How do I know what boundaries to set?
Boundaries are essential in all of our relationships. But, as we all know, they can be tough to set for a number of reasons. Often, we don’t know what kind of boundaries we need. This is especially true if you grew up in a family that lacked boundaries. In which case, you may not think it’s okay to have your own opinions or to say no, and you may not think you have the right to ask for respect or time alone, for example. And you may accept poor treatment from others because you don’t know how to ask for what you need or want.
What are boundaries?
Let’s begin with a quick overview of boundaries.
Boundaries protect you from being mistreated. They tell others how you want to be treated (what’s okay and what’s not okay).
Boundaries also create a healthy separation (physical and emotional) between you and others. Boundaries allow you to have your own personal space and privacy, your own feelings, thoughts, needs, and ideas. They allow you to be yourself rather than an extension of someone else or who someone else wants you to be.
Boundaries are a reflection of your rights
If you grew up in a family where you weren’t respected and empowered, you may not realize that you have personal rights. You may routinely put others first at your own expense, stay quiet rather than ask for what you need or want, minimize your feelings, and betray your values without realizing that you are just as important as everyone else.
Personal rights include:
- I have the right to be treated with respect and kindness.
- I have the right to say no.
- I have the right to change my mind.
- I have the right to be safe.
- I have the right to my own thoughts, feelings, values, and beliefs.
- I have the right to rest.
- I have the right to privacy.
- I have the right to happiness/pleasure.
- You can find more examples HERE.
Understanding your personal rights is essential to setting boundaries. If you don’t think you have the right to respect or independence, you’re not going to ask for them in your relationships.
6 Types of boundaries
One way to figure out what boundaries you need is by thinking about different types of boundaries.
- Physical Boundaries protect your space and body, your right to not be touched, to have privacy, and to meet your physical needs such as resting or eating.
Examples: “Please don’t borrow my clothes without asking.’
An acquaintance approaches you with arms outstretched intending to hug you. Extend your hand and warmly say, “I’m not much of a hugger. I prefer a handshake.”
“Junior is allergic to milk. I’ve packed some safe snacks for him to eat while he’s at your house. Please be sure he doesn’t eat anything else.”
- Emotional Boundaries protect your right to have your own feelings, not have your feelings criticized/invalidated, and not have to take care of other people’s feelings.
Examples: “I feel hurt and embarrassed when you yell at me in front of Melanie and Juan. If you have an issue with my work, please talk to me about it in private.”
“It’s too painful; I’d rather not talk about it.”
“Mom, please don’t complain about Dad to me. It makes me uncomfortable.”
“It’s not okay to take your anger out on me.”
- Financial and Material Boundaries protect your financial resources and possessions, your right to spend your money as you choose, to not give, spend, loan money/possessions if you don’t want to, and your right to be paid by an employer as agreed.
Example: “I’m sorry but I can’t lend you the money for your car repair.”
- Sexual Boundaries protect your right to consent, to ask for what you like sexually, and to honesty about your partner’s sexual history.
Example: “That doesn’t feel good. I’d like you to do ________ instead.”
- Time Boundaries protect how you spend your time. They protect you from committing to things you don’t want to do, having people waste your time, and being overworked.
Examples: “I reserve my evenings for family time. I’ll respond to all work emails first thing in the morning.”
“Thanks for thinking of me. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend Jack’s birthday party.”
“Dad, I don’t have time to take you shopping this week. I’ll place an order for you with the grocery delivery service. Do you want it delivered on Monday or Tuesday?”
- Intellectual and Spiritual Boundaries protect your right to have your ideas/thoughts/beliefs respected, to practice your spiritual beliefs, and to pursue learning opportunities and career growth.
Examples: “I know we have different political views. Let’s set our differences aside and enjoy the evening.”
“We’ll have to agree to disagree about this.”
“I’m going to take a moment and say a silent prayer before we eat.”
Also, remember that not all boundaries are set verbally. Depending on the situation, you may set boundaries by distancing yourself from someone (emotionally or physically), ending a conversation or leaving a situation that’s unsafe.
Use your feelings to guide you to better boundaries
How do you feel when your boundaries are violated? Anger, hurt, resentment, fear, and discomfort are common emotional responses to boundary violations.
Feelings are like signposts. If we pay attention to them, they will tell us what we need. So, we can work backward when we feel angry, hurt, resentful, or afraid and ask ourselves if a boundary violation may have led to these feelings.
Here’s an example: I’m sitting in my office and I feel annoyed. What just happened? My coworker just barged in without knocking. She violated my right to privacy. What boundaries do I need? I need to ask her to knock before opening my door.
As in this example, you’ll have the most success when you notice your feelings right away. The more time that has elapsed between the boundary violation and noticing your feelings, the harder it becomes to connect the two.
There are, of course, many possible reasons for our feelings and boundary violations are not always what’s behind them. But even if you discover that your feelings aren’t pointing you toward a boundary issue, I think you’ll find it helpful to pay more attention to your feelings and be aware of what they are telling you. And if you’re not used to noticing and naming your feelings, try using a chart like this one.
Your boundaries are unique
Some needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter, are universal to all humans. But even still, we differ in how much food we need and at what intervals.
Other needs have even more variation from one person to the next. And since we have different needs, we require different boundaries. For example, I may need more privacy than you do. You may not be bothered by colleagues entering your office without knocking and as such, you don’t need a boundary around knocking on your closed office door.
It’s also quite likely that you need different boundaries with different people in your life. Boundaries may be a non-issue in some of your relationships. When we are respected and our needs are met, boundaries largely go unspoken; there’s no need to explain your expectations or ask to be treated differently when you’re already being treated in a way that feels good.
Other people in your life may be chronic boundary violators. You have to set boundaries constantly with them because they don’t treat you in a way that feels good. So, you may find it helpful to make lists of boundaries that you need with specific people. For example, Yvonne feels uncomfortable and unsafe around Joe’s sexualized touch, innuendo, and physical proximity so she made the following boundaries: I won’t be alone with Joe when he’s drinking. I will not sit next to him on the couch. If he makes sexualized comments, I will ask him to stop and if he doesn’t, I will get up and leave.
The boundaries you need to set are unique to you. So, unfortunately, it’s not like ordering off a menu. You will need to identify your specific boundaries, practice asserting yourself, and continuously refine and update your boundaries as your needs and relationships change. I hope this article has given you a place to start and some guidance on how to figure out what unique boundaries you need to set.
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