Healthy boundaries create healthy
relationships. Unhealthy boundaries create dysfunctional ones.
By establishing clear boundaries, we define ourselves in relation to
others. To do this, however, we must be able to identify and respect our
needs, feelings, opinions, and rights. Otherwise our efforts would be
like putting a fence around a yard without knowing the property lines.
Those of us raised in dysfunctional families have probably had
little experience with
boundaries. Therefore, learning how to establish them must be an
important goal in our personal growth. In order to achieve this,
however, we must overcome low self-esteem and passivity; learn to
identify and respect our rights and needs; and become skilled at
assertively taking care of ourselves in relationships. This process
allows our true selves to emerge, and healthy boundaries become the
fences that keep us safe - something we may never have experienced in
Boundaries can be physical or emotional. Physical boundaries
define who can touch us, how someone can touch us, and how physically
close another may approach us. Emotional boundaries define where our
feelings end and another's begins. For example, do we take
responsibility for our feelings and needs, and allow others to do the
same? Or do we feel overly responsible for the feelings and needs of
others and neglect our own? Are we able to say "no"? Can we ask for what
we need? Are we compulsive people pleasers? Do we become upset simply
because others are upset around us? Do we mimic the opinions of whomever
we are around? The answers to these questions help define the "property
lines" of our emotional boundaries.
our physical and emotional boundaries define how we interact with
others, and how we allow others to interact with us. Without boundaries,
others could touch us in any way they wanted, do whatever they wished
with our possessions, and treat us in any way they desired. In addition,
we would believe everyone else's bad behaviors are our fault, take on
everyone's else's problems as our own, and feel like we have no right to
any rights. In short, our lives would chaotic and out of our control.
Boundaries can be too rigid or too loose. Those whose
boundaries are too rigid literally shut out everyone from their lives.
They appear aloof and distant, and do not talk about feelings or show
emotions. They exhibit extreme self-sufficiency, and do not ask for
help. They do not allow anyone to get physically or emotionally close to
them. It is as if they live in a house surrounded by an immense wall
with no gates. No one is allowed in.
Those whose boundaries are too loose put their hands on
strangers and let others touch them inappropriately. They may be
sexually promiscuous, confuse sex and love, be driven to be in a sexual
relationship, and get too close to others too fast. They may take on the
feelings of others as their own, easily become emotionally overwhelmed,
give too much, take too much, and be in constant need of reassurance.
They may expect others to read their minds, think they can read the
minds of others, say "yes" when they want to say "no," and feel
responsible for the feelings of others. Those with loose boundaries
often lead chaotic lives, full of drama, as if they lived in houses with
no fences, gates, locks, or even doors.
Those with healthy boundaries are firm but flexible. They give
support and accept it. They respect their feelings, needs, opinions, and
rights, and those of others, but are clear about their separateness.
They are responsible for their own happiness and allow others to be
responsible for their happiness. They are assertive and respectful of
the rights of others to be assertive. They are able to negotiate and
compromise, have empathy for others, are able to make mistakes without
damaging their self-esteem, and have an internal sense of personal
identity. They respect diversity. Those with healthy boundaries are
comfortable with themselves, and make others comfortable around them.
They live in houses with fences and gates that allow access only to
those who respect their boundaries.
Learning to set healthy boundaries can feel uncomfortable, even
scary, because it may go against the grain of the survival skills we
learned in childhood - particularly if our caretakers were physically,
sexually, or emotionally abusive. For example, we may have learned to
repress our anger or other painful emotions because we would have been
attacked and blamed for expressing the very pain the abuse had caused.
Thus, attempting to set healthy boundaries as an adult may initially be
accompanied by anxiety, but we must learn to work through these
conditioned fears, or we will never have healthy relationships. But this
process of growth takes time, and our motto should always be, "Progress
Here are some tips for setting healthy boundaries, modified
from the book, Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin, by Anne
you identify the need to set a boundary, do it clearly, preferably
without anger, and in as few words as possible. Do not justify,
apologize for, or rationalize the boundary you are setting. Do not
argue! Just set the boundary calmly, firmly, clearly, and
canít set a boundary and take care of someone elseís feelings at the
same time. You are not responsible for the other personís reaction
to the boundary you are setting. You are only responsible for
communicating the boundary in a respectful manner. If others get
upset with you, that is their problem. If they no longer want your
friendship, then you are probably better off without them. You do
not need "friends" who disrespect your boundaries.
first, you will probably feel selfish, guilty, or embarrassed when
you set a boundary. Do it anyway, and tell yourself you have a right
to take care of yourself. Setting boundaries takes practice and
determination. Don't let anxiety or low self-esteem prevent you from
taking care of yourself.
you feel anger or resentment, or find yourself whining or
complaining, you probably need to set a boundary. Listen to
yourself, then determine what you need to do or say. Then
communicate your boundary assertively. When you are confident you
can set healthy boundaries with others, you will have less need to
put up walls.
you set boundaries, you might be tested, especially by those
accustomed to controlling you, abusing you, or manipulating you.
Plan on it, expect it, but be firm. Remember, your behavior must
match the boundaries you are setting. You can not establish a clear
boundary successfully if you send a mixed message by apologizing for
doing so. Be firm, clear, and respectful.
people are willing to respect your boundaries, but some are not. Be
prepared to be firm about your boundaries when they are not being
respected. If necessary, put up a wall by ending the relationship.
In extreme cases, you might have to involve the police or judicial
system by sending a no-contact letter or obtaining a restraining
Learning to set healthy boundaries takes time. It is a process. You
will set boundaries when you are ready. Itís your growth in your own
time frame, not what someone else tells you. Let your counselor or
support group help you with pace and process.
a support system of people who respect your right to set boundaries.
Eliminate toxic persons from your life - those who want to
manipulate you, abuse you, and control you.
healthy boundaries allows your true self to emerge Ė and what an
exciting journey that is.
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