What are boundaries?A boundary is a line of demarcation between, for example, one state and another or, in the context of this article, one person and another. A boundary can be material, like the front door to your house or the customs and immigration offices at a Canada-US border crossing location. They can also be non-material, like “personal boundaries”. These are defined by the rules and norms of behavior that a person regards as acceptable and necessary for a safe and comfortable existence. Personal boundaries enclose the rules you apply to define acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Learning how to define and communicate these effectively is learning how to treat yourself with compassion and kindness. It also, importantly, helps define your individuality and make explicit the extent to which you are prepared to accept responsibility. Clearly articulated and understood boundaries are vital in safeguarding your mental and emotional health, your sense of identity, and your personal autonomy.

Boundaries aren’t magical powers that make others comply with them. They are essentially aides memoires to help you communicate to others what you find acceptable and what you do not. Boundaries clearly define your own limits and are based on a foundation of self-respect and self-protection. That means you need to have a clear self-awareness of your own strengths and vulnerabilities. Developing that takes work.

What are the types of boundaries? 

Boundaries may be rigid, loose, or healthy and will vary depending on who’s on the other side of the boundary. Typically people experience a range of boundary conditions.

Loose boundaries permit over-involvement in others’ problems and are characterised by passive communication, excessive trust, failure to assert personal values, and related conflict avoidance. Oversharing, and reluctance to refuse, suggest that boundaries are weak or loose.

Healthy boundaries are characterised by assertive (clear) communication, selectivity, and an extended period of development. This developmental stage involves building trust and mutual understanding which will include the acceptability of refusal, appropriate sharing, mutual respect, accepting differences, maintaining personal values while being prepared to adapt within them, and supporting others while respecting their and your boundaries. 

Rigid boundaries are characterised by distancing, distrust, and detachment. Communications are aggressive and personal values are expressed as inflexible. The problems or opinions of others are ignored, which avoids conflict. When rigid boundaries exist, people will be reluctant to ask for help and will avoid close relationships.

Reflection point: 

Thinking about two people in your life, describe the boundaries you have with each one. In some relationships, healthy boundaries form naturally, however in other relationships setting boundaries can be more difficult. What challenges have you faced when setting healthy boundaries? How did you, or could you, overcome them? 

What are boundaries?Boundaries:  Do I need them?

You may need to set personal boundaries when/if:

  • you find yourself going out of your way to please others
  •  giving too much
  • feeling guilty saying “no”
  • you don’t object when you’re treated poorly
  • modifying yourself to fit in
  • clinging to others who show attention

Reflection point: 

Think about a person, group of people, or an environment, in which you struggle to set healthy boundaries. Who do you struggle to set healthy boundaries with? What would it look like to begin to establish healthy boundaries? After you’ve established healthy boundaries, how do you think your life will change or be different? If your boundaries are rigid, then this might look like opening up more. If boundaries are too loose, then it means setting limits and saying “no” when you don’t want to do something.

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