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Boundaries: How They Work, When They Fail, & How to Build Yours

Good personal boundaries are truly incredible. They help you in your life in so many ways. They can prevent people from hurting you and can help you hold off outside pressure. They can communicate your limits to others without having to say a word. And they can help you learn from your mistakes.

There is a great deal of power, protection, and self-preservation in a healthy boundary.

When Boundaries Fail

Chloe sits on the edge of the bed with her head in her hands feeling devastated. Her husband Chris had come home after a long day at work and flown into an angry diatribe about how Chloe had left her car blocking the entire driveway again leaving him with no place to park. Hurt to the core, Chloe is fighting back tears.

Adam walks past the always-irritable security guard at work for what must surely be the 7,000th time. He looks at the floor, as usual, in hopes the guard won’t loudly demand to see his badge, as he almost always does. “Why does he always publicly humiliate me in my workplace? He doesn’t do this to anyone else,” Adam wonders to himself just as the guard yells, “Badge!” at him for what must surely be the 7,000th time.

A healthy boundary is truly amazing. If Chloe had a healthy boundary, she would not have been devastated or near tears. She would have spent a few minutes processing, and then she would have gone on with her day. If Adam had a healthy boundary, the security guard would never have asked him for his badge beyond the first 3 days.

So why don’t we all have them?

How Boundaries Are Formed

Many people come across their boundaries naturally. These are the lucky folks who were born into families that had good boundaries. Homes where people respect each others’ feelings and needs, read each other’s feelings and needs, and care about each others’ feelings and needs.

When you grow up in a family like that, you absorb boundaries like a sponge absorbs water. You automatically develop healthy boundaries simply by being immersed in good boundaries while your brain is developing from child to adolescent to adult.

Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. If your parents do not have good boundaries, you will not be able to absorb them. If your family does not pay attention to each others’ feelings, and respect and care about each others’ needs, which is typically true in an emotionally neglectful family, then you will not be able to absorb good boundaries and use them throughout your life.

But guess what. Even if you were born into an emotionally neglectful family or any kind of family with inadequate boundaries, it is not too late for you. You can set up your boundary now, as an adult. It is never too late.

The 4 Questions A Healthy Boundary Asks

A healthy boundary is like a fence that forms a circle surrounding you that is completely under your control. You can make the fence solid and strong when you need emotional protection, and you can relax it at other times when you feel safe and comfortable.

When you have a healthy boundary, no one gets full or easy access to your heart unless they earn it. To do so, each person must show you that they pose no emotional threat to you. Some folks do this simply by being themselves. You can sense from them that they mean well and would never purposely harm you. Others can earn this privilege over time, through their repeated interactions with you and the people around you.

Your boundary works as a filter. It stops everything that others send your way and checks it for harmful content before allowing it to reach your heart. The moment a threatening person approaches or a potentially damaging or toxic action or comment arrives, your filter springs to action and immediately begins to work.

  1. What exactly has gone wrong here?
  2. What did I contribute to this problem? Which parts are my fault?
  3. How might the other person have contributed to this problem?
  4. Is there anything I can learn from this situation to become better?

Examples of a Healthy Boundary at Work


Chris comes through the door saying in an irritated tone, “Chloe, please go move your car! I can’t believe you left it there again! This must be the twelfth time this has happened and it ridiculous.”

Chloe experiences a jolt of alarm, but her boundary immediately rises. It stops Chris’ anger at the border, preventing it from striking her heart. She answers the 4 questions this way:

  1. Chris genuinely was not able to park his car when he got home. It’s happened before, and so I can see why he was annoyed.
  2. I made a real mistake. I forgot to move the car again after unloading the groceries.
  3. Chris is tired and has been so stressed lately. His temper is short, and he’s not aware of how rushed I am to unload the groceries between leaving work and picking up the kids.
  4. I need to set up a reminder for myself to move the car. I also need to explain to Chris why this keeps happening and let him know that his sharp tone is unhelpful in the situation.


After the security guard aggressively demands his ID, Adam realizes he is being targeted. His boundary rises, and he answers the 4 questions this way:

  1. The security guard is trying to embarrass me by publicly treating me as an unmemorable and unimportant person in my workplace.
  2. Perhaps I am carrying myself in a way that makes me an easy target.
  3. This guy seems angry so he has problems of his own that he needs to take out on someone. His behavior is more about him than me. He is a bullying sort of person.
  4. I need to carry myself confidently. Tomorrow I will look him in the eye and produce my ID before he can ask for it. Then I’ll smile knowingly as I walk off so he can see that I’m not a good target for his frustration.

How Do You Build A Boundary?

Anyone who wants a healthy boundary can build one. Yes, that includes you!

  • Close your eyes and picture your boundary, surrounding you. Visualize it in as much detail as possible. What’s it made out of? How does it look when it’s firm? When it’s loosened? What’s it made of?
  • Watch for threats to your heart. And when one arises, immediately picture your boundary and answer its 4 questions.
  • By purposely using your boundary multiple times, you are training your boundary to work automatically. Eventually, it will start to work on its own.

By creating and using your boundary, you will finally be owning its power. Your boundary’s power becomes your power. First, you’ll see it working, and then you’ll feel it working.

Finally, you will own it. It is yours.

To learn how growing up in a family that ignores feelings affects you, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

To learn how to develop and use boundaries with your spouse, your parents and your children, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

To find out if you grew up with Emotional Neglect, Take The Emotional Neglect Test.  It’s free.

Boundaries: How They Work, When They Fail, & How to Build Yours

Jonice Webb PhD

Jonice Webb, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist who is recognized worldwide for her groundbreaking work in defining, describing, and calling attention to Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). She writes, speaks, and trains therapists on the topic, and is the bestselling author of two books, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. She also created and runs the Fuel Up For Life Online CEN Recovery Program. Since CEN can be difficult to see and remember, Dr. Webb created the CEN Questionnaire and other free resources to help you figure out if you have it. Take the CEN Questionnaire and learn much more about CEN, how it happens, and how to heal it at her website

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APA Reference
Webb PhD, J. (2018). Boundaries: How They Work, When They Fail, & How to Build Yours. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 3, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 Nov 2018
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