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Boundaries 101

One of the few things in life we have control over is ourselves, and one way to help keep control of ourselves in relationships is by setting boundaries. Alas this can be a lot easier said then done, especially when the concept of a boundary is rather abstract to begin with. A fact about boundaries is that they exist in all relationships whether we intentionally set them or not. However, it’s the attention and intention we give to boundaries that dictates their influence in our relationships. In essence, personal boundaries are the spoken or unspoken limits and rules we hold for ourselves within our relationships. Personal boundaries can fall into one of six of the below categories:

  1. Physical Boundaries: Perhaps the most overt and concrete – healthy physical boundaries are depicted by an awareness of what is and isn’t appropriate in various settings and relationships. When physical boundaries are violated someone may be subjected to unwanted touch or unwanted presence in their physical space.

  2. Intellectual Boundaries: When healthy intellectual boundaries are in place individuals can feel comfortable to express ideas and be met with respect, awareness, and appropriate discussion. When ideas are dismissed or belittled, intellectual boundaries have been violated.

  3. Emotional Boundaries: Knowing when and to what extent to share your feelings is a sign of possessing healthy emotional boundaries as is having your feelings met with respect. Conversely having your feelings criticized or invalidated is a violation of this boundary.

  4. Sexual Boundaries: Sexual boundaries refer to more than the physical act of sex itself, it comprises of the emotional, intellectual, and physical aspects of sexuality as well. When sexual boundaries are respected there is a mutual understanding of the limitations and desires between sexual partners.

  5. Material Boundaries: Material boundaries are violated when someone pressures you into giving or lending them your possessions. Therefore, healthy material boundaries involve setting limits on what you will share and with whom when it comes to your possessions.

  6. Time Boundaries: When a person demands too much of another person’s time, time boundaries are violated. In order to have healthy time boundaries, a person must set aside enough time for each facet of their life and have it respected in their relationships.

In each of the above types of personal boundaries both examples of healthy and violated boundaries are provided. Healthy boundaries can often be confused with the idea of keeping people at an arms length away, when in reality, healthy boundaries should allow us to say ‘no’ to others when we want to while also giving us the space to open ourselves up to intimacy and close relationships when we are comfortable. A person who keeps others at a distance is said to have ‘rigid boundaries’ which can be depicted as someone who:

  • Avoids intimacy and close relationships

  • Is unlikely to ask for help

  • Has few close relationships

  • Is very protective of personal information

  • May seem detached even with romantic partners

  • Keeps people at a distance to avoid the possibility of rejection

Although rigid boundaries aren’t what we typically think of as ‘unhealthy’ boundaries, from the list above it is clear how these kinds of boundaries can be isolating and make aspects of life difficult. On the other hand, what is more commonly viewed as ‘unhealthy’ boundaries is when someone tends to get too involved with others. These individuals are said to have ‘porous boundaries’ and can be depicted as:

  • Oversharing personal information

  • Having difficulty saying ‘no’

  • Being overinvolved with other people’s problems

  • Being dependent on the opinions of others

  • Accepting of abuse or disrespect

  • Is afraid that if they do not comply with others, they will be rejected

When we look at porous and ridged boundaries and the way they can manifest themselves within the six types of personal boundaries, it’s easy to understand the ways healthy boundaries can help us feel in control in our relationships. The difficult part is knowing our boundaries and how to assert them. As mentioned above, boundaries exist in all relationships whether we’re paying attention to them or not. Without taking the time to be intentional about our boundaries and whether they align to our values we run the risk of airing on the side or rigidity or being too porous and being left with the negative outcomes. Below are three tips for understanding and asserting healthy boundaries:

  1. Get to know your boundaries: Becoming clear about what is acceptable to you before becoming involved in a situation is a simple way to pay attention to your boundaries. Being as specific as possible can help you to know your limit. Using your personal values as a guideline helps you protect what is important to you when setting your boundaries.

  2. Listen to yourself: Being curious about the emotions that come up for you in different situations can help indicate when your boundaries are being violated. Try to understand what your feelings are telling you and how you can adjust your boundaries to feel better in the future.

  3. Have Respect: Asserting your boundaries is in its essence a way of showing respect for yourself. Holding people accountable for respecting your boundaries ensures you are in healthy relationships with people who respect you. When it comes to boundaries, respect is a two-way street. By being honest with yourself about whether your boundaries are self-serving or fair to everyone can ensure the long-term health of your relationships.

The above serves as a brief overview of what personal boundaries are, what healthy boundaries look like and how to achieve them. ‘Boundaries’ is often a buzz word when talking about unhealthy relationships but truly taking the time to set intentional boundaries and hold others accountable for respecting them is an act of self-care.

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