Setting Healthy Boundaries:
Allowing the True Self to Emerge
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,
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.
Together, 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
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
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 not
Here are some tips for setting healthy boundaries,
modified from the book, Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin,
by Anne Katherine:
When 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 respectfully.
You can’t set a boundary and take care of someone
else’s feelings at the same time. You are not responsible for the
other person’s 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.
At 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.
When 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.
When 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.
Most 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 order.
Learning to set healthy boundaries takes time. It
is a process. You will set boundaries when you are ready. It’s 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.
Develop 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.
Setting healthy boundaries allows your true self
to emerge – and what an exciting journey that is.
For a related topic, please see
assertiveness. If you would like help in
learning to establish healthy boundaries in your relationships, online
therapy might be right for you. Please click on the picture below to
request online therapy.