Understand the what, the why and how of personal boundaries and their role in self-care
In recent weeks I’ve had a number of occasions to talk about personal boundaries. I’ve discussed why setting and maintaining them is essential for our sense of well-being and sometimes, our physical safety.
I’ve also explored why stating our boundaries is not always easy but noted that it is something we should do nevertheless.
If we don't draw the line, we leave ourselves open to various forms of abuse and difficulty in relationships both in our personal lives and at work.
What are boundaries?
Let’s start with a definition from the Cambridge Essential English Dictionary
Boundary: a line that divides two areas or forms an edge around an area
When referring to personal boundaries, I consider them like a fence or shield around me. My boundaries define where I am in relationship to something else whether that’s a person, an object or a thought, like an idea or opinion.
No is a complete sentence
Personal boundaries are built on our values, beliefs and past experience.
Our boundaries do double duty across three fronts:
1. they concern incoming and outgoing interactions;
2. they protect us from harm whilst defending our self-esteem;
3. they involve what we will and will not do or accept.
In a nutshell they are the limits we set with others concerning their behaviours and wishes. Through them, we teach others how to treat us.
The goldilocks zone of personal boundaries
Just as a lack of boundaries around your home may encourage people to party until late on your lawn, weak or non-existent boundaries come at a personal cost. The cost might be emotional (resentment, guilt), physical (abuse) or financial (overspending, lending)
At the opposite extreme, rigid boundaries may mean you miss out or end up isolated, just as if you’re locked up within the protective walls of a castle.
Consistent and flexible boundaries:
> safeguard us from negative behaviour, pain and suffering;
> help others know where they stand;
> preserve our self-esteem and self-worth;
> conserve our emotional energy;
> protect our mental well-being.
They are, therefore, considered a key component to self-care.
The 5 types of personal boundary
Whether we realise it or not, whenever we are in relationship with something or someone, a boundary or limit exists.
Just as there might be a wall around a home, an electric fence at the farm and barbed wire at a prison, what type of boundary we have will depend on context and experience.
The boundaries we might set in the workplace are likely to be different to say with our family and friends. However, regardless of the situation, enforcing them keeps all relationships positive.
Generally we can think of having five types of personal boundary.
Our physical boundaries provide a barrier between us and an external force. They include our personal space, body and privacy.
Physical boundary violation examples:
> inappropriate touching;
> talking over someone
> walking into someone’s room/office uninvited
These boundaries concern our feelings. Without emotional boundaries we might easily be impacted by another’s moods, words and actions.
Emotional boundary violation examples:
> someone speaking in a disrespectful way
> having your feelings invalidated or criticised
> feeling responsible for someone else’s bad mood
Intellectual boundaries concern our thoughts and ideas.
Intellectual boundary violation examples:
> someone dismissing or belittling your thoughts
> another taking credit for your work
> talking about a topic that is uncomfortable for another
Our material boundaries concern where we stand in relation to lending or giving things or money.
Material boundary violation examples:
> not returning belongings
> taking something without asking
> over spending
These are boundaries that we use to protect and manage our time. Without boundaries we may end up doing things we do not want to do at the cost of not being able to do the things we want or need to.
Time boundary violation examples:
> co-workers making unreasonable demands
> doing something that another should or could be doing
> sacrificing your plans to please another
When to mark your territory
Those who practice mindfulness know that the body is an inbuilt barometer telling us how we feel about a situation or person.
For example, we might feel a tightness in the throat, chest or stomach, our heart rate might increase or we may flush, sweat or become clammy. These internal responses are cues that something may not right for us in our environment.
Dana Gionta (1) considers a sense of physical discomfort and/or a feeling of resentment, as indicators that our boundaries are being violated or that we need to establish some.
She suggests thinking of these responses on a scale of 1 to 10. If you find yourself at a high end of the scale (over 6) during an interaction or situation, it is likely you are not maintaining boundaries.
How to identify and communicate our boundaries
Knowing and asserting our boundaries are two sides of the same coin.
Heads: Know your limits
You can only have a boundary, if you know your limits. To know your limits spend some time thinking about what kind of behaviour and interactions are not okay for you. In other words, what you don’t want to see, hear, do.
Try this two step process to help you identify your limits.
1) Identify boundaries that are lacking or need strengthening
This is like going round your property and inspecting where you might need to do some maintenance.
You do this by reflecting on times when you have felt uncomfortable or stressed in the past, this suggests where a boundary has been violated or ignored in the past.
2) Consider what you will and will not accept
Jane Collingwood (2) suggests using a 5 Things Process. Thinking of five limits across each of the five areas.
Remember these are your personal limits, they concern only you. They do not have to be the same as anyone else nor be in keeping with other peoples’ expectations.
Tails: Communicate your boundaries
The only way someone knows where you stand is to tell them. In some situations, this can feel scary but doing so means that you are putting your needs and emotional well-being above other people’s opinions.
This doesn’t mean you tell them in an unkind or disrespectful way, it just means you let the other person know that your limits. The best way is using clear, simple and direct language.
Below are some examples.
Saying No to another's asks
Format: State your limit and what you can do, if anything
I cannot do that right now; I can get to it towards the end of next week.
I know you would like me to stay for 3 nights but I will only be staying for 2.
I have a personal policy of not lending money. I am sorry I cannot help you in this way.
Saying No to another's actions
Format: Name what you find offensive. State the consequence, if they continue
Please do not raise your voice with me. If you continue to shout, I will leave the room.
It makes me uncomfortable when you make critical remarks. Please stop. If you continue I will take it that you are not interested in having a positive conversation about this.
If you send me any more ranting text messages, I will block your number.
It is not always easy to establish and maintain boundaries. We can feel fearful, weak or guilty.
Just as erecting a garden fence is easier with friends, when we first start asserting our boundaries it can be helpful to have support in place whether that’s friends, colleagues, counsellor or support group. They can both help you identify your needs and cheer you on when you draw your line.
Practice makes perfect
When we start telling people our limits we may struggle and feel flustered but with practice we will become more certain of ourselves and in doing so others will be clearer on who we are and what we stand for.
Some points of note
The boundary setter is the one in control of the situation, you know what you need and so you are the only one that knows what you need to do to get it. Think only of what you need not about punishing the violator.
Boundaries concerning others’ behaviour cannot generally be set without consequences. But remember only those consequences you are prepared to follow through should be stated.
Express yourself firmly and clearly in as few words as possible. Focus on the ask being made or behaviour not the person themselves, remain respectful of their thoughts and feelings.
Do not apologise, debate or explain. No is a complete sentence.
Having flexible but consistent personal boundaries are a form of self-care. They protect us from harm and defend our sense of self. That's why although setting and maintaining them may be hard, it's worth doing.
In order for boundary setting to work, you must know your limits and commit to upholding what is right and true for you.
Stating boundaries is sometimes difficult but remember everyone has the right to determine what they do not want to see, hear and engage in including you.
Take care of you.
1. Gionta D. and D. Guerra. (2015) How successful people set boundaries at work
2. Collingwood J. (2017) The importance of personal boundaries