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Boundaries: What are they, really? And why are they important?

Has someone in your life or maybe even your therapist told you that you need to set stronger boundaries? Or maybe that your boundaries are too strong? Do you feel unclear about what that even means? Let’s talk about it!



What are boundaries?

Boundaries are the limits we set for ourselves in relationships. Boundaries can be physical (think: personal space bubble), emotional (how vulnerable we are with others), digital (what we share online), or time-based (how much time we set aside for various areas of our lives). Boundaries exist to protect us from intentional or unintentional harm from others. Boundaries also assist us with communication and building healthy relationships. If we don’t know our boundaries, we can’t tell other people what they are or enforce them. We also are at risk for engaging in relationships that take advantage of us or cause us harm if we don’t set boundaries. Typically, people either have rigid, porous, or healthy boundaries. People who have rigid boundaries are often closed off and avoid intimacy and close relationships. They may seem detached or have few close relationships because it is hard for them to let their guard down enough to be vulnerable. People with porous boundaries are the opposite- they overshare their personal information especially in new or casual friendships or relationships. They might struggle to say “no” to the requests of others and may accept being treated poorly by others. The middle ground between these two is to have healthy boundaries. People with healthy boundaries share their personal information in appropriate ways and are able to say “no” in situations when they know their comfort or values will be sacrificed.


It’s not that simple!

Okay, that section you just read makes boundaries seem clear-cut and simple. As with most things, it’s not! Many people use a mix of different boundary types- they may be more rigid with their boundaries at work than they are with their closest friends and family. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! How we enforce boundaries is very dependent on the setting we find ourselves in. What’s appropriate at work is probably very different than what’s appropriate with close friends and family. Boundaries might also be relationship specific. For example, we all probably know someone who is always late or asking for money or trying to gossip about our personal lives. We may need to have more rigid boundaries with this person to protect our own safety and values whereas a person who doesn’t waste our time with lateness or use our personal stories and dramas as gossip may not need us to enforce such strong boundaries.


How do I know my boundaries?

Knowing, and then enforcing, your boundaries starts with knowing yourself and what you’re comfortable with. Do you feel more comfortable taking it slow in new relationships? Are you an “I trust you until you give me a reason not to” kind of person? Do you hate hugging as a greeting? What types of things make you feel comfortable and safe within relationships? These are the types of things you can ask yourself to start to figure out your boundaries. Do you have cultural or religious beliefs that play a role? For example, some belief systems discourage talking about emotions in public or may have expectations for when it is acceptable to take certain steps in romantic relationships. Taking stock of your own personal preferences coupled with your values and belief systems is a great place to start when thinking about where to set your boundaries.


Enforcing Boundaries

For a lot of us, enforcing boundaries is much easier said than done- especially in certain circumstances or with certain people. Is your boss always asking you to work extra hours or take on projects outside your scope of work without compensation or adjusting your workload? That may be a situation where setting and enforcing your boundary feels hard because you don’t want to lost your job or be on your boss’ bad side, but you also can’t keep working that way. Or maybe you have a friend or significant other who is always asking for favors or making you wait alone at the restaurant because they’re running late. It might be harder to say something or enforce your boundary because you don’t want to upset that person or make them feel shame about an area of weakness. These are most often the times where it is most important to set and enforce your boundaries! Sure, everyone should get some grace if they run late every now and then or if they make a mistake and apologize. But, when we consistently find ourselves sacrificing our own comfort, time, emotional safety, etc for someone else’s, we probably need to enforce our boundaries more. This can be really challenging because it may upset the other person or make them feel bad- but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong! Talk to your therapist to find some ways to get better at sitting in that discomfort while protecting your boundaries and space!


Boundaries can be complicated! If there are relationships in your life that you think need better or different boundaries, talk with your therapist about it! For many people, learning ways to set and enforce healthy boundaries can also have positive effects on other areas of their mental health.

Written By,

Allyson Bremer, LPC

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