- Sara Gebriel
Healthy Personal Boundaries
Good personal boundary management is essential for healthy living and dealing with life’s unexpected challenges. Consider a customs check when entering a country. The officer’s job is to ensure that who and what enters is not dangerous, invasive, or ultimately a threat to the people and the laws in place. These boundaries are established to maintain the survival, safety and quality of life of those who live there.
Poor boundary management leads to continual problems. For example, having too many personal boundaries creates isolation and having too few draws constant violations. Having a combination of too many boundaries in some areas and too few in other areas is common and creates alternating isolation and violation.
Personal boundaries are the physical, mental and emotional limits we establish to protect ourselves from being manipulated, used or violated by others. Boundaries allow us to separate who we are and what we think and feel, from the thoughts and feelings of others. In Essence, a healthy personal boundary lets in what’s good in life while keeping out what’s bad and doesn’t violate others. They are agreements that are spoken or unspoken and occur in all areas of life, including our human nature. For example, our immune system acts as our physical body’s boundary to protect from pathogens disrupting our health. Below are more examples.
Physical: Personal space, respecting others’ wishes
Mental: Brainwashing, propaganda, manipulation
Emotional: Instigating a strong emotional reaction, manipulating someone’s emotional landscape
Community: Laws, bylaws, and agreements about how to live together in our communities
Family: Narratives about ‘what we do and don’t do in this family’; how we speak to different family members based on relationship, role, age, etc.
Relationship: Monogamy or exclusivity, or not; how we are willing to be treated; autonomy; having our voice heard, our desires met; privacy; insecurity or power dynamics
Self: How we treat ourselves and how we allow ourselves to be treated; self-care
Time: How and with whom time is spent; time management
Money: Ability to generate and manage money; how and what we spend, save and invest, or not
Healthy boundaries are only created and managed by our choice and vigilance. They are not automatically bestowed by life. We often discover what our boundary is only once it’s been crossed and unless we point out our boundaries explicitly, people won’t know where they are. People and situations will always challenge our boundaries often unknowingly, and it is up to us to defend them.
Boundaries have to do with who you are and what you can control. They are not about punishment, being right, or getting even. They are about going forward, aligned with who you are, and your values, goals, and dreams for your life.
Boundary violations take two main forms, intrusion or neglect.
Being talked over
Being teased or bullied
Physical space is not respected
Being told how you should be or not be
Being demanded upon for your time or attention
Often being late
Breaking promises or agreements
Ignoring or invalidating the feelings of others
Withholding communication, contribution, intimacy, etc.
Not accepting when someone says “No” about something
Being talked down to or discounting what you have to say; not having a say
If we grew up in an environment where boundary violations were common or normalized, we may not recognize that our boundaries are even being crossed and won’t break out of the pattern until this is recognized, acknowledged and corrected.
There are many indicators of poor personal boundaries and common ones include:
Difficulty saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’
Not knowing who to trust
Opening too much or not enough to people or situations
Insecurity about power issues in a relationship
Imposing restrictive regulations on oneself or others
Feeling taken advantage of
Being overly demanding, expectant or manipulative
Having healthy personal boundaries can help:
Improve family gatherings
Manage post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Heal patterns of abuse: mental, emotional, physical and or sexual
Deepen relationships: intimate, friendship, family and professional
Equalize power dynamics in personal and professional relationships
Forward life-projects, hobbies or goals that have been on hold or stuck
Reconnect with family members or other people from a difficult past
A boundary crossing and boundary violation are distinctly different. A boundary crossing is a deviation from classical or typical activity that is harmless, non-exploitative, and possibly in support of the person or therapeutic value itself. For example, someone can say something shocking that wakes you up or makes you think differently. A sexual boundary may be crossed that awakens a new level of desire. In contrast, a boundary violation is harmful or potentially harmful to the person and their well-being. It constitutes the exploitation of the other.
A good reason to improve personal boundaries is to break the pattern of being a victim.
3 stages a person goes through to break this pattern:
1. “They did it to me.” (victim)
2. “I did it to me.” (self-responsible)
3. “I will do whatever it takes to improve myself to not end up here again.” (pro-active decision)
1. Joe borrowed money three times over 2 years and never paid me back. (victim)
2. I lent Joe money anyway, knowing he didn’t pay me back what he owed. (self-responsible)
3. ‘I will not lend Joe money’ or ‘I will put new boundaries/conditions on future lending to Joe’. (pro-active decision)
Establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries requires a person to incrementally build their capacity to first identify what their boundaries are then, to gain experience establishing those boundaries and finally cultivate the self-confidence and self-esteem to maintain them. It is a worthy investment and many clients have reported their life is more fulfilling, they get more accomplished, they establish more meaningful relationships, and they cultivate self-love.