Healthy boundaries are like an early warning system. They help to give you an accurate read on people and situations and your response to them. You don’t overreact and you don’t let people walk over you either.
When you’re in a social or work situation, are you aware of the things that make you feel uncomfortable? Are you able to immediately pinpoint where the negative feelings or physical sensations – such as hairs on the back of your neck rising, tingling, nausea – are coming from? Are you able to stop or contain what’s causing you distress or do you just allow it to happen?
If you find yourself in situations where you feel unable to stop someone or something from making you stressed, angry, emotionally drained or even injured, you probably need to develop healthier boundaries.
These boundaries allow you to feel physically, mentally and emotionally safe and help you to stay in your power and be authentic in difficult circumstances.
Equally as important, developing healthy boundaries also helps you to contain yourself so that you don’t offend, encroach or hurt others by crossing their boundaries.
What is a personal boundary?
Picture a house surrounded by a fence. You are the house, and everything that might impact your authenticity or integrity as an individual, including freedoms and rights, is on the other side of the fence. That fence is your personal boundary.
Out there are things that are going on in your life: from tasks at work, to relationships with family and friends, to romantic relationships, to anything else that’s happening around you. From time to time these things can have a negative effect on you, as if they’ve jumped the fence and broken into your home.
For example, imagine your boss is having a bad day and starts taking it out on you by unfairly berating you in front of your colleagues. Are you able to see the situation for what it is, interrupt your boss and ask him/her to have the conversation with you in private? Or, do you feel like you need to sit there and take it because they’re your boss, but end up in an emotional whirlpool with thoughts and feelings like: injustice, anger, belittled, embarrassed, hurt etc? Perhaps you are somewhere in the middle.
Everyone has a different view of their personal boundaries, and of course they can be different with different people and in different situations too.
- For some, their boundaries are too permeable or don’t extend far enough. This could be true if you are very sensitive and are often affected by things around you. It can also be true if you have trouble being aware of or respecting other people’s physical and emotional boundaries. For example, revealing intimate information before a relationship has developed to that stage or touching too readily. You don’t have a clear sense of where you finish and the other person starts.
- For others, boundaries have been set up as a strong wall of protection with the intent of keeping the person safe. However, this isn’t healthy either, because it effectively closes your heart to true intimacy and you disconnect. You may also be perceived as being emotionally distant and aloof, and possibly arrogant.
There are different types of personal boundaries: physical, emotional, mental, sexual and spiritual.
If you’ve had your boundaries crossed in childhood, you are likely to have more difficulty developing healthy boundaries as an adult. And don’t just think of extremes like physical and sexual abuse. If a parent exerts too much control in trying to advise, guide and support their children that can also lead to boundary issues.
Healthy boundaries have strength and elasticity to permit an easy flow of love and positivity to you and reflect or reduce any unwanted stressors away from you.
Physical boundaries pertain to the imaginary bubble you put around yourself with respect to your personal space. This allows you to keep people at a comfortable distance when they’re interacting with you.
Of course, your physical boundaries will change depending on the situation, person, country and the state of your relationship. For instance, you wouldn’t let a stranger touch you on the train, but you would allow a massage therapist to touch you, even if you’d never met them before.
Emotional and intellectual boundaries
These boundaries allow you to feel your feelings, think your thoughts and express yourself in an authentic way.
Healthy emotional boundaries allow you to feel empathy for a person, but not sympathy. If you feel sympathetic it actually means you are feeling the emotions as if it were happening to you or it has triggered an unresolved past hurt. Empathy on the other hand allows you to listen with kindness and compassion and hold a space for the person to feel their emotions.
Those who have weak emotional and mental boundaries are easily swayed by what others do or say, are more open to manipulation, have trouble saying ‘no’, worry about what others think of them and often feel easily hurt or offended by others.
Having healthy emotional and mental boundaries with a strong sense of who you are and your worth will help you to be less influenced by others or concerned about their opinions and acceptance of you.
You will be able to handle differences between yourself and others, and express yourself authentically without questioning yourself. You will also respect and value others, even if their feelings and beliefs seem vastly different to your own.
5 Tips to help develop healthy boundaries
1. Know your limits by being self-aware
You must be aware of what types of communication and behaviour are okay with you, and what causes negative emotions within you. This is based on your authentic expression and not influenced by others telling you that you should or shouldn’t feel, think or behave a certain way.
To do this, you must learn to tune into your feelings and find out why certain things are not comfortable for you. For instance, is it okay if the guy you just met suddenly wants to hold your hand? Is it okay if a colleague disagrees with what you’re telling your boss? Perhaps it is how and why they disagree. By knowing your limits, you can pinpoint where to place your boundaries.
2. Allow yourself to feel discomfort
Everyone has different tolerance levels and it will change from day to day based on your health, emotional state, situation, relationship etc. Discomfort is like your internal early warning system, so it’s important to acknowledge it. If you’re uncomfortable with the way someone talks to you or acts around you, don’t question or judge yourself by saying: I’m just being prudish. Listen. The discomfort is your mind telling you that some part of you doesn’t feel safe or right and this is where a healthy boundary needs to be placed. If you ignore your discomfort, you may find yourself in a more difficult situation.
3. Honour your needs
There may be times when you feel pressured to do something that goes beyond your personal boundaries. For instance, you feel pressured by your friends to have a night out with them despite needing to show up for work early the next day, or you agree to help a friend because you think it’s the right thing to do but you’re already maxed out in your own life.
It is important to respect your needs and be able to express those to others. Learning to say ‘no’ respectfully is one of the healthiest boundaries you can develop for yourself. How others receive that ‘no’ is not your responsibility.
Another key aspect of honouring your needs is giving yourself permission to rest when you need to or putting your self-care ahead of your spouse and/or family needs.
4. Be firm but respectful
When someone is crossing the line with you, it may be difficult to tell them to stop doing it, particularly if you’re just getting started developing healthy boundaries. In cases like this, you must hold your ground and assert yourself respectfully. You can say something like, “Please don’t do that” or “I know you want me to do something for you, but I’m just not comfortable with it.” If the person continues to push you, keep repeating the same statement because you do not need to justify yourself. This is definitely something that will become easier with practise.
5. Be around others who respect your boundaries
Of course, you wouldn’t want to always be with people who are crossing the line with you. But in some cases, it can’t be helped, especially if you have to work with them or they’re your family! In these instances, with consistency and persistence, you will have to ‘retrain’ people about how to treat you.
However, when you have the choice, choose to spend time with people who respect your boundaries. Also try to surround yourself with people who have developed healthy boundaries because you can observe them as a role model.
Healthy boundaries allow us to interact with others and the world with authentic expression and from a place of personal power and security. They also allow us to contain ourselves, empathise with and respect others’ needs and boundaries.
And remember, we are not setting up walls, we are creating a metaphorical, breathable bubble around us. This bubble allows love, compassion, support, understanding, respect etc to come in and keeps unpleasant things at arm’s length that we feel will not nourish or serve us.
Are you comfortable with the personal boundaries you have set up?
What have you done to enforce these boundaries? Has it made you feel more empowered in your life?
What’s your best healthy boundary story?
Please share with us in the comments below.
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