Many people have a negative perception of personal boundaries. They believe that they are restrictive and that shouldn’t exist. In reality, personal boundaries help us maintain healthy relationships and contribute to our well-being.
Without boundaries, it is difficult for relationships to flourish and be satisfying, so they often give way to disappointment, resentment and frustration. Being able to set different types of personal boundaries is essential to protect our personal space and build our identity, which will protect our mental health in the long term.
In fact, a study carried out at the University of South Australia revealed that healthcare personnel activate emotional boundaries in their daily lives, often without being fully aware of it, to protect themselves from psychological pain.
The problem, therefore, is not the boundaries, but the inadequate boundaries. Boundaries are neither positive nor negative in themselves. It all depends on how we apply them.
Those persons who does not establish boundaries in their interpersonal relationships may seem very open and receptive, but they also expose themselves to others continuously violating their rights or taking advantage of them. On the other hand, those persons with extremely rigid boundaries will close off to relationships and may not have a social support network to support them through the most difficult times. The key, like everything in life, is balance.
What are the personal boundaries?
Personal boundaries are our own rules that we set in relationships. It is a kind of imaginary line or shield that separates and protects us from the others, when they try to undermine our mental balance, whether consciously or involuntarily.
Those rules are intended to signal our red lines, the things that we are not willing to allow or that we are not comfortable with. There are many examples of healthy personal boundaries: not allowing humiliation, deciding what we want to do with our free time, staying true to our values or defending our privacy.
The 3 types of personal boundaries
1. Rigid boundaries
This type of boundaries is characterized by inflexible rules that the person applies strictly, without taking into account the context or the rights and needs of the others. These people think that their values, ways of thinking or needs are the only possible ones and they do not give space to the others, closing themselves off from transformative change.
In fact, those with rigid boundaries often avoid intimacy with the others and maintain emotionally distant relationships. They establish an emotional barrier that is difficult to overcome, which is why they tend to have few friends. These people are unlikely to ask for help when they have a problem because they prefer to keep it to themselves.
They are people who defend their privacy to the point that they can be considered cold and detached, even with their partners. In reality, these rigid boundaries are often the result of a defensive attitude as these people prefer to keep the others at a distance to avoid a possible rejection. Those boundaries are the emotional walls behind which they protect themselves.
2. Porous boundaries
Those persons with porous boundaries has virtually no emotional boundaries or they are extremely lax. They keep nothing to themselves, they have no problem telling their most intimate problems, even to strangers, so they often end up overexposing themselves unnecessarily.
They also tend to get too involved in the problems of the others, to the point of suffering Hyper-Empathy Syndrome. This almost absence of boundaries also makes them more vulnerable to emotional manipulation, which is why they are usually people who are subjected to abuse or disrespect. They feel also responsible or guilty for the problems of the others.
In fact, they have difficulty saying “no” to the excessive demands of others, so they end up overloaded with tasks and obligations that do not correspond to them. At the base of the porous boundaries is a high emotional reactivity and a deep dependence on the others’ opinion. Fearing social rejection, they prefer to submit and continually push their boundaries by allowing the others to impose their needs, desires, or points of view.
3. Healthy boundaries
People with healthy boundaries tend to be balanced. They are clear about their values and know in what aspects they are not willing to compromise, but they are also capable of adapting to circumstances and flexing their boundaries if necessary. They are aware of their needs and desires, and are able to communicate them assertively. This implies that they know how to say “no” when the demands are excessive, without feeling guilty about it. And also accept a “no” as answer from the others.
In fact, this type of personal limit allows us to distinguish our emotions, thoughts and values from the others and helps us to take responsibility for them, but at the same time it prevents us from taking on the blame of the others that do not correspond to us.
People with healthy boundaries establish balanced relationships in which they share personal information appropriately. They don’t strip emotionally at the first change, but they don’t build walls when the relationship progresses. Healthy boundaries come from strong self-esteem and great confidence in personal abilities and values. This self-confidence is what allows to recognize the mistakes as well and to make boundaries more flexible, or expand them when necessary.
In an ideal world, we should apply those healthy boundaries in all spheres of life. However, it is more common for us to implement different types of personal boundaries. For example, we may have rigid boundaries at work, where we do not allow anything, but we apply boundaries that are too porous in the family or in the couple relationship to the point of falling into emotional dependency. Therefore, it is always valid to rethink our boundaries.
How to set healthy and assertive personal boundaries?
Setting limits to yourself or in relationships with the others is necessary. A study carried out at the University of Innsbruck, for example, found that when work stress transcends our psychological boundaries, our family pays the bill.
Instead, healthy boundaries have a protective effect. They prevent us from giving unwanted advices and meddling in the lives of the others, as well as preventing the others from meddling too much in our own. They also help us not to blame the others or become their scapegoat.
A sine qua non condition for establishing healthy boundaries is being aware of our feelings, values, and responsibilities to ourselves and to the others. If we have not clear who we are and what we want, we will not be able to establish healthy boundaries.
The other condition for these boundaries to be effective is to be able to communicate them. To do this, we must focus on ourselves. We must have clear that personal boundaries are to protect ourselves, not to control the others.
Therefore, instead of saying to a person: “Stop meddling in my life” you can say: “It’s a personal matter, I’ll decide about it”. With the first sentence the person may feel attacked or even hurt if tried to help you in good faith. With the second sentence you are politely declining his or her help while setting a personal boundary.
If we try to establish boundaries out of anger or reproaches, we won’t be listened. Boundaries are not meant to punish, but to protect our well-being. Therefore, they are most effective when we show a firm, but assertive and calm attitude.
The third important detail that we must bear in mind is that we cannot establish any type of personal limit without defining the consequences. In other words, when setting boundaries, we must make it clear why they are important to us and how far we are willing to go to defend them. That way, the other person can make an informed decision.
In short, the key to establishing healthy boundaries is understanding what we want and being clear about it with the others, always with respect and assertiveness. Setting boundaries is not selfish. Every time you say “no” to something that hurts you, you are saying “yes” to yourself.
Hayward, R. M. Tuckey, M. R. (2011) Emotions in uniform: How nurses regulate emotion at work via emotional boundaries. Human Relations; 64(11):1501-1523.
Hoge, T. (2009) When work strain transcends psychological boundaries: an inquiry into the relationship between time pressure, irritation, work–family conflict and psychosomatic complaints. Stress and Health; 25(1): 41-51.
Stiles, A. & Raney, T. J. (2004) Relationships Among Personal Space Boundaries, Peer Acceptance, and Peer Reputation in Adolescents. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing; 17(1): 29-40.