How to set healthy boundaries
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Most of us will have come across the idea of ‘setting boundaries’ before. In this post I’ll discuss different types of boundaries and explain how to set healthy boundaries for yourself.
Our personal boundaries can be physical, material, emotional or mental.
Physical boundaries protect our body. They are there to protect our personal space, and they allow us to control who touches us and how.
Material boundaries protect our time and the things we own. They are there to stop us from giving away all of our time, energy and possessions.
Emotional boundaries protect our feelings. They allow us to separate our feelings from those of the people around us and stop us from pinning our self-worth to the approval of others.
Mental boundaries protect our values and morals. They allow us to make decisions about how we want to behave in accordance with our own value system.
Together, our boundaries comprise of a set of values and behaviours that we use to protect our ‘self’. We often learn boundaries from our parents or caregivers, but other adults and children are also an influence, as well as social culture in general.
According to the psychologist Nina Brown, there are four types of boundaries:
Our boundaries can be soft. This means we can easily be manipulated by other people’s emotions or behaviour and unable to maintain our own sense of self.
Our boundaries can be rigid. People with rigid boundaries are often fearful and mistrustful, and find it hard to connect with other people.
Our boundaries can be spongy. This means you have a mix of soft and rigid boundaries, but you aren’t sure what to let in or what to let out.
And our boundaries can be flexible. Here a person has awareness of their boundaries, and makes decisions about what to let in and what to keep out.
How to set healthy boundaries: physical boundaries
Physical boundaries can appear to be the most straightforward. “I don’t want someone to punch me” is a boundary most of us would feel is non-negotiable!
And yet, even here, we can see how it is possible to make excuses for someone who violates this boundary. “I provoked him”, “She’s had a stressful day”, “There was miscommunication on both sides” or worst of all “I deserved it”.
And we can also see how this boundary can be flexible: for example when training in martial arts or boxing, or if we practice BDSM, we might give consent for someone to punch us.
Need for personal space and physical contact can vary wildly between individuals. Some people are completely comfortable with platonic cuddles with their friends and family, and some people hate it. Some people like eating from a communal plate, and some people just want to eat their own food, thanks muchly!
So, how do you set healthy physical boundaries?
First: understand your boundaries.
Many of us never think about what we are and aren’t comfortable with. As a result, we are unprepared when suddenly thrust into a situation with someone who stands too close, touches us too often or expects a more sexual relationship than we do.
Trying to figure out what you’re comfortable doing is better done on your own, thoughtfully, ahead of time.
- Ask yourself how you feel when you are touched by strangers, family members, friends and lovers.
- Do you have strong feelings about how long you should know someone before you hug them? Kiss them? Have sex with them?
- Do you like being comforted physically when you are upset or stressed (for example, with soothing touch or hugs) or do you prefer to be left alone for a period of time?
- Do you find standing close to other people overwhelming? For example, when on crowded public transport?
- Do you enjoy drinking alcohol? When and where do you like to drink?
There are no ‘correct’ answers here, except for the ones that feel right to you.
You might find the idea of sex with a stranger thrilling and exciting. You might be someone who really enjoys hugging your friends, combing their hair and so on. Or you might be someone who prefers more personal space and with whom intimacy is a slow, gentle and careful process.
In addition, your boundaries may shift depending on how you feel and who you are with. When I feel happy and secure, I am much more comfortable with people touching me than when I’m stressed or sad.
The important thing is not that you are consistent, but that you communicate your boundaries and are listened to.
How to protect your personal space
In an ideal world, everyone would ask before coming into your personal space. But lots of people don’t, so we need to practice expressing our boundaries:
- Pre-empt a hug by offering your hand for a handshake.
- Step back from someone who comes too close.
- Say “Can you step back?” or “You’re in my personal space”.
- Crack a joke like “Sorry, I’ve given up kissing for my New Years Resolution!”
- And if they really don’t get it:
- “Could you please stand back.”
- “I don’t like people hugging me/standing so close too me/reading over my shoulder/touching my baby bump.”
- “I actually find you touching me so often quite uncomfortable.”
- If you want to refuse an alcoholic drink without saying you don’t drink at all, it’s useful to ask for something else instead:
- “Actually, could I have a lemonade?”
- “Thank you, but could I have a glass of water instead?”
How to ask about physical boundaries
On the other end of the spectrum, practise asking for consent before escalating the amount of physical contact you have with someone. Wherever possible, offer multiple options and let the other person pick what they want, or provide an easy ‘out’ for someone.
- “Hug or handshake?”
- “Would you mind if I kissed you?”
- “Do you mind if I touch your baby bump or is the baby asleep?”
- “Hug goodbye or wave goodbye?”
- “Do you want a beer? Or maybe a soft drink?”
And most importantly: listen to what they say and do not attempt to pressure them or guilt trip them into changing their minds.
You should also try and be sensitive to body language. Someone may have agreed to a certain level of physical contact with you, but then have a bad day and need you to back off a bit. If someone turns away from you, crosses their arms or doesn’t look at you those are all good signs they don’t want to be touched.
If you’re ever not sure: ASK!
How to set healthy boundaries: material boundaries
Material boundaries can be a bit less straightforward than physical boundaries, but can still lead to a lot of anguish if you don’t define and enforce them consistently.
Start by determining what your material boundaries are:
- Are you comfortable loaning or giving money to strangers? Friends? Charitable organisations? Family? Your children?
- Do you mind sharing your living space with people ‘in need’, such as a friend who needs to crash on a sofa for a while?
- How do you feel about ordering lots of food in a restaurant and everyone sharing it? Do you mind if someone helps themselves to food off your plate?
- How do you feel about someone reading your books? Eating your groceries? Using your toothpaste?
Now, protecting your material boundaries can be difficult. This is particularly true if you were raised in a family where the expectation was that you would all bail each other out. So again, you need to practise saying no:
- “I can’t lend you £500. But I’d be happy to help you go through your budget and figure out what to cut.” or “I can’t let you stay with me, but I’ll be happy to help you look for a place.” or “”
- To someone eating off your plate: “I thought you said you weren’t hungry?” or “If you want fries, you should order some.”
It’s also good to communicate expectation up front. For example:
- “You can stay with me for one week while you sort out your housing situation, but after that you’ll need to find a different solution.”
Material boundaries also encompass our time and energy
It is much harder to quantify the boundaries we have about time and energy.
We all give time to others. We give time to our jobs. To our families. We do favours for other people, and they do favours for us. That’s practically the foundation of human civilisation!
However, it’s important that we respect our time and that other people respect our time.
We all get a finite amount of time, and if you find yourself constantly using your precious hours doing housework for someone else, performing emotional labour, helping people move, or waiting for someone who is consistently late? Then you need to start enforcing your boundaries.
Remember, in exactly the same way that we can only give as much money as we can comfortably afford, we can also only give as much time and energy as we can afford.
Practise defending your time:
- “Can we make our weekly Friday night drinks a fortnightly event instead?”
- “I don’t have time to take on this additional project alongside my current workload. What do you want me to stop working on, in order to work on this?”
- “I don’t have time to cook dinner every night after working all day. Either we both fix our own dinners, or we start taking it in turns.”
- “You are always at least thirty minutes late when we arrange to meet. If this happens again, I’m no longer going to make a special effort to be somewhere in order to meet you.”
- “I have worked overtime at least four days a week for the past two months. From now on, I will be leaving on time every day, even if the work isn’t completed.”
And practise asking for help:
- “Can you cook dinner tonight, so I can prepare for my presentation tomorrow?”
- “Can you take on this project for me, I don’t have enough time to give it the attention it deserves.”
- “Will you help me set up the hall for the PTA meeting?”
- “Can you watch the kids tonight, so I can have some quality time to myself?”
Remember, you have a right to time for yourself!
How to set healthy boundaries: emotional boundaries
Without healthy emotional boundaries we end up with low self-esteem, and our mood becomes dependent on the people around us.
Emotional boundaries are some of the hardest to articulate. It’s important to have empathy for others! And it is perfectly healthy and normal to feel upset or sad when someone you love is going through a hard time.
However, it’s also important to be able to distinguish between your emotions and that of the people around you. And you should be able to distinguish between feeling empathy for someone else and feeling responsible for someone else’s feelings.
Signs of poor emotional boundaries:
- Feeling guilty for how someone else feels, or blaming someone else for how you feel.
- “My partner isn’t talking to me, I must’ve done something wrong.”
- “I’ve had a bad day, and now my best friend isn’t answering her phone! They’ve made me feel even worse… I’m always there for them!”
- Feeling responsible for solving someone else’s problem.
- “My partner is constantly stressed because of their job, therefore I need to repress my own feelings, tiptoe around them, and take on more than my share of housework.”
- “My boss is in a bad mood, I’d better not bring up the trouble I’m having with this project.”
- Feeling dependent on the approval of others to feel good about yourself:
- “My manager criticised my presentation, I must suck at my job.”
- “My friend didn’t ask me to be her bridesmaid, she must secretly hate me.”
- “I don’t have a partner, therefore I must be unlovable.”
Remember: you are responsible for how you treat someone else. But you are not responsible for how they feel.
How to set healthy emotional boundaries
In order to set healthy emotional boundaries:
Firstly, you need to be in touch with your emotions.
You might feel upset, angry, neglected, resentful, fearful or anxious and not even be aware of it. Instead, those emotions might be expressed passive-aggressively, or they might be repressed.
Once you’re aware of your emotions, you then need to learn how to manage those emotions in an appropriate manner.
I’ll be writing a post about how to manage your emotions, because it’s a complicated and difficult thing to learn. However, keeping a journal or talking to a counsellor are both good ways of working through complex feelings.
Secondly, you need to start articulating your emotional needs.
We often assume our partners or friends should ‘just know’ that a certain behaviour upsets us. However, the truth is, unless we make it explicit and have a conversation about that behaviour, we have no right to be angry or upset with someone for not knowing how it makes us feel.
Instead, we need to be able to talk about our feelings without resorting to anger or accusation. And we need to be able to ask for what we need.
You might say something like “I would like us to spend twenty minutes together just talking when we both get home from work, rather than just watching TV”.
You might say “I used to love it when you surprise me with little thoughtful gifts, and it doesn’t feel like that happens any more. It makes me anxious that perhaps you don’t feel as strongly about me as you used to.”
Or you might say “We’ve been friends for a long time, but I’ve felt for a while that I’m the one who is always initiating the conversations. It would be nice if you could reach out to me more often.”
Thirdly, you need to be willing to accept that some friendships or relationships are not meant to be
Sometimes, two people’s emotional needs are in direct conflict. One person is very social, and thrives when they spend time with lots of friends and keep a busy schedule. Meanwhile, the other person wants lots of quality one-on-one time and emotional intimacy.
You might be able to reach a compromise, such as three nights spent socialising with other people, and four nights spent with just the two of you. But you also might need to break up. Breaking up give you the time and space to find someone who is a better fit for you.
You also need to be prepared for the possibility that you’re right to be anxious.
Your partner doesn’t feel that strongly about you any more. Or your friend is actually kind of over it, and has felt that you’ve outgrown each other.
These conversations are challenging, but they are also essential for us to be able to form healthy, honest relationships where everyone feels loved and supported.
How to set healthy boundaries: mental boundaries
Your mental boundaries relate to your beliefs, values and thoughts. Someone with healthy mental boundaries is able to discuss their beliefs and defend their opinions without getting overly defensive or angry.
Someone with unhealthy mental boundaries might find themselves easily persuaded to violate their moral code. For example, they might find themselves being pressured into breaking a law, or shamed into not speaking up about something they believe in.
Someone with unhealthy mental boundaries may also cling to a set of beliefs that are highly rigid and dogmatic, and lash out at people who challenge those beliefs.
How do you strengthen your mental boundaries?
The first way you can strengthen your mental boundaries is by determining what it is you believe in. These are the values that are most important to you. They’ll probably involve some or all of the following:
- How much interest you take in politics and world events.
- What political party you identify with and who you vote for.
- Your beliefs around equality particularly with respect to affirmative action, patriarchy, representation, intersectionality.
- How you react to specific campaigns and movements such as black lives matter, #metoo, GamerGate etc.
- What you think about welfare, socialised medicine, mandatory insurance.
- How you feel about taxes and individual charitable giving.
- Your beliefs around the justice system and various laws.
- What causes you support through donations, volunteering and so on.
Now, our values should be informed by facts and open for discussion. If you cling to a dogmatic belief, it means you feel vulnerable. If someone gives you contradictory information and you simply reject it out of hand, that’s a sign that you have poor mental boundaries.
But equally, you should feel confident enough in your values to be able to stand up for them and defend them. If you simple change your mind every time somebody disagrees with you, it means you don’t feel confident in your own ideas.
Now, this is another deeply complicated area. Particularly given the 24/7 news cycle of disaster that we’re all subjected to, and the development of echo chambers on social media.
This area is also complicated by the fact some people (rightly) fear violent reprisals for standing up for what they believe in.
It can be tempting to view ‘debate’ as a game, where the winner scores points. But meanwhile, real people are suffering due to both structural inequality and political decisions.
So it’s useful to seek out experts to help you develop your opinions. Rather than getting your facts about the world from twitter, facebook or even online newspapers, instead seek out books that dive deep into history, geography, science and human nature.
In addition, expose yourself to a multitude of (high quality) journalism.
Allow your opinions to evolve.
And never be afraid of saying “Actually, I was wrong about this.”
What to do if someone violates your boundaries?
People can cross boundaries both by accident and intentionally. It’s important to recognise the difference between the two.
If someone crosses your boundaries by accident, it probably means they haven’t noticed or understood your discomfort. In this case, it’s best to take them aside and quietly explain that you aren’t okay with whatever behaviour has affected you. It is best to be direct and open about it, rather than rely on hints.
If someone crosses your boundaries intentionally or doesn’t change their behaviour after you ask them to, you have a red flag and should take steps to protect yourself from that person.
Now, what this looks like will depend on the boundary and the circumstances of your relationship. I would certainly advise not being alone with them, if you are able to prevent it.
If you can avoid them entirely that is the safest move. But if they are a co-worker or a family member that isn’t always possible. I would try and make sure you always interact with them in front of witnesses and discuss your feelings of discomfort with other people so they are aware of the behaviour as well.
Remember: you are entitled to respect from everyone you interact with. Your time, feelings, body and values are important, and nobody should minimise them or insult them.
Stand up for yourself. And always be prepared to walk away.