What are Healthy Boundaries?

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Boundaries create an appropriate distance distance between yourself and others. They help you decide which behaviors are acceptable. In relationships they provide a powerful way to advocate for yourself because knowing how to set boundaries makes you feel more confident in certain situations.

Although boundaries are critical for healthy relationships, it can be challenging to understand how they work. Maybe you’ve tried to set a boundary but didn’t get the results you wanted. Or, you can’t figure out what a healthy boundary is and you’re not sure where to start.

In this blog you will learn what healthy boundaries are and how you can start setting them in your relationships.

Defining Healthy Boundaries

First, having realistic expectations of how boundaries work will help you be more successful. For example, expecting boundaries to change other people will leave you forever frustrated. You can’t demand that others change but you can learn how to protect yourself.

So let’s define our terms.

Healthy boundaries are the limits you set for yourself that determine what to participate in and when to remove yourself. They dictate your choices. For instance, you can choose to stay in a relationship when certain conditions are met or you could remove yourself from a potentially hurtful situation. Both are considered healthy boundaries.

Think of it this way, any action that honors your physical and emotional safety can be considered a boundary. They protect you from staying in abusive situations. For instance, behaviors like name-calling, screaming, or unwanted physical touch are all situations where setting boundaries keeps you safe.

What Boundaries Look Like

Here are some examples of healthy boundaries to get you started:

  • Instead of staying quiet, speak up for what’s important to you.

  • Say no when you need to take care of yourself.

  • State what you are going to do, rather than expecting others to change.

  • Remove yourself when situations aren't healthy for you.

What Boundaries are Not

The biggest misconception around boundaries is that they get someone else to change. Healthy boundaries are never about control. Trying to change someone else’s behavior doesn’t end well. It erodes your sense of personal power because you are looking to others for the solution. As a result, relationships become strained. It’s a lose lose.

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Healthy boundaries are not…

  • Forcing someone else to change their behavior.

  • Making demands that must be followed “or else”.

  • Manipulating outcomes of what happens in the future.

  • Getting others to adopt to our own beliefs or attitudes.

  • Making anyone get sober, seek therapy or change who they are.

When Taking the Indirect Route Works

Sometimes, taking an indirect action can be a powerful boundary too. For instance, when someone is intoxicated, violent, or mentally unstable, setting a boundary could escalate the situation. In these situations, practicing detachment may be a healthier choice for keeping everyone safe.

Practicing detachment lets another person experience their consequences instead of taking responsibility for them. This can preserve the relationship and avoid the chaos. You still care, but you stop trying to control the outcome.

Here is an example of an unhealthy boundary:

Susan is fed up with her husband’s drinking and no longer trusts him to be alone with their kids. She threatens to leave if he doesn’t go into rehab but does nothing when he keeps on drinking. Silently, she gets more and more resentful.

There is nothing wrong with asking someone to get sober but making empty threats isn’t setting a healthy boundary. You can’t force someone to change and call it a boundary.

Here is what healthy detachment looks like:

Susan tells her husband that if he continues to drink, she and the kids are moving out. She understands that he may not be ready to stop drinking, but she is ready to leave no matter what choice he makes.

See the difference? In the first scenario she expects him to take action while the second focuses on taking care of herself and her kids. You decide what limits are going to be enforced.

Healthy Boundaries aren’t Complicated

Boundaries don’t need to be complicated. When boundaries are healthy, they guide what you’re going to do next. They are never attempts to control someone else.

Also, boundaries don’t include making demands. While you can make requests, that doesn’t mean others are obligated to say yes. Even when what you’re asking for seems “right and fair” the other person still has the right to say no. Setting boundaries dictates what you do, not what others do.

Types of Boundaries

Boundaries can be expressed in different ways. They can be spoken directly or carried out silently. With unspoken boundaries, limits get enforced without speaking them aloud. Boundaries don’t necessarily depend on what other people are doing.

Examples of Spoken Boundaries:

I’m not willing to drive with you because I’m uncomfortable with how fast you drive. I’ll meet you there.

This conversation isn’t going anywhere, I’m going to take a break.

Examples of Unspoken Boundaries:

You politely decline hanging out with people who drink too much.

You decide to take a time-out instead of getting defensive.

Physical Boundaries

The most important boundary you have is your physical boundary. Without this, you can’t protect yourself or feel safe in the world. You will feel more vulnerable and unsure of yourself in certain situations.

A physical boundary is the amount of space needed between you and other people. This varies depending on several factors. When there is a history of distrust or abuse, more space is needed. With people you trust, you might need less. Having the right amount of space makes it easier to stay focused during conflict. 

Example of Physical Boundaries:

  • Getting in someone’s face when angry

  • Blocking exits or preventing someone from leaving

  • Using threatening gestures to intimidate others

  • Not respecting someone else’s need for space

What Happens When Boundaries are Violated

Without good boundaries, a person can react quickly and experience a fight, flight or freeze response. Once that physiological reaction starts, you’re less likely to control your emotions and behavior. When personal space isn’t respected, abuse is more likely to happen. 

When an appropriate distance is set, both people feel safe. Without it, people will often avoid eye contact and not participate in conflict. The rule is: whoever needs the most physical space gets it. That’s why arguing in a car escalates so fast. You feel trapped and it’s too close for comfort.

Setting Emotional Boundaries

Once you’ve established your physical boundary, it’s time to look at emotional boundaries. These boundaries separate your thoughts and feelings from someone else’s. They help you not take things personally or get lost in someone else’s reaction.

Emotional boundaries also include how you let others treat you, and in turn, how you will treat others. These boundaries dictate how to take care of yourself in relationships.

Common Emotional Boundary Violations:

  • Destructive anger; screaming, name-calling, purposely making others feel less than

  • Hitting below the belt by saying exactly what you know will hurt your partner

  • Ignoring a person’s personal boundaries that have been made clear

  • Violating someone else’s privacy by checking their cell phone, email or other private information

Final Thoughts

Every relationship needs boundaries. Without them, healthy communication and self-care are harder to maintain. Also, remember that respecting someone else’s boundaries is just as important as them respecting yours. You cannot demand what you aren’t willing to give. By advocating for yourself, you are teaching others how to treat you and that changes everything. To read more click to read How to Start Setting Boundaries.

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