“Healthy boundaries” is one of those therapy-tinged phrases that is often used and rarely understood. If you ever find yourself nodding along when a friend suggests you set boundaries with someone while silently wondering what a boundary is, this article is for you. Here I’ll explain the three types of boundaries—physical, ego, and self-image—and give you the tools to help you establish healthy ones.
The easiest boundary for most to understand is the physical one. Have you ever had a conversation with someone who stood so close it made you uncomfortable? This close-talker (to borrow a term from “Seinfeld”) has crossed the invisible lines that form your personal space. While setting physical boundaries with everyone who crosses your path isn’t realistic, setting them with those you’re closest to is. For example, if your partner is a big fan of public displays of affection, but they make you uncomfortable, talk to him or her about it. Speaking to those you’re closest to about your physical boundaries is an excellent way to begin a larger conversation about limits.
The way your physical boundaries surround your physical space, your ego boundary surrounds your emotional space. Part of discovering your ego boundary is figuring out how much intimacy you’re comfortable with. A healthy ego includes private emotional spaces where you can choose to admit only some people and only under some circumstances. Unlike emotional walls that are rigid and isolate you, emotional boundaries can shift to adjust to different situations and relationships. For example, imagine you have an important project due at work. While you might open up to your best friend about your job-related insecurities, you’d never be so candid with a co-worker or boss. Instead, you might ask your co-worker for help and tell your boss you’ve got it all under control.
The third kind of boundary is the self-image one. Most of us have a self-image that reflects what we value in ourselves and what role we see ourselves in. If you’re someone who takes pride in your appearance, you’ll be hurt when your partner tells you that your hair looked better before you cut it. Whereas if you think caring about looks is shallow and career is all that matters, what your partner thinks of your hair won’t matter to you, but you will feel crushed if he or she doesn’t take you out to celebrate your promotion. You can help those you’re close to respect your self-image boundaries by letting them know what you value in yourself and what’s important to you.
Even when you can’t define a “healthy boundary,” you know what it feels like when someone crosses yours. Anger is the soldier on patrol along healthy boundaries, letting you know when they’re under attack, and your fight-or-flight response is the soldier’s weapon.
When that close talker stands so near you can smell his breath and you want to push him away, your boundary has been crossed. When your partner tries to kiss you at a party, and you feel embarrassed that others can see, your boundary has been crossed. By paying attention to your anger, you can learn a lot about your limits.
Learning what your boundaries are and how to set them can feel overwhelming at first. This process is one of self-discovery and self-awareness. To get started, try one (or all) of the following:
- Begin with a small, easy to set boundary.
- Pay attention to the people, places, and things that drain you. Try to reduce the amount you’re exposed to them.
- Pay attention to the people, places, and things that give you energy. Try to increase your exposure to them.
- Make yourself your priority. Explore and cultivate your passions. The more you feel independent and complete, the easier it will be to set boundaries with others.
- Seek the aid of professionals or support groups if the idea of setting boundaries is especially troubling or difficult.
- Pick the person you feel is most likely to accept and honor your boundaries and practice with him or her first. Talk openly with the other person about what’s important to you, where you’re most sensitive, and what you believe.
If you’re afraid that even discussing limits will cause a fight or you’re scared of your anger and try to stuff it down rather than examine its cause, you’ll never identify your boundaries or create the healthy ones needed for a successful and happy relationship. Unaddressed boundary issues in relationships lead to painful breakups, ruined friendships, and strained families.
Establishing good, clear boundaries reduces anger, stress, anxiety, conflicts, and misunderstandings. Discovering your boundaries and learning others’ will increase your connection to them, making you more sensitive to their needs and theirs to yours. Boundaries aren’t just helpful in relationships; they’re necessary.