Why Set Boundaries?
What Are Healthy Boundaries?
Philip S. Graffunder, LCSW
Boundaries are like invisible fences, and like all fences they create a boarder that outlines and protects. In terms of interpersonal behavior, they define the limits we have set that surround us emotionally, behaviorally, and physically. When your boundaries are crossed by others, it usually feels like some sort of violation that produces mild to extreme discomfort.
To set a boundary is to announce to another what you will and won’t accept or tolerate from them. In effect you are saying, “My area of personal space, and my comfort level in this relationship starts and ends at certain places, so does yours. I want/need to make it clear to you where I draw those lines.” Setting boundaries is not disrespectful, bad or wrong. Boundaries help you feel safe in your environment and therefore, when set appropriately, are healthy and good for you. It is a sign of respect for ourselves and others to set healthy boundaries, even with our most loved ones, because only then can these lines be known, accepted, and honored. Physical space boundaries are the most obvious, but our emotional and psychological territory is just as important. For instance, this may involve not allowing or reducing someone’s access to you in order to block their unwanted influence on your thoughts or behaviors
Setting boundaries affirms your sense of self-worth because you are sending the message that you are a person who respects him/her self, and that your needs and desires are worthy of being honored. Moreover, boundaries let people know what you do and don’t want, as well as letting them know what your limits are. This gives your associates, friends, and intimates the security of knowing that relationship guidelines apply and this is what they are. When you eliminate doubts about how others should treat you, the people in your life learn what they can and cannot do if they wish to maintain the status quo of their relationship with you. People who consistently fail to honor your clear boundaries are sending you a very direct message, aren’t they?
Healthy boundaries have many benefits.
Among them are the following:
• They put up barriers that reduce the chances of someone violating or abusing you, while also protecting others from potential abuse.
• They define the nature and structure of the relationship between you and others, marking where you end and another person begins.
• They give you an opportunity participate in setting the terms of your relationships in order to see if your terms are compatible with those of the other person.
• They set knowable, firm parameters for how you choose to relate to the world.
No one is born with their boundaries completely set and written in stone. Like any set of skills, boundary setting is learned. In fact, it’s one part of a whole set of assertiveness skills that can be acquired and are immensely useful. (In future articles, I will cover more about assertiveness skills.) If you grew up with adults and others who were abusive, neglectful, or erratic in their treatment toward you, it is highly likely that learning to set healthy boundaries will be more of a challenge. This is especially true if you repeatedly received the message that you did not have the right to express your wants, needs, and desires, or that they did not matter.
As mentioned previously, physical boundaries are important to establish. This is true because they outline your needs and rights in terms of physical space, psychological comfort, and safety. Once set, a person knows how close they can get to you and whether they can touch you or not. They also inform others how close you wish to get to them and whether or not you are comfortable touching them.
Psychological and emotions boundaries can be more nebulous than their physical counterparts, but are not difficult to create and communicate. They convey to others the notion that you have a comfort zone, an allowable area for them to tread, one that honors your emotional needs and personal rights. Healthy internal boundaries prevent others from emotionally manipulating you into taking responsibility for their thoughts, feelings and behaviors (e.g., you have ended, they have begun, but they try to make you responsible for their feelings anyway.) Internal boundaries provide a useful guide, one that allows you to focus on taking charge of that which you have the most control and responsibility for — your own thoughts, feelings, choices, and behaviors.
Setting Boundaries – How Can I Set Them Effectively?
There are a number of ideas that can help you to develop this skill. Below are some of the concepts I have found most useful in setting healthy boundaries.
Drawing a Line
Ok, so boundaries are like invisible lines, or barriers with gates, that you control — but how does a person know where that line is, and when to draw it? To find out, ask yourself some personal questions about your comfort level in specific situations. This is helpful because our boundaries are as individual as we are. Think of several instances from the past that caused you to feel strong negative emotions in response to something that was done or said to you. More likely than not, if it feels like you boundaries were violated, they were. Ask yourself what that tells you about the nature of your boundaries, and where your line may be. In addition, ask yourself what that particular experience tells you about what can and cannot be done or said to you without making you feel uncomfortable, angry, overly vulnerable? (Note: Vulnerability is almost always lurking somewhere under feelings of anger)
Teaching Others How to Respect the Line
It’s important that you educate people in your life about your boundaries. Find opportunities, before you are too upset, to calmly inform them about what they can and cannot do in relationship with you. As you do, you will notice that some people will be glad to know where they stand with you and therefore will have no problem honoring this information. Some others, however, will resent that you have standards and have the gall to introduce them into the relationship. They may act put-upon by your requests to be treated fairly and with respect. Others may not listen or care, and simply continue to treat you poorly or outside the bounds of what you are now defining and requesting.
Progressive Boundary Setting
Step 1: Intent: To Inform (Make a “process comment”) – “Do you know that you are speaking loudly (or hurting me, saying things I don’t like, etc.)?”
Step 2: Intent: To Inform and Request – “Please lower your voice.” “Please stop hurting me.” “Please stop what you are saying.” (I’d like you to do (or stop doing) X.)
Step 3: Intent: To Instruct – “I need for you not to yell.” “I need you to stop hurting
me.” “I need you to stop what you are saying.” “You are out of bounds there. Stop that.” “Enough.” (I need you to do (or stop doing) X.)
Step 4: Intent: To Warn (but not threaten) – “No, you may not speak to me in that tone of voice.” “Never touch me like that again.” “You may never say this to me.” (No, you may not do X!)
Step 5: Intent: To Take a Firm Stand – “Stop. I demand you to stop right now.” “You have gone way over the top. Stop it now!” If they don’t, it’s almost certainly time to take direct action. (e.g., leave, call the authorities, end the relationship, etc.)
Other methods for setting boundaries that can be utilized when someone exhibits unacceptable behavior toward you include taking time out/away from them, an extended time out, or terminating the relationship completely.
Time Out – “What you are doing/ saying is unacceptable to me. I am open to working this out when you are able to do so reasonably. We can talk about it tomorrow when you have calmed down.”
Extended Time Out – “I am going to distance myself from you. When and if you choose to be more respectful to me, I will think about resuming our conversation and relationship.”
Notes: Tone of voice, facial expression, muscle tension, eye contact, and body posture are all elements that affect how a statement comes across. Almost any of the statements/questions above can fit in at any of the 5 steps if these elements fit the intent of that step.
In the majority of cases it is best not to lose your temper. That way you control the frame. Let them lose control if someone must. If they do keep in mind that you can most effectively regulate the other person’s emotionality by staying neutral. A firm tone of voice, in steps 3 – 5 is usually sufficient, unless, of course, you are being hurt or seriously threatened.
A rigid boundary is like an impenetrable wall. Nothing can go in or come out. It gives others the message “Don’t come near me.” People with rigid boundaries typically do not trust others and often have difficulty forming intimate relationships.
Those who have difficulty setting boundaries with others may often:
Talk at an intimate level upon first meeting someone or very early in a relationship.
“Fall in love” with new acquaintances or anyone who reaches out.
Allow others to preoccupy their thoughts.
Go against their own values or rights to please others or get their approval
Are unable to notice if others display inappropriate boundaries
Accept things from others even if they don’t want it, including offers, gifts, touch, etc.
Let, or require that, others direct their life.
Let others define their needs and limits on an emotional and physical level
Fall apart so others will take care of them.
Potentially engage in self abuse
Those who violate others’ boundaries often:
Take as much as they can for the sake of taking.
Are not aware, or don’t care, when others are uncomfortable with them or their behavior.
Demand others affection and/or attention. They expect others to fulfill their needs, and tend to respond with anger when other people don’t comply.
Try to dictate how others should think, feel, or act, and may become abusive.
Discount or ignore the rights of others.
An erratic boundary is created when an individual lacks consistency in setting healthy boundaries with others. They may set healthy boundaries in some situations or with some people yet exhibit unhealthy boundaries in other situations or with other people. Try as they might, they are often unclear about their rights and role in boundary setting and tend to leave other people as confused as they are.
Those with healthy boundaries:
Notice and speak up when someone else displays inappropriate boundaries or invades their personal space.
Decide who, when, and to what degree they want to trust.
Move step-by-step into intimacy. They reveal a little of themselves, then check to see how the other person responds before sharing more.
Decide for themselves whether or not a relationship is good for them.
Stay focused on their own growth or recovery regardless of others’ views or demands.
Maintain their personal values despite what others may want from them.
Say “no” to food, gifts, offers, hugs, etc. when they don’t want them.
Ask a person before touching them.
Respect others and do not take advantage of others’ generosity.
Do not give in to others just to be liked.
Do not allow others to take advantage of them or their generosity.
Recognize that others are not mind readers, and therefore, clearly communicate wants and needs while allowing others to do the same.
Trust their own decisions.
Exhibit self respect.
Know what they want and define their own reality accordingly.
Assessing Your Own Boundaries
I believe that setting healthy boundaries with others is a courageous act of self-care. Now that you know more about them, it may be time to do some self-assessment. Do you feel that you exhibit healthy, erratic, rigid, or virtually no boundaries? Try to identify specific situations that cause you to feel this way about your boundary-setting skills. In what areas of your life, and with whom, would like to create healthier boundaries? What actions can you take or skills can you use (or develop) to promote the healthier boundaries that you desire?
Are there people in your life who you feel exhibit unhealthy boundaries toward you? If so, who are they and what are the actions they take that prompt you to feel this way? How do you typically respond, and how would you like to respond differently in the future? What skills can you utilize to protect yourself from others who exhibit boundary violating behaviors toward you? The answers to these questions can help you to learn about, accept, and assert your absolute right to set your own boundaries in a healthy way.
If you would like to explore this further,
and perhaps discover other answers about yourself, feel free to contact me at 404-295-4852.
Philip S. Graffunder is the owner of
Positive Social Growth Counseling and Therapy Center.
He is a therapist, counselor, and clinical social worker with more than 20 years’ experience.