How to Set Healthy Boundaries in Relationships

Healthy Boundaries Matter

definition: a line that marks the limits of an area; a dividing line; or a limit of a subject or sphere of activity.

Most of us know where the property line is around our house. We wouldn’t let someone just walk into our apartment and eat food out of our fridge without protest. But when it comes to our interior boundaries, (personal, emotional, spiritual, relational, or sexual), we tend to have a far harder time setting limits. Setting healthy boundaries in relationships is every bit as important as property lines. As the phrase goes: good fences make good neighbors. Setting fences around what behaviors you will allow from both yourself and others is an important part of building healthy relationships. So how do you set healthy boundaries in relationships? Keep reading and find out.

It is very rare for someone to entirely lack boundaries. However, our boundaries tend to be unconscious and unspoken. Most of us wouldn’t let a stranger walk up and kiss us, or take our car, for example. (Or if they did those things we would call it a boundary violation.) But many of our boundaries are less clear, or undefined. When we remain unconscious or unintentional about our boundaries those boundaries get trampled and we end up angry, exhausted, or hurt. For healthier lives we must become aware of our boundaries, and tend to them carefully. Every part of our lives where we interact with others involves boundaries, whether we acknowledge them or not.

The bottom line is this: healthy personal boundaries make healthy relationships because boundaries give us the safety to be vulnerable. And vulnerability is essential to relationship.

 

A group of friends sitting on the grass in a city park

Boundary Types

Generally we can divide the ways we interact with the world around us into the following types of boundaries:

  • Material Boundaries. These are the boundaries we set around material possessions like our car, bike, or money.
  • Physical Boundaries & Sexual  Boundaries. These are the boundaries that govern our personal space, our privacy, our sexuality, and our bodies in general.
  • Mental Boundaries & Emotional Boundaries. These are perhaps the hardest for most people to articulate. They govern our values, thoughts, opinion, and our emotional health and well being. (Hint: these boundaries matter a lot for social media!)
  • Spiritual Boundaries. Similar to emotional boundaries, these boundaries involve our beliefs, spiritual experience, and our relationship with the Divine, or your inner self, and your religious or spiritual community or group.

Healthy Boundaries Start Within

None of these boundary types is more or less important than the others. It is just as important to be clear about what you will allow another person to do with your body (who, how, and when you will be touched for example) as to set firm limits around how you will allow others influence your emotions or beliefs.

It is also important to note that we must set and respect boundaries within ourselves. I set boundaries around the way I will treat my own body to protect my health, I have rules about how I may critique my own work or self criticize. And this is an important point for many of us. It is no more OK for you to say “I’m a worthless piece of shit” than it is for anyone else to say that. (You are not, and no one is allowed to tell you otherwise.)

Boundaries are deeply connected with our creative lives. Creativity flows out of your whole being, and is deeply influenced by your interior health. While suffering and difficult circumstances can be inspiration for our creativity, we need boundaries to foster the energy, health, and space to be creative. Whether you are trying to come up with creative solutions to software issues at work, or helping your child work through a difficult time with a friend, you need fuel in the tank. That takes space, space that won’t be there if you haven’t set healthy boundaries. When we are exhausted, or beat down it is far more difficult to produce the beautiful, useful, or necessary things that are waiting in our souls.

The Boundary Challenge

The problem of course is that most of us have never been taught how to set good boundaries. Modern Western people just don’t deal well with emotions to start with, we aren’t trained to do so in a healthy way as children or adults. (Women are told to smile, boys are told they can’t cry, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.) If you are a woman you’ve likely been raised to put other’s needs and feelings first, last, and always. (Even if you aren’t aware of this.)

Very few of us have devoted much time at all to our interior work. This makes it very hard to know where our boundaries need to be for us to remain healthy. We just don’t know how much we can allow without jeopardizing our own health, or even what we need to be at our best. Add to that all sorts of horrid teachings about what relationships should look like and we end up in a mess.

Especially in unhealthy situations (where abuse, addiction, or other destructive behaviors are present) setting boundaries is often seen by others as being “selfish.” If you are just starting to set boundaries in relationships remember: when we first begin to enforce our boundaries there is likely to be conflict and discomfort.

Setting boundaries is in no ways selfish, it is a form of self-love. And, setting boundaries, insisting on health in your relationships, and caring for your health and wellness doesn’t just make your life better. It raises the health of those around you as well.

Boundaries for everyone’s good

Setting an example of healthy boundaries is important for raising a new generation of children who treat themselves, and each other with respect and care. But setting boundaries in relationships is rarely easy, especially in places where you have habitually allowed those around you to treat you in unhealthy ways. You’re likely to find some upset and pushback at first.

It is important to remain calm and firm. It is absolutely fine to explain why you are changing your behavior and asking someone else to change theirs. In some instances it may be required to set consequences for those you are in relationship with continuing to transgress the boundaries you set, but be clear that you must be willing to follow through with those consequences if necessary.

The Importance of Awareness

Setting healthy boundaries begins with self awareness. It is essential to be aware and honest with yourself about your values, beliefs, and your own intrinsic value. You, yes you, are valuable. You are an irreplaceable being, there is not another one like you and the world needs you. Your beliefs and your values do matter. Your physical, emotional, and mental health matter. But awareness isn’t automatic, it is something we have to practice. Because being aware and taking action is likely to cause some conflict, it might be uncomfortable (for a time). But it is absolutely required. Nothing changes until we can look at our own lives, examine the places where they are not working, and take action.

 

Being aware of your values is the first step. (Here you will find instructions on identifying your values and a values assessment tool.) It’s one thing to hear a friend make a racist “joke,” and feel uncomfortable about it, but be unsure of what you can do. It is different to know that the respect of all people is an important value in your life and relationships. That knowledge (and a lot of practice doing hard things) will empower you to take your friend aside and explain to them your discomfort with the “joke” they made earlier. It can give you the authority to ask they reconsider using such language around you in the future.

You cannot control others, but you can be clear about your own values and the behavior you want to be associated with.

People sitting at a picnic table working in notebooks

Five Tips for Setting Healthy Boundaries

1. Practice on yourself.

Start with your own self work. Stop tearing yourself down internally. You wouldn’t talk to your friend that way, so why treat yourself so poorly? If you have set boundaries around your body, respect them; go to bed when you’ve said you will, see the doctor on a regular basis, punch that guy who tried to grab your ass. (OK maybe not, but feel free to turn him down flat in whatever way feels safe and then walk away head held high, you have no reason to feel ashamed.) Billions of years of history went into you being on this planet at this moment, treat yourself as the miracle you are. Healthy boundaries internally will help when you set external boundaries as well.

2. Enlist a Friend.

If there is a big change you need to make, perhaps in a relationship or in some part of your behavior, don’t go it alone. Bring someone you trust on board. Your buddy can help you really examine your values, and the boundaries you want to set. They can be sounding board, and help you work through your plans until they make sense. Most importantly, they can be your backup and hold you accountable. Both are important roles for someone you trust (trust is key).

Having someone who will back you up when others question why you are behaving differently, or asking them to behave differently, can be the difference between success and failure. Your friend should be confident enough in their own values to call you on it when you break the rules you’ve set, and to stand up to others who aren’t respecting you. Don’t just chose your best friend, or the person you like hanging out with the most. Chose someone who will be honest and trustworthy. If you have friends whose boundaries you already respect, they would be a good place to start.

3. Practice Self-Love

One of the hardest part of setting good healthy boundaries is that initial motivator: self love and self worth. If you don’t believe that you are worthy and lovable it’s hard to establish healthy relationships with others. I saw a snarky t-shirt recently that said: you are the product of millions of years of successful evolution, act like it. The t-shirt was being sarcastic and critical, but there is a positive angle as well. You are indeed the result of millions of years of not just evolution but the formation of this planet and solar system.

Without every single moment from the Big Bang to now happening just as it has you wouldn’t exist. Your worth is indescribable. Be intentional about treating yourself with love and respect, and address negative self talk in a firm but loving manner. As you learn to love yourself it will be easier to insist others treat you properly.

4. Name Your Limits.

You might be surprised how powerful simply naming your limits can be. Take a moment and sit down with a journal, or draft an email to yourself. Chose one of the boundary categories above and spend some time stating, very clearly where your limits are for these sorts of situations. Perhaps you are OK with loaning your kids money, or paying for them to stay on your health insurance a few more years; but you aren’t OK with letting Uncle Fred borrow your car (he’s totaled three of his own).

Or you might discover in setting your limits that you don’t actually want the hugs everyone at church, or your yoga studio, seem utterly set on giving one another. Perhaps you will realize that someone has been treating your beliefs or values as worthless or stupid and you want to clearly state that behavior can’t continue. Articulating exactly where your limits are is powerful. You can’t set boundaries with others if you haven’t taken the time to figure out what is OK and what isn’t.

The barb on barbed wire with a background of grass out of focus

5. Don’t Ignore Resentment

There are two key emotions that can cue us in to boundary violations. Those are discomfort and resentment. Discomfort is a little harder to pin down because sometimes doing healthy things can feel uncomfortable. But resentment is almost always a result of crossed boundaries and a lack of communication.

Resentment is like the canary in the coal mine. When you find yourself feeling resentful stop and examine the emotion, where is it coming from, and what triggered it? Ignoring resentment will never fix the issue. While it will feel hard to set boundaries with someone you are doing your relationship a long term favor. Resentment is the relationship killer, setting boundaries that remove resentment will ultimately increase the health of that relationship.

But wait, are you looking for ways to set boundaries as a family? Click the link for more information.

Take Action

Want to try it out? Sign up below to get a step by step worksheet with instructions that will walk you through the boundary setting process!

Remember, you cannot control how other people respond or behave; you can only control yourself. And you are not responsible for someone’s response when you set firm, clear boundaries. You do not need to apologize to them, try to fix the situation for them, or make this easier for them. Be clear, be firm, and be calm.

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1 thought on “How to Set Healthy Boundaries in Relationships”

  1. Great article! Thank you! So many ladies have been raised to give & give of ourselves at the expense or sacrifice of our own inner needs & feelings. One doesn’t even realise this until our boundaries have been crossed. You are right that applying good boundaries is honouring ourselves as we have honoured others.

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