author Nedra Tawwab (2021), setting boundaries plays a crucial role when it comes to self-care and all aspects of wellbeing – mental, physical, and emotional. Healthy boundaries enhance your personal agency in social relationships as well as your self-esteem, and self-respect.
Different types of boundaries
Physical – your preferences when it comes to your personal space, safety, comfort, privacy and physical touch from others. For example, you needing a certain amount of physical distance between yourself and another person, feeling okay shaking hands with some people and not with others…etc.
Emotional and intellectual – having the autonomy to have your own thoughts, feelings, opinions, beliefs and choices. Emotional and intellectual boundaries influence your closeness or decision to be distant from other people. For example, you may choose to respectfully disagree with someone who has a different political opinion compared to yours.
Internal – your ability to regulate your impulses, thoughts and intense feelings and the amount of bandwidth you have for other people and tasks. Internal boundaries are lines between what you’re going through within and what you decide to express to the world. For example, you may feel rightfully angry in an unfair situation, but you may decide to communicate diplomatically so as to safeguard yourself and maintain the general decorum of the space that you’re in.
Material – the things that are yours, how much control you have over them and how others treat your possessions. For example, your expectation that your friend returns your travel bag in the same condition in which it was when they borrowed it from you.
Time – the discipline or lack thereof in the way in which you manage your time – how you divide time between work and leisure, your wants and needs, and the amount of access other people and their requests have over your time. For example, your decision to stop engaging with work/school beyond a certain time of the day, and dedicating that time to spend with yourself, family or friends (Tawwab, 2021).
Examples of how to set healthy boundaries
Setting healthy boundaries is like learning a new life skill – it requires learning, negotiation with your environment and consistent practice before it can come to you second nature and become a habit. Setting boundaries requires a communication approach that is assertive and respectful of other people.
Context, culture and nuance strongly influence the kind of boundaries you might set within different social groups that you are a part of – family, partners, friends, co-workers, and others. Remember, boundaries help with facilitating connection…not alienating other people.
To set a boundary, start by identifying the area where you need a boundary. Then, communicate clearly without overexplaining why you are setting a boundary. Lastly, indicate the way in which you would like to be treated. Let’s look at some examples below:
Situation: You are at a social gathering, and a distant relative makes a comment on your weight that really upsets you.
Boundary: “I’d be happy to catch up and know more about how you’ve been, but I don’t like it when you talk about my weight. It makes me feel uncomfortable. Can we please switch topics and talk about something else.”
Situation: All your friends are travelling together abroad for a school trip. Your family is going through a financial rough patch, and you can’t join them. Your best friend says, “You’re so mean for leaving me alone with the rest of them…you HAVE to come…let’s just make it work somehow. I’ll tell my parents to pay for you, you can pay them back later.”
Boundary: “I see that you’re eager for us to travel together, and I too would love to join but I don’t appreciate you calling me mean. It’s hard for my family right now and borrowing money from your parents is not something I am okay with.”
Situation: You are working on a group project and are excited to share your ideas as you think it will take the quality of the project to the next level. The group leader tells you that they have already spent a lot of time researching and fleshing out their own idea, and that even considering anything else would be a big waste of time, and things have to be done their way.
Boundary: “You’ve taken initiative, worked hard on your idea and have even taken it a step further. However, I feel shut out and not included with you not even willing to hear me out. I would really appreciate some space and openness for my input.”
How is life tree(ting) you?: Trust, safety, and respect – the importance of boundaries (ND) Student Affairs. Available at: https://studentaffairs.stanford.edu/how-life-treeting-you-importance-of-boundaries#:~:text=They%20help%20us%20to%20build,you%20feel%20they%20are%20needed
Jo Nash, Ph.D. (2023) How to set healthy boundaries & build positive relationships, PositivePsychology.com. Available at: https://positivepsychology.com/great-self-care-setting-healthy-boundaries/
J.W. PhD, (2015) The four kinds of boundaries & how to build them, Psych Central. Available at: https://psychcentral.com/blog/childhood-neglect/2015/07/the-four-kinds-of-boundaries-how-to-build-them#1
Katherine, A. (1991). Boundaries: Where you end and I begin. Parkside Publishing Corporation
Tawwab, N.G. (2021). Set boundaries, find peace: A guide to reclaiming yourself. Hachette, UK.
Insiya Dsouza is a CDA Licensed Counselling Psychologist in Openminds Psychiatry Counselling and Neuroscience Center, Insiya’s primary approach to therapy is trauma-informed, intersectional feminist, existential and self-compassion based. Taking a systemic lens, she looks at how various social systems intersect with one another and impact a person’s mental health.