Imagine a baseball field without an outfield. Or a country without a border.
Boundaries help define identity. If we don’t know where the US starts and Canada ends, for instance, that could lead to some major diplomatic issues! The same is true in interpersonal relationships. Your area of responsibility and another’s need to have definite starting and endpoints.
Boundaries can mean the difference between having thriving relationships, and feeling defeated. Having them can help you feel free and fully capable of evaluating and choosing what is right for yourself. Not having them can contribute to confusion and disappointment in your relationships.
So it’s critical to learn the difference between healthy and unhealthy boundaries.
What Healthy Boundaries in Relationships Are
A healthy boundary is a limit you set with another person (or yourself) so that you can thrive emotionally, mentally, and/or physically.
Boundaries allow you to ask for the time or space you need to make a decision. Boundaries help you have a better sense of self. They allow you to say no to an activity that makes you feel uncomfortable or ill at ease. They help you cultivate a sense of self: “I will do this, but not this.”
Healthy boundaries are one of the best forms of self-respect because they acknowledge your real needs in any given situation.
But what do healthy boundaries look like? Here are just a few examples:
- Some professionals, like teachers and counselors, choose not to talk about some details of their personal life: “I like to keep my private life private.”
- A busy lawyer may keep an unscheduled personal call short if they are working towards a deadline: “I’m right in the middle of something, can I call you back tomorrow?”
- A new mom may ask her partner for additional support so that she can take a break, eat a snack, or get some sleep: “I’m absolutely exhausted. Can you help me by watching the baby for the next two hours?”
- A man may ask his new partner for one night to himself so he can have alone time: “I love being with you, but I need to have Thursday nights to myself so I can recharge alone.”
Most of us have some practice making boundaries. They may look like some of the examples above, but they may not. Your boundaries may protect your time, your mental energy, or your physical needs.
In the past, you may have asked your child to knock before entering your bedroom. You may have chosen to unfriend a toxic person on social media. Or you may have chosen to leave a job due to a toxic environment.
In their very simplest form, boundaries are a way to say “no” or “yes” to what happens to you.
If you have asked someone to respect your personal space or emotional space, you’ve made a boundary. Let this be an encouragement to you! Boundaries may take courage to put into place, but you likely already have some practice setting them.
What Unhealthy Boundaries Are
Unhealthy boundaries do not protect your mental, emotional, or physical wellbeing. Unhealthy boundaries do not respect:
- Your real feelings or needs
- Your privacy
- Your time
Unhealthy boundaries are, in reality, a lack of boundaries. They don’t protect your best interests and they don’t give you the mental, emotional, or physical space you deserve and need.
Some examples of unhealthy boundaries are:
- When a parent dictates how their adult child should spend their free time or money.
- When one partner consistently discourages the other from spending any amount of time with their family or friends.
- When one friend frequently disparages the other’s appearance or personality
Lack of boundaries can result in feeling trapped, belittled, or controlled. People who struggle to set personal boundaries with others can have trouble feeling confident in saying what they really need. They can feel like they don’t have enough space, or that the world can’t handle their true emotional, physical, or mental needs.
Next week, we’ll look at how to set healthy boundaries. But in the meantime, if you are struggling to set boundaries with others please reach out to us. We would love to support and empower you to reach your relationship goals.