Editor’s Note: We’re sharing this article, originally published in March 2020, as a reminder of the power of setting healthy boundaries in each and every relationship in our lives.
Practice it again: No, no, no.
Boundaries, baby! We all need them and we all could gain from having healthier ones. With the help of Jess Doughty, a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor practicing at Resilient Life Therapy in Wayzata, Minnesota, let’s break down what boundaries look like, why they’re necessary, and how we can better identify them. So, you know, you’re not suddenly fuming with resentment or snapping at your kids or emotionally powering down—whatever your Boundary Being Violated reaction of choice is.
For starters, what are boundaries?
Boundaries = your limits and rules within a relationship. They can be emotional, physical, or mental. They can be rigid, porous, or healthy. Think of boundaries as the lines in the sand between what you deem acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
Boundaries = your limits and rules within a relationship. . . . Think of boundaries as the lines in the sand between what you deem acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
– Keep others at a distance in fear of being hurt or rejected
– Avoid intimacy and close relationships
– Protective, detached, and unlikely to ask for help
– Overshare and are overinvolved in others’ problems
– Fear if they don’t comply with others they’ll be rejected
– Has a difficult time saying “no”
– Understand your personal wants and needs and are able to communicate them
– Share just enough personal information appropriately—right time, right place, right audience
– Can accept hearing “no” from others
– Don’t compromise your own values and opinions for others
While we’d all love to have healthy boundaries at all times with all people in our lives, most likely everyone is a mix of all three, depending on the situation. Perhaps you’re porous when you’re bottle-deep into wine night, rigid in romantic relationships, healthy at work, and a combo of all three with your finicky family.
How flexible you are with your boundaries is another factor. Doughty thinks of it this way: “Boundaries can have different qualities, from a stone wall that is ten feet tall, to a picket fence,” she says. “The quality of the boundary is linked to value systems, priorities, and motivations. That is, I can have a hard, fast rule that I won’t ‘take’ anything from anyone (steel), and even if someone bribes me my boundary is not going to move (the ten-foot brick wall). There may be other boundaries that serve as a guideline but I’m willing to adjust as needed—more flimsy like a picket fence.”
Think about it: What are your stone walls and what are your picket fences?
What happens if we don’t have boundaries?
“Boundaries provide a sense of safety and expectation we can lean into,” says Doughty. “It’s important to know your limits to form who you are, what you’re capable of, and what is simply too much.”
No, your employee shouldn’t be texting you a mundane work question long after off-hours. No, your sister shouldn’t be dismissive of your complicated relationship with your mother. No, you may not touch me there. No, no, and more nos.
The trick and the trickiest part? You have to communicate your limits. Be straightforward and firm and polite.
How do you know when you need to set boundaries?
If you’re experiencing an increased and sustained level of an off-putting emotion, particularly resentment or anxiety, chances are you’ve identified a clue indicating somewhere in your life there’s a lack of emotional, mental, or physical boundaries. Beware of internalizing other people’s moods and emotions too, which can initially feel empathetic, but may actually be a lack of emotional boundary setting.
If you’re experiencing an increased and sustained level of an off-putting emotion, particularly resentment or anxiety, chances are you’ve identified a clue indicating somewhere in your life there’s a lack of emotional, mental, or physical boundaries.
How can you practice identifying boundaries?
Per usual, your body knows best. “If you think about when someone is physically too close to you, what does that feel like?” asks Doughty. “The urge is typically to create more distance from the person, hoping they’ll pick up on the cue to back off. This is a ‘felt sense’ that surfaces in us when someone is violating a boundary.”
We all know how it feels when close talkers or shoulder grabbers invade our physical boundaries. Identify the equivalent of how it feels when someone tramples over your emotional space bubble. How do you feel when someone pokes your emotional boundary bubble—resentful, uncomfortable, deflated? Take stock of that so you can identify it quicker next time it happens and set and enforce those boundaries.
Is it possible to have too many boundaries?
Healthy boundaries = good. Having too many rigid boundaries = uh oh. “We can certainly be overly boundaried in a variety of ways, which may be conveyed in being ‘unfeeling’ and ‘unavailable’ toward others,” warns Doughty. (Sorry to everyone I dated in my twenties!) “This can also be conveyed in the attitude that if I don’t feel like doing something, I shouldn’t have to do it. The reality is there are obligations in life and it is important to maintain them.
There’s also a risk of being too flexible, boundary-wise, in certain areas of our lives and too rigid in others. Say you’re clocking in overtime at the office, no problem, only to be short-tempered with your patient partner. Or if you let your in-laws stomp all over your parenting style but won’t even consider the gentlest advice from a well-intentioned friend. “When those closest to us start to give us feedback that indicates they feel overlooked, it might be time to look at boundaries and see if you’re overextending yourself in one area at the expense of another,” says Doughty.
Are boundaries human nature?
“We were created for connection. This is a basic human need that is not conscious but innate,” says Doughty. “Though some may argue this now, historically it has been shown we need one another for basic survival. When belonging and connection are threatened, especially chronically, we become preoccupied with staying connected at any cost.”
The cost, unfortunately, is the self-sensing system that helps us feel when something seems off, too much, or unsafe. “If we didn’t have the ability to sense these things,” Doughty says, “we wouldn’t know what our boundaries are or how to set them.”
Enough of that. Here’s to finding the limits of your healthy boundaries. And to the occasional porous boundaries when we pour too much wine and inevitably overshare, because once in a while, that’s okay too.
Megan is a writer, editor, etc.-er who muses about life, design and travel for Domino, Lonny, Hunker and more. Her life rules include, but are not limited to: zipper when merging, tip in cash and contribute to your IRA. Be a pal and subscribe to her newsletter Night Vision or follow her on Instagram.