Creating Healthy Boundaries

By: Erin McCall, M.S., LPC-Associate (Supervised by Jennie Fincher, Ph.D., LPC-S)

“If you want to live an authentic, meaningful life, you need to master the art of disappointing and upsetting others, hurting feelings, and living with the reality that some people just won’t like you.” —Cheryl Richardson

When people talk about boundaries, they usually think about relationships with significant others. Healthy boundaries are something we should all be practicing on a daily basis. Whether it be in the workplace, with family or with friends it’s important that we identify our needs clearly and communicate our limits. There are many different reasons why we have unhealthy boundaries and it’s important that we understand the template of where our values stemmed from in the past and recognize the signs of unhealthy behaviors.

Types of Boundaries:

Physical- These refer to personal space and how you interact with people. Are you a hugger? Do you recoil when someone touches your shoulder? Knowing and communicating this ahead of time will help others respect your personal bubble.

Mental/Intellectual- What are your values, thoughts and opinions? Do you have an open mind or are you rigid with your beliefs? Someone who is strict with these types of boundaries may react in a defensive and highly emotional manner.

Emotional- Being able to accept that you are not responsible for ‘fixing’ other people’s problems or how people react to certain situations. When you have a healthy emotional boundary, you understand that you have a choice and don’t let guilt get in the way of making decisions.

Moral- Being aware of your core values and knowing what type of behaviors you can and cannot tolerate. Behaviors such as lying, cheating and stealing can be violations of your moral boundaries.

Financial- Setting limits on your expenses and prioritizing what you spend on materials/goods and experiences. For example, buying something you can’t afford to win others’ affection.

Sexual- These can be included in physical boundaries mentioned above but more specifically, knowing what you are comfortable with when it comes to intimacy and sexual behaviors.

Spiritual- Understanding and defining your beliefs (or non-belief) whether it pertains to religion and/or faith. Honoring your beliefs around the holidays instead of “buying in” to what others say or do.  

Common Reasons for Unhealthy Boundaries:

Need for approval: If our only experience is always trying to live up to everyone else’s expectations, our needs get put on the backburner. We become a people pleaser and we’re terrified to make a mistake or that we won’t win the approval of others.

Growing up in unhealthy environments: Perhaps our needs/wants were not respected growing up therefore we internalize that we are not important. We’ve always been taken advantage of because we didn’t know how to say ‘no’ or always settled for whatever was given.

Caregiving: If we grew up in a household as the eldest with siblings, or perhaps caregivers who were not there, we are used to taking care of everyone else before ourselves. Our needs are not priority and doing something for ourselves was considered “selfish”.

Trauma and/or abuse: Any type of neglect or abuse in our history usually causes unhealthy boundaries. Being told we were never good enough or that we didn’t live up to others’ expectations, we constantly second guess ourselves in what we truly need and want. 

Tips on Setting Boundaries:

  1. Be clear- How will people know they have crossed a boundary if it is not clear to begin with? Where will you draw the line? If you are not clear with your boundary you cannot expect others to be as well.
  2. Create consequences- Make sure to determine a consequence beforehand. The consequence will be determinant of what boundary has been crossed. It’s important to follow through with the consequence otherwise there’s no point in setting that boundary to begin with.
  3. Expect resistance- You can be sure that creating a boundary after not having one, there will be push back. Usually the people who will have a problem with your new boundaries are the reason why you need them in the first place.
  4. Be consistent- It may seem easiest to create boundaries based upon your mood or feelings, but this leads to confusion for others if it’s “OK” one day but not the other.

The only person who can set these boundaries is you. It’s important that you communicate these needs to others because as much as we’d like to believe, they cannot read your mind. I’ve often heard “If they knew me, they would know what I want”. Although this sounds like an ideal situation, it’s not always true when it comes to setting limits and communicating needs. Simply saying, “I’d really appreciate it if you let me know when you’re going to be late next time” helps communicate your need to the other person without inviting confrontation. Setting clear boundaries is essential for having healthy, functional relationships with the people in your life. It not only strengthens your connection but it also honors what you have with that other person, creating mutual respect between one another.

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