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What if you have the power to shape interactions? Imagine if you could influence how your boss treats you, how a friend talks to you, or the way your partner acts toward you. All while staying true to your values and maintaining respect for the other person.

Your ability to set and hold personal boundaries is one of the most loving things you can do for yourself and others. When you clearly communicate your expectations in relationships, you create a roadmap for positive interactions and you know how to avoid negative ones more easily.

“…boundaries have nothing to do with whether you love someone or not. They are not judgments, punishments, or betrayals. They are a purely peaceable thing: the basic principles you identify for yourself that define the behaviors that you will tolerate from others, as well as the response you will have to those behaviors. Boundaries teach people how to treat you and they teach you how to respect yourself.”
Cheryl Strayed

Where would you like to start?

Guided Writing Meditation

Understanding Boundaries

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Boundaries Protect You From Hurt

What do you do when you discover a friend said something mean behind your back? How do you react when your father-in-law starts talking politics again? What about when your partner comes home three hours late without a text or call? 

While your reaction to these situations will be different from someone else’s, they are all examples of moments when you might want to set a boundary. 

Boundaries are consciously chosen behavior limits and expectations; they help us protect ourselves and others from being hurt. Laws are an example of socially agreed-upon boundaries. They are designed to protect people’s rights, property, and freedom.

In the context of our lives and relationships, boundaries are personal and nuanced. They are the guidelines for healthy and respectful interactions with you. 

Boundaries are Your Personal Rules for Behavior

Man experiencing stress in relationships
Feeling stressed by someone? It may be time to set a boundary.

Some boundaries we set for ourselves, like “I will only check my email twice per day,” “I will go to sleep by 11pm,” or “I will visit my family for dinner, but I will not go on vacation with them ever again.” 

You may decide to share other boundaries with the people around you, so they know how you will react if the boundary is violated. These are always stated in the format “If you do _______, then I am going to do _________.” The power of a boundary is that you are the one executing the behavior, not asking someone else to change their actions. 

The power of a boundary is that you are the one executing the behavior, not asking someone else to change their actions.

Cues that you need to set a boundary include: feeling hurt or angry because of something another person says or does; thinking someone is being disrespectful toward you; or noticing yourself stressed out or overwhelmed by a person or situation. 

You Determine What Boundaries Work for Your Life

Boundaries are an internal process. One person’s boundaries are different from others because we all have different expectations and values in life and relationships. You’ll learn what boundaries matter to you by paying attention to your needs and wants in your job, from your partner, from your family and friends, and from yourself. 

Take the time to write about your boundaries as you discover them, this will help you practice the skill. Studies show that writing about emotional experiences effectively reduces stress, improves health, increases positive affect, and promotes coping skills. Handwritten is more effective than typing.

Why Boundaries Are Important

They protect your time, your energy, your relationships, and your health. They also protect other people from your reactive upset, resentment, and retaliation after being hurt. 

Group of friends reaching out their hands
Protect your relationships with boundary-setting.

Knowing and holding your personal boundaries allows you to be in relationship with the outside world from a place of calm. Your boundaries protect you from feeling hurt, and they create space for you to be fully present in interactions. They also make room for growth. When a person has good boundaries, they can take in information about their own behavior without moving into shame. 

Consider for a moment, the consequence of ignoring a personal boundary. Imagine your boss just asked you to meet a deadline that requires you to work over the weekend. What do you feel when your job encroaches on your personal time and rest? 

If this is a typical pattern, you probably feel disrespected and overworked. Anger and resentment at your boss or your job might be taking over whatever time you have left to yourself that weekend, and the stress of the whole situation wears on your mind, body, and spirit. 

You are given a choice between what you want for yourself and what someone else wants from you.

Moments like this happen all of the time. You are given a choice between what you want for yourself and what someone else wants from you. This happens in jobs, parenting, friendships, family expectations, and romantic relationships. 

When you ignore your needs to keep the peace or make the other person happy, you violate your own boundaries. You stifle your most authentic and genuine self-expression, and it wears at your peace and joy. In addition to the spiritual cost these boundaries violations have on you, the resentment and anger that builds up toward others will create conflict in your relationships. 

This time, imagine your partner said they’d be in charge of the trash, and you watch as it gets more full and more stinky each day. You’ve expressed the desire for a clean space, yet the trash is still there when you get home after work. Anger and resentment might sound like this: “Urgh! What a jerk! They really don’t care how I feel.” Are you going to be available for love and connection with this person while feeling angry about the trash? Definitely not. More likely, it’ll be colder between you both, and you’ll feel alone in your frustration.

Boundaries are how we keep ourselves content and relaxed in our lives. Because we know how we’ll respond during stressful situations when other people act in ways we don’t like.

Three Types Of Boundaries

There are three types of boundaries. Each one is designed to protect you in a specific way. The next three sections will outline each type of boundary and ways you can practice them daily.

Two hands making the shape of a heart
Protect you and your heart with healthy boundaries.

Containing Boundary

A containing boundary protects the world from you. It helps you to act with consideration toward other people’s needs and wellbeing. Guilt and healthy shame are cues that your containing boundary was not working during an interaction. 

Nobody is perfect. We all do things that hurt or disappoint others. Sometimes we say mean things or lie. Rarely do these behaviors come from a mean or intentional place. Most of the time, they are either in reaction to a hurtful interaction or an attempt to avoid something that might be painful. 

The way to practice a containing boundary is to ask yourself “If I say or do __________, how will the other person feel?” Developing your containing boundary is empathy in practice. 

Psychological Boundary

A psychological boundary allows for and accepts differences between you and others. So that your truth can be different from someone else’s, and that difference doesn’t cause you pain. 

When’s the last time you had someone lay on their car horn at you? Whether you made an error driving or not, this experience brings up some heat for almost anyone on the road. That heat could be anger, “WTF, what is this jerks problem?” or it could be shame, “Oh man, I messed up. I bet they think I’m a terrible driver.” In either case, this one road-rage moment can cause you to stress for minutes or even hours after the incident.  

A psychological boundary is a subjective measure of what you choose to let in or keep out of your emotional sphere. You can do this by asking two questions: Is it true? Is it about me? And if the answer to either is ‘no,’ keep it from touching your heart.

Someone aggressively honks while you’re driving? Okay. Is the need for a honk true? Maybe you didn’t signal, so let that part of the message in. Yes, I made a mistake driving and I should work on that. Is the aggression about me? No. Someone could have communicated the driving error without charge, so their forcefulness is about them, not you. 

External/Action Boundary

Setting boundaries is a skill, and it is one most of us are conditioned to avoid or ignore. Avoidance comes from a fear that setting boundaries will cause conflict and push people away. Ignoring our need for boundaries is social conditioning; we’re taught to be “polite” and people-please, rather than listen to our own needs from a young age. 

External boundaries communicate to others what behaviors you will tolerate and what behaviors you will not. Consider some common external boundaries: not tolerating verbal or physical abuse, not tolerating ongoing infidelity, not accepting drug use or stealing. 

You can use boundaries to communicate your desires and protect your sense of wellbeing. 

Now think about some of your own personal boundaries. Are there individual family members that you never share personal information with? Do you have set agreements with your partner about work versus family time? Would you let some friends drive your car but not others? These are all examples of external boundaries. How you choose to interact with others based on their behavior. 

While it’s inappropriate to tell another adult how to act, and impossible to make someone behave in a way you want (thank goodness), you can use boundaries to communicate your desires and protect your sense of wellbeing. 

Imagine a friend says to you, “I told my mother-in-law that it is not okay to drink at our house, but she refuses to respect that boundary!” This isn’t actually a boundary. A boundary is what you will do if the other person continues to behave in the way you don’t accept. So a boundary would sound like: “[Mother-in-law] it is your choice whether you drink or not, please know that if you drink in my home, I will no longer invite you to visit.”

Six Steps to Set an Action Boundary 

Number 6
It just takes six steps to set an action boundary.

There are six steps to effectively setting an external boundary with another person. Setting the boundary does not mean anything about the amount of love you have for that person. It is about what you need in order to feel safe and connected.

  1. Clarify the Boundary

    What are you trying to accomplish by setting a boundary? What are you willing to do to take care of yourself? Brainstorm many potential boundaries and decide which one aligns with your need.

  2. Communicate the Boundary

    Clearly tell the person your expectation and intended action.

  3. Anticipate Their Reaction to the Boundary

    Most people don’t react with “Thank you so much for setting this boundary with me.” NO. They push back. Often because the boundary causes them to feel defensive. They are allowed to push back and can feel whatever they feel about the boundary. Just let yourself imagine what reaction they will likely have so that you can respond to it when the time comes.

  4. Anticipate Your Reaction to Their Reaction

    When they are upset by the boundary, how will you feel? Will you feel guilty and want to back-peddle? Will you get angry and want to defend your decision? Will you scoff and walk away? Understand your automatic response so that you can choose to respond in a more constructive and de-escalating manner.

  5. Self Soothe

    Breathe. Feel your feet on the ground and release any tension you might be holding in your shoulders. Learning to set boundaries is a process, and for most people, initially, it is uncomfortable. Take time to calm yourself down so that you don’t react in an automatic, protective way. Instead, stay firm in your goal to set a boundary while being relationally connected.

  6. Restate the Boundary

    In whatever way feels right for you to express to the person: I love you. I understand I am telling you something that is causing you to feel upset, and I want you to know my intentions moving forward. If you do this thing, I will react in this way.

Your wellbeing matters. You matter. So consider how you might protect yourself moving forward. Good luck and happy boundary setting!

Notebook and paper
Practice setting boundaries by writing them out first.

Read Personal Experiences with Boundaries

Frequently Asked Questions About Boundaries

In the context of our lives and relationships, boundaries are personal and nuanced. They are the guidelines for healthy and respectful interactions with you.

Boundaries protect your time, your energy, your relationships, and your health. They also protect other people from your reactive upset, resentment, and retaliation after being hurt. Find examples of people struggling to set boundaries in their relationships at Imperfect Ink

The three main types of boundaries in relationships are containing boundaries, physiological boundaries, and external boundaries.

To set a relationship boundary, first clarify the boundary, communicate it, anticipate reactions and self soothe.

Join today and take the first step in opening up and gaining greater understanding and compassion for yourself and others.

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