The Power of Personal Boundaries

Boundaries are the physical, mental and emotional limits we establish to protect our thoughts, feelings and needs in interpersonal relationships. Many of these boundaries are implicit and culturally specified – like the preferred physical distance we keep from acquaintances in conversation and the level of personal disclosure we maintain with others. Boundaries vary depending on the nature of the relationship. For instance, intimate partners may stand much closer together and share more personal information than casual acquaintances.

Individuals vary on how they set these boundaries and some of us are better at respecting and negotiating boundaries than others. Consider the individual who always stands a bit too close while in casual conversation. Typically this person does not recognize your desire for more physical space and will automatically take a step forward if you take a step back to create more distance. Even more distressing for many of us are those people who do not recognize our emotional boundaries. These are the individuals that bombard us relentlessly with their needs, wants and/or emotional distress. These boundary crossers may be so focused on their own inner needs and experience that they fail to appreciate that our needs may be quite different.

Setting boundaries can be hard work, especially for those of us who have been taught that it is more important to be “nice” to others than to respect our own needs.

The following tips can help you learn to maintain healthier boundaries.

  1. Use empathy. Sometimes we focus so much on our own needs that we fail to recognize that other people’s needs may be very different. Taking a moment to try and imagine your self in the other person’s shoes—without judgment—can help you take a step back and create a more reciprocal exchange.
  2. Don’t over-empathize. Some people are so empathic that they experience other people’s feelings and thoughts as if they were their own. These individuals often have difficulty distinguishing between their feelings and needs and those of others. In this case, it is important to recognize that just because you can understand how the other person is feeling you are not responsible for their experiences. In this way, you can start to recognize your own unique needs and act accordingly.
  3. Avoid either/or thinking. Once we give up the idea that it’s my way or your way, we often find that it is really quite easy to create situations where everyone’s unique needs can be met. Compromise takes give and take on both sides, so be wary in relationships where you are consistently doing most of the giving.
  4. Express your needs. It’s difficult for people to respect your boundaries if they can’t tell where they are. By sending mixed messages about your feelings, thoughts and needs, you are inviting potential boundary invasions. It’s usually better to say “no” upfront then say “yes” and then resent the other person for taking you up on your offer.
  5. Listen to your gut. Unlike your linear mind, your gut sense will give you clear information about when a boundary has been crossed. This information often comes in the form of a physical signal such as an uneasy or clenching feeling in your head, chest or stomach. The more we tune into our gut sense the easier it is to respect our own and other people’s boundaries, and the less likely we are to get caught up in either/or thinking (see above).
  6. Know when to put yourself first. Healthy relationships are reciprocal. If you find that you tend to be the one to give in then it might be time to practice putting yourself first for a while to help re-balance the scale. Once you break yourself from the habit of always putting yourself last, you will likely find it easier to maintain safe and appropriate boundaries.
  7. Avoid toxic people. Some individuals are habitual boundary crossers who, despite our best efforts, cannot or will not respect our individual boundaries. Sometimes the healthiest thing you can do in these situations is to move on. If avoiding these people is not possible, it is best to accept their limitations and focus on caring for yourself rather than trying to fix them.
  8. Seek support when needed. If you find that you consistently have trouble maintaining and/or respecting interpersonal boundaries you may benefit by exploring this issue with a licensed counselor or other mental health professional.