In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is personal boundaries.
Kind of like our skin acts as a boundary to separate the insides of our bodies from the world, personal boundaries allow us to maintain separation in our interactions with other people.
Types of boundaries
There are several types of boundaries can that can apply in different situations, including:
- Physical: this can include physical proximity as well as different kinds of touching.
- Sexual: this includes talk and innuendo, as well as physical contact
- Emotional: these can relate to what to share and when, and what sort of responses to our feelings are acceptable
- Mental/Intellectual: like emotional, except with thoughts
- Material: this includes when and how we allow people to use or take our things
- Time: refers to how much time you allocate to others
Our skin has pores that allow certain things in and out, and boundaries are the same way.
Flexible, rigid, and porous boundaries
One way of describing boundaries is using the terms rigid, porous, and healthy (or flexible).
Rigid boundaries are like a suit of armour that doesn’t let much of anything in or out.
Highly porous boundaries allow a lot of things to move freely in and out. When two people are enmeshed, there’s so much porosity that the two people start to blur together as one.
Healthy/flexible boundaries allow for the expression of wants and needs and flexible control over what’s allowed in and out. They’re often based on values, and they show respect for the self as well as others.
There can be a mix of rigid, porous, and flexible depending on the type of boundary, the setting, and the individuals they’re interacting with. Boundaries you have with an intimate partner may look very different from those you have with a casual friend. Boundaries can also provide separation between different areas of your life, such as work and the rest of your life. Clear boundary-setting around work can help to reduce the risk of burnout.
What makes boundary-setting difficult
Various other things can get tangled up in boundary-setting, including insecurity, fear of rejection, resentment, and maintaining privacy. Social learning, particularly in the family of origin, and past experiences of boundary violations have a huge impact, especially when there’s been childhood abuse/neglect.
Multiple mental illnesses can make it more difficult to set and maintain boundaries. Dissociative symptoms in particular can have a profound impact.
A tip sheet from the Recovery Education Network identifies these principles of healthy boundary-setting:
- “Good,” compassionate, generous people set boundaries
- Boundary-setting allows for growth
- People are more effective when they set boundaries
- Boundary-setting works best it’s consistent
- It gets easier and more effective with practice
Assertive communication can be useful in boundary-setting and addressing violations. This process isn’t necessarily going to come easily or feel comfortable, but at the same time, we’re entitled to boundaries, and no one else is going to tend to them for us. Even when it seems like a boundary should be obvious, people can’t mind-read, so you may need to give clarify explicitly.
I suspect one of the most common issues that people struggle with, even if they have no other major boundary issues, is saying no. A handy article on Psych Central offers 14 different ways to say no. Looking back, I’ve usually been okay with not saying yes when I really should’ve said no. What I’ve gotten noticeably worse at, though, is actually coming out and saying no. It’s not that I’m saying yes; I’m just not saying anything. Depression means I’ve got fewer mental resources available, and as a result, I’ve added in ignoring as a viable alternative to saying no. Is this healthy? Nope.
One type of situation that I’ve always found quite challenging is when something starts out reasonably, then there’s a series of gradual nudges that on their own don’t seem problematic, and then all of a sudden you wonder how the hell did we get here? It can be hard to figure out how to backpedal when there wasn’t one clear thing that was a boundary violation; it was more a sort of boundary creep.
Boundary-setting and maintenance in professional-client relationships (including therapist-client relationships) is a major topic deserving of a whole blog post, so I won’t get into that here.
While they may not always be feel-good in an immediate sense, boundaries are an important part of self-care to make sure that your own needs are getting attended to.
Is boundary-setting something that you struggle with setting or maintaining? How would you characterize them—mostly flexible, rigid, or porous?
- A Guide to Creating, Communicating, and Enforcing Personal Boundaries from the University of Florida
- Boundary Starter Kit from psychologist Christina Bell
- Building Better Boundaries workbook by the Self Help Alliance
- PositivePsychology.com healthy boundaries worksheets
- Setting Healthy Personal Boundaries
You may also be interested in my review of the book The Better Boundaries Workbook.
- PositivePsychology.com: How to set healthy boundaries
- Therapist Aid: Tips for healthy boundaries | What are personal boundaries?
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.
31 thoughts on “What Is… Personal Boundaries”
This is a GREAT post! I’ve gotten good enough at boundaries, that I’ve basically shut out the crux of my extended family. As I look back on how I’ve been treated with having my mental illness, it’s terrible. But, that’s just one example. Many of my extended family are quite toxic, and unfortunately, I am thinking of shutting them all out because of several bad apples. It’s difficult. Especially when there are kids involved, as well as, narcissists.
Having kids involved definitely adds another layer of difficulty. But at the same time you shouldn’t have to subjected to people’s destructive behaviour.
Exactly. I am just glad I had several years of time as an uncle… that was helpful for me… I could have done without their narc parent, and now am doing just that. Again, boundaries are key. I’ve lost a lot, but have I really? I think I’ve gained way more by way of self-respect and dignity, but incorporating boundaries!
That’s a good way to look at it!
Thanks. As with everything, one day at a time.
I really struggle to say no and this means that I struggle to maintain personal boundaries with work.
The workplace is a tough environment for that.
Great post Ashley. I appreciate the comparison between the skin and boundaries – a helpful illustration.
We have deficiencies at knowing what healthy boundaries are. Our upbringing, trauma, and disorders have rendered boundaries one of the most confusing aspects of interpersonal relations for us
What we do know: We do not use physical violence with Spouse or children. This is easy to maintain for us even though we were hit as a kid.
We do not engage in romantic relations (physical or emotional) with anyone who is not Spouse (which is actually easy because we love Spouse so much and value our relationship and fidelity)
Other than that, we personalize a lot of life, have big needs, and can use quite a lot of resources—especially from therapists (time, energy, emotion, etc.).
Older Child and Younger Child have had to parent us at times. This is true. Great source of shame and regret.
Boundaries are a source of fear, confusion, and suffering for us.
We are open to still learning about boundaries and we read some of your links. Maybe it’s not hopeless. Thanks, Ashley
I don’t think it’s hopeless at all. The examples that you gave show that you are able to set healthy boundaries. As for everything else, I think things will start to gradually fall in place one piece at a time as you lead with love. ❤️
You are so amazing and generous
Thank you for believing in us and using our language
Love this topic! Like you say, everyone is entitled to boundaries, but there are SO many reasons why it may not occur to people to explicitly set those boundaries. I really felt this statement on a personal level: “Depression means I’ve got fewer mental resources available, and as a result, I’ve added in ignoring as a viable alternative to saying no. Is this healthy? Nope.” I ignore issues as a means of avoiding confrontation ALL the time and it’s something I need to work on!!
Avoidance is my favourite unhealthy coping strategy.
I never was capable of setting boundaries – it took me most of my adult life to change this. I think now I am mostly capable of setting and maintaining boundaries, which makes me happy 🙂
This is an issue I struggle with constantly. I say no a lot, so that part is fine. The problem is when I agree to a thing and then change my mind. I have that right! Other people do it. But I feel people get so ANGRY at me in particular when I do it… maybe it’s just my imagination or maybe everyone deals with this? I don’t know. But it’s happened so often now that I feel my best course of action is to say no to almost everything that comes up and then change my mind to YES at the last minute if I want. I notice that this makes people really happy! They don’t get mad if I say no at the start, only if I decide not to do the thing later.
It would be one thing to change your mind last minute in a way that causes huge inconvenience for other people, but aside from that, there’s no reason not to be flexible.
I can really relate to the difficulty of saying no 🤦 Great topic and well said. Thanks
Oh, and I like your new Gravatar image!
This is good to learn about. Now, I understand better the breakdowns in my previous human relationships. And as an educator, I am always quite porous with time-related boundaries. I guess that’s my commitment to my teaching responsibilities. However, I will watch out to have some self-love time. And also, in real life, I have very rigid boundaries for emotion-related matters but here on WordPress, I am being too porous by expressing every single tiny detail. Haha…I wonder if these are unhealthy ways of relating to people.
I think it’s good to have this forum to freely self-express, and it’s one of the few settings where that can really work.
People say we should have boundaries, and that they are Healthy. But I wonder how firmly we will stick to our own boundaries. Will you “cave in” as soon as someone says your boundary sucks? Will you hold firm even if its against a family member?
Imagine this: Your car is in the shop. A co-worker gives you a ride home in their car after work. It takes a half-hour to get you home. During this time, in someone else’s car, they are playing a Music CD that they love, but you think its stinks. They are doing you a favor bu giving you a ride home. Do you ask them to turn it off? I think MOST people would put up with it.
Now lets go one step further. You take a weekend Day-trip. 3 hrs one way. And you will be playing YOUR favorite music because you love it and music makes the whole trip better. You are driving and it is your own car. But—-one other family member is with you. No one forced them to go on this trip with you. But after you get 3 or 4 miles from home, you turn one of your music CD’s on…..and they hate it. It goes like this:
Them: Turn that crap off. I hate it. Listen to that on YOUR OWN time.
But you are trying to set boundaries. Because this person nearly always, tries to Dominate every situation, even in “little” ways like this. Its YOUR car, but THEY are already trying to establish control—and you’ve already been sick of it, for months!
You: Excuse me? #1. Who is in charge in YOUR house, and in your yard, and IN YOUR Car? Well, now your on MY “turf” and I have the same rights as you, to be in charge, here!
Them: but, I’m a captive audience.
You: No you’re not. I’ll be more than happy to pull over and let you out. What would I do if you weren’t here? I’d still play the music. Why should I diminish my happiness just because you are here? Why can’t I be myself? Why should being with you mean I need to restrict or inhibit myself?
Them: its called “being considerate”.
You: Then YOU can “be considerate” and not try to tell me what to, or what not to do, in MY Car, where I’M in charge, just like you are in your car.
Them: Well, going without that Music for 2 hrs. won’t kill you.
You: by the same token, having it on for 2 hrs. won’t kill you either.
Them: I have a Headache.
You: How convenient. And if i shut it off, you’ll have a “headache” on all future trips, too.
Them: You suck.
You: and you, are always trying to tell the other guy what to, what not to do, or how to do it. I’m sick of it. MY Car, MY rules. Who’s in charge in your car?
Them: welllll…..iii wouldn’t do this. You’re being mean.
You: Ha! I’m not so sure. And look, I’m doing, what I would be doing, anyway, even if you weren’t here. Same behavior on my part. And besides—-NO ONE FORCED YOU to ride with me. When you are in YOUR house or in your yard or in your car, you can do things your way. But right now, you’re not, and I have the SAME RIGHTS. And now, questions:
Was the Driver within his/her “assertive rights”?
Do you admire the courage of this driver, or would you call the driver a Narcissist?
If the driver “gives in” and shows “consideration”, then the passenger has just manipulated or dominated him/her on their own property or Turf. If you cave in here, how long do feel it will be before this same passenger finds or invents 4 other situations where YOU should give-in and “show more consideration” ? ? Share this far and wide. Tell me what you think, and why. Thanks for reading this.
In this scenario, it doesn’t sound like either person is communicating very effectively or admirably.
If I were the driver, a boundary that I might set would be that if the family member behaves in a controlling manner, I would limit the opportunities they had to try to exert control, such as by not having them in my car again.
Boundaries. Important to have. The problem I am having is, people trying to blatantly running right over my Boundary and ridiculing me as “being inconsiderate” for even having it.
I believe that everyone gets to be “in charge”—
1. IN their own house
2. ON their own property, and yes, also—
3. IN YOUR OWN car when other people are riding as passengers.
Some folks are arrogant and bossy and try to be in charge, when they aren’t. Because they on on *your* “Turf”. THEY, want you to “show consideration” and respect their Turf, but often they wont do the same.
Here is a very good TEST SCENARIO:
You are in your own car and you are driving. You are taking a fun weekend road trip. It is 4hrs., one-way. You have 4 or 5 of your favorite music CD’s with you to enjoy as you cruise down the freeways. It makes the whole trip go better and you deserve to enjoy yourself. But, there is someone else, one other family member going with you, voluntarily. You leave to start the trip, engaging in small-talk for the first 4 or 5 miles as you leave the house. Then, you put in a music CD and the other person says:
“Turn that off. I hate that crap. Listen to it on YOUR OWN time.” (Note: If I, or you, “give-in” to this, what do you think will happen next time?}
My Reply: : excuse me? On my-own-time? If I am still alive and breathing on this earth, IT IS “my time”. Do iii come over to your house, and if you happen to have FOX NEWS playing on your TV when I arrive, do I say: I hate that crap, put in on CNN and watch that other garbage on your OWN time? No. I don’t. You would tell me to go “take a hike” (or worse) and that it is–your House! Well, this is–my car!
Them: But you could leave. I am a captive audience.
My reply: No. You are not. I will be more than happy to pull over and let you out right now.
Them: That’s “Inconsiderate”, or selfish.
Me: Inconsiderate? Let’s talk about that. If a friend or co-worker gave you a ride home from work while your car is in the shop, You probably wouldn’t tell them to change the radio station or music CD while they drove you home. You–are on their “turf”. You need to “be considerate” to THEM.
Them: You’re only thinking about yourself. You have no right to “inflict” me with this. Me: HA! That’s rich. “inflict” you??—I am simply doing what I would do ANYWAY, if you weren’t even here! And why should I lessen, diminish or restrict my happiness just because you are here? Imagine YOU had a friend and you denied yourself this or that whenever they came over. In all seriousness, WHY would pick someone like that to be your friend? Why can’t you just be yourself and do what you would do anyway even if they were not with you.
Them: because they ARE with you.
Me: Yes. and VOLUNTARILY. and on MY “turf”. Therefore, they can respect that and THEY can “show some consideration” just as I dont come over to your house and tell you what TV channel to have on and–another thing=-=-NO ONE FORCED YOU, to ride with me!
Them: well, 3 hrs without your music wont kill you.
Me: And my having it on for 3 hrs won’t kill you, either. When I’m in your car, you can play whatever you want, but right now your in my car. Music makes any trip go better. I’m within my rights. You chose to ride with me voluntarily.
And there you have it. All over the internet, we can find 650 people who write about Boundaries…and that we should have them….and be assertive….and have self-esteem….and yet, when an everyday situation like this pops up, will they stand their ground or will the Boundary somehow “not really matter so much this time?” I wish I could take a poll with this. 🙂