What are Healthy Boundaries and How Can I Get Them?

Boundaries are the root of self-care and are necessary for creating a healthy life. They are limits we create for ourselves to have the life we want and deserve as unique human beings.  They are not the rules and limits that we have internalized from our childhood or by comparison with others.  It’s a tricky thing to learn to know the difference because we are a product of our upbringing and messages from society, social media, and other influential figures in our lives.

Nedra Tawwab, author of the New York Times bestseller, “Set Boundaries, Find Peace”, defines boundaries as expectations and needs that help you feel safe and comfortable in your relationships. Everyone has their own unique boundaries.  There can be preferences and there can be deal-breakers (when you draw the line) and sometimes it’s hard to know the difference.  In simple terms, expressing healthy boundaries means learning when to say no, and when to say yes, without apology, anger, or resentment.

Healthy boundaries are possible when the past doesn’t show up in our present-day interactions without an acute awareness, and consideration of its influence. It requires reflecting thoughtfully on how we experienced boundaries, or the lack of them, as children and adolescents.

According to most experts, there are three types of boundaries:

Porous: These are weak or poorly expressed boundaries. They can include overextending ourselves, people-pleasing, enmeshment, dependency, and fear of rejection.  They can seem vague, apologetic, and not clearly defined.

Rigid: This type of boundary can include building walls to keep others out, to keep yourself safe. There can be fear of vulnerability or being taken advantage of. They can look like self-isolation, stonewalling, or exiting when things are uncomfortable.

Healthy: Requires awareness of your past, and your present emotional, and physical needs and capacities, and communicating them clearly.

There are three parts to setting boundaries: changing your beliefs, communicating boundaries, and consistent action.

Changing beliefs

In setting boundaries, the first step is to examine the underlying beliefs that have led to past behaviors. Our childhood experience impacts our difficulty with boundaries. Childhood trauma, over-parenting, and neglect can all make boundary setting difficult. Even in healthy homes, most of us felt accepted for abandoning our own desires and being compliant or becoming “self -abandoning co-dependents”, in the words of Terri Cole. Girls especially are often raised to be “good” and not argue or make waves. (www.terricole.com). So, creating healthy boundaries must be learned. When we’ve been raised to be compliant, to put ourselves last, and to “keep the peace”, it can feel uncomfortable to stand up for ourselves.

Communication of boundaries

Parent interactions should change through adolescence and adulthood.  In Western thought, an important part of becoming an adult is individuation and separation and crafting your own way of life. Many young adults I work with, still don’t want to disappoint their parents.  Most parents of adult children that I know have trouble allowing their children to forge a very different path. It’s common for parents to see their children as extensions of themselves. Instead of asking children if they want advice, parents commonly say things such as “You should…” or, “if I were you I would…”.  Adult children must be aware of their own values and communicate them clearly to their parents, using language such as, “I know that you mean well, and want the best for me, but I need to handle this myself, even if I make mistakes.”

You have the right to decide who plays an important part in your life. Stop the instant “yes”. Become comfortable buying time and saying, “let me check and get back to you”. Shift your mindset to: “I have the right to say no or yes without feeling guilty and to change my mind”. Practice stating your preferences and desires with loving-kindness.

In romantic relationships, it’s important not to assume that the other person knows what your boundaries are. During the pandemic, most of us realized that we must communicate them clearly, after being around each other 24/7. Assume that people only know what you tell them.  Even your spouse can’t read your mind. You can create agreements and set expectations at any point in your relationship, and the sooner the better before resentment builds.  

Frequently, with newly married couples, creating boundaries with in-laws can be difficult.  It’s important to bring up the issue you are challenged by, with your partner.  Be aware that it’s normal even for adult children to defend their parents. It’s important to work to an agreement.

Consistent Action

Think of the personal choices you make that affect the quality of your life. Start treating yourself with respect, consideration, and care. This sets the standard for every other relationship in your life. If you have a low self-assessment, people will treat you accordingly. Tawaab lists some of the areas to consider in setting boundaries for yourself: finances, time-management, self-care, the treatment you allow from others, your thoughts (stop thinking of yourself in an unkind way), your reactions, the people you allow in your life.

When you first set a boundary, there may be pushback and limit testing by those who are on the receiving end. This is normal when the other person is familiar with you acting a certain way, and now the rules have changed, so it feels uncomfortable. It’s best to be prepared to stand your ground. In Imago Therapy, we talk about conflict as being an opportunity for growth. Real personal growth doesn’t come without challenges. Setting healthy boundaries can deepen connection and prevent resentment and distancing. Having uncomfortable conversations can save your relationship. Imago couples and family therapy is a safe place to have those conversations if fear is holding you back. It requires vulnerability to be honest, and it’s normal to worry about reactions, especially when you’ve been taught not to rock the boat. When we set our own boundaries, we can appreciate when someone else sets a boundary to make themselves feel safe, and affirm and respect their limits. Accept the boundaries of others and set your own, to experience what it feels like to be loved for your authentic self.