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Setting boundaries is an important part of establishing one’s identity, as well as being crucial for one’s mental health and well-being. There are different types of boundaries, from physical boundaries to emotional boundaries, and there are also different levels of boundaries, from loose to rigid, with healthy boundaries falling somewhere in between.
This article will discuss healthy boundaries and how to set them in different situations, why healthy boundaries are important for self-care, and different ways that adults and children can learn more about boundaries.
This article contains:
What Is Meant By Healthy Boundaries?
According to the IPFW/Parkview Student Assistance Program, “a boundary is a limit or space between you and the other person; a clear place where you begin and the other person ends … [t]he purpose of setting a healthy boundary is, of course, to protect and take good care of you”.
In general, “[h]ealthy boundaries are those boundaries that are set to make sure mentally and emotionally you are stable” (Prism Health North Texas). Another way to think about it is that “[o]ur boundaries might be rigid, loose, somewhere in between, or even non-existent. A complete lack of boundaries may indicate that we don’t have a strong identity or are enmeshed with someone else” (Cleantis, 2017).
This last quote shows that healthy boundaries can also serve to establish one’s identity, as well as what one is responsible for. Specifically, healthy boundaries can help someone define themselves as a person (rather than simply as part of a group or partnership) and can help someone decide what they will and will not hold themselves responsible for.
While healthy boundaries are often psychological or emotional, boundaries can also, of course, be physical. For example, declining physical contact from a coworker can be as important (or more important) a boundary as asking that same coworker not to make too many demands on your time or emotions.
Why Is It Important For Self-Care
Healthy boundaries are a crucial component of self-care in all aspects of our lives. For example, “in work or in our personal relationships, poor boundaries lead to resentment, anger, and burnout” (Nelson, 2016). Some teachers even say that setting boundaries helps them avoid burnout and stay in the profession longer (Bernstein-Yamashiro & Noam, 2013). This is important because it indicates that properly-set boundaries can help someone find more fulfillment and less stress in their work life, which accounts for a large part of a working person’s day-to-day responsibilities and stress.
More generally, the consequences of not setting healthy boundaries “can include stress; financial burdens; wasted time; and relationship issues, which can cause mental distress” (Prism Health North Texas). In other words, a lack of healthy boundaries can negatively affect all aspects of someone’s life. On the other hand, setting healthy boundaries can help someone make decisions based on what is best for them. This autonomy is an important part of self-care.
In the context of recovering from substance abuse, self-care can include “meaningful connection with recovery support and children, taking care of physical health, maintaining spirituality, healthy eating, exercise, journaling, continuing education, staying busy, sponsorship, establishing boundaries, self-monitoring, abstinence, and dealing with destructive emotions” (Raynor et al., 2017). Self-care like this “may serve to support the general health and well-being of individuals”. Since self-care is an important part of leading a mentally healthy life and setting boundaries is an important part of self-care, learning how to establish healthy boundaries is an important step on the path to well-being.
10 Examples Of Healthy Boundaries
This leads to the question, what do healthy boundaries look like? The types of boundaries one might set depends on the setting. That is, healthy boundaries will look different with a romantic partner than they do with a boss or coworker. To begin with, let us examine healthy professional boundaries.
In a teacher-student relationship, a teacher might set healthy boundaries by choosing to keep their personal lives separate from their professional lives, by not telling their students too much about their private lives (Bernstein-Yamashiro & Noam, 2013). Teachers can also begin each school year by telling students what they are and are not comfortable with. For example, teachers can tell their students they do not want to hear their students talking about illicit activities in the classroom. One more way teachers can set boundaries is by telling themselves they will not hold themselves responsible for every aspect of the lives of their students so that they will not be too hard on themselves when a student suffers from something out of the teacher’s control.
Teachers are not the only professionals who need to set healthy boundaries. Psychologists also need to practice self-care and set healthy boundaries with their clients, since psychologists are not immune to stress and mental health disorders and maybe even more vulnerable to those issues than the general population (Barnett et al. 2007). One way that therapists can set clinical boundaries is to not connect with their clients on social media (while being clear about this rule) so that they do not mix their professional responsibilities with their personal lives.
Of course, professionals are not the only ones who need to practice self-care by setting healthy boundaries. People can also set boundaries with their friends. For example, a woman who has a friend drop by to visit when she is packing up her house might not let her friend stay too long so that she can get done what she needs to get done (Katherine, 2000). Similarly, that woman might politely decline the same friend’s request to help pack, if she feels it should be a personal process. This shows that healthy boundaries can help manage well-meaning demands on people’s time, not just malicious or thoughtless demands on one’s time or emotions.
Aside from platonic friendships, another setting in which healthy boundaries can be crucial is in a romantic partnership. One example would be someone asking their partner for one night each week to themselves, as opposed to seeing each other daily. Another example would be a new mother asking their partner to take on more responsibility with the child (such as bathing them, taking them to the park, and so on) so they can have some time to themselves (Barkin & Wisner, 2013).
Finally, boundaries can be important in parent-child relationships. For example, a parent might ask their child to never enter their bedroom without knocking first, in order to maintain some privacy. As for the child, they might ask their parents to never read their diary or journal, so that they can maintain some privacy of their own. While parents can choose whether or not to respect proposed boundaries (they may not respect some boundaries for safety reasons, for example), it is important to be clear about the boundaries they do intend to respect in order to build trust with their children.
How To Set Personal & Emotional Boundaries
The first part of setting boundaries is examining the boundaries that already exist (or are lacking) in one’s life. For example, someone might decide that they have healthy boundaries with their romantic partner, but not with their friends and coworkers. From there, they can decide what types of boundaries they want to set with their friends and coworkers.
As for how to exactly set these boundaries, it is always best to “say No simply but firmly to something you do not want to do. Do not feel that you need to explain” (Kairns, 1992). Not overexplaining is a crucial aspect of setting boundaries, as everyone has the right to determine what they do and do not want to do. This brings up another important point: keeping the focus on oneself (IPFW/Parkview Student Assistance Program). Instead of setting a boundary by saying something like “you have to stop bothering me after work”, one can say “I need some time to myself when I get back from work”.
Another important thing to remember is that “[i]t is impossible to set boundaries without setting consequences” (IPFW/Parkview Student Assistance Program). This means that when setting boundaries, it is important to explicitly state why they are important. For example, someone in an unhealthy relationship might declare that their partner needs to start respecting their career goals more unless they want the relationship to end. It is also crucial to only declare consequences that one is willing to follow through on, or else the boundaries will not be effective.
In general, the key to setting boundaries is first figuring out what one wants from their various relationships, setting boundaries based on these desires, and then being clear with oneself and with other people about these boundaries.
Boundaries In Relationships
Boundaries in relationships can be especially important, because “when one person is in control of another, love cannot grow deeply and fully, as there is no freedom” (Cloud & Townsend, 2002). In other words, healthy boundaries can be the difference between a healthy, happy relationship and a toxic, dysfunctional relationship. A lack of boundaries can lead to an unhealthy relationship because one partner may feel that they have no privacy anymore (Hall Health Center Health Promotion staff, 2014). On the other side of things, too many boundaries can also be an issue, as in the case of people who do spend time with or respect the friends and family of their partners.
In the case of relationships with children, boundaries can be particularly important. For example, one paper looking at self-care in new mothers listed “[p]roper nourishment, taking time out for one’s self when necessary, attention to hygiene and physical appearance, adequate sleep, willingness to delegate and the ability to set boundaries” as “practical applications” of self-care (Barkin & Wisner, 2013). A new mother who can set boundaries with her partner to respect these needs will likely be better off than one who cannot, and this will help the relationship too.
The fact that boundaries are important in relationships underscores the importance of setting and respecting boundaries. If it is important to understand and respect each other’s boundaries even in a long-term partnership, it must also be important to respect the boundaries of people who one does not know very well. One good way to avoid crossing someone’s boundaries (and to avoid having one’s own boundaries crossed) is to have honest conversations about boundaries with people.
Healthy Boundaries Worksheets (PDF’s)
For people who want to learn more about boundaries, here are some worksheets that deal with healthy boundaries and how they can affect one’s life:
What are Personal Boundaries?
This worksheet explains the difference between rigid, porous, and healthy boundaries and the different areas in which one might set boundaries (such as physical boundaries, emotional boundaries, and sexual boundaries). After learning from this worksheet, one can explore their own boundaries with the supplementary exercise, also from Therapist Aid.
How to Create Healthy Boundaries
This worksheet also describes some different types of boundaries one might set and offers tips for setting boundaries as well.
Drawing Effective Personal Boundaries
This worksheet asks the reader to list some situations in which their boundaries might be crossed and then asks the reader what types of actions they can take to appropriately confront the people who have crossed their boundaries.
Setting Healthy Personal Boundaries
This long worksheet is an excellent way to learn more about boundaries, how to determine if one needs to set more boundaries, and how to actually go about setting those boundaries and sticking to them.
Building Better Boundaries
This is less of a worksheet than it is an entire workbook (over 60 pages), but it can be an excellent “deep dive” into boundaries for someone who wants to learn more about what boundaries are and how to set them in different situations.
Setting Boundaries With Kids (Incl. Worksheets)
Teaching children the importance of boundaries is a crucial part of parenthood. This can be hard, though, if a parent does not themselves understand the importance of boundaries for children. Here are some worksheets and other resources that parents can use to teach their children (and themselves) about the importance of boundaries (both between the child and their parents, as well as between the child and other people):
This worksheet will help children differentiate between rigid, clear, and fuzzy boundaries, and will also help them think about boundaries in their own lives.
Healthy Boundaries, Healthy Children
This worksheet is not for children, but rather for parents who want to teach their children about boundaries. It explains the importance of setting boundaries for children, then gives tips on how to teach them about boundaries. This is an excellent starting point for parents who are not sure how to set appropriate boundaries for their children.
Livestrong has helpful information on establishing boundaries that can be accessed here (Scottsdale, 2015). There are tips for parents of children of all ages, from babies and toddlers to high school-age adolescents. For example, the article covers how using the word “no” can establish early boundaries for toddlers, and also explains the importance of extending trust to adolescents when they have earned it.
A Take Home Message
Healthy boundaries are a crucial part of life and an important aspect of any self-care practice. While one might feel selfish when setting boundaries, they are necessary for mental health and well-being. Although appropriate boundaries can look very different in different settings, it is important to set them in all aspects of one’s life.
Finally, while setting boundaries is crucial, it is even more crucial to respect the boundaries that others have set for themselves. This goes for parents, children, romantic partners, bosses, coworkers, and basically anyone who interacts with or has power over anyone else. Respect is a two-way street, and appreciating the boundaries others have set for themselves is as important as setting boundaries for oneself
- Barkin, J.L., Wisner, K.L. (2013). The role of maternal self-care in new motherhood. Midwifery, 29(9), 1050-1055. doi: 10.1016/j.midw.2012.10.001
- Barnett, J.E., Baker, E.K., Elman, N.S., Schoener, G.R. (2007). In pursuit of wellness: The self-care imperative. Professional Psychology-Research and Practice, 38(6), 603-612. doi:10.1037/0735-7028.38.6.603
- Bernstein-Yamashiro, B., Noam, G.G. (2013). Establishing and maintaining boundaries in teacher-student relationships. New directions for youth development, 2013(137), 69-84. doi:10.1002/yd.20049
- Cleantis, T. (2017, May 25). Self Care Skills for Relationships. Retrieved from http://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/articles/cleantis/self-care-skills-relationships
- Cloud, H., Townsend, J. (2002). Boundaries in Marriage. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Hall Health Center Health Promotion staff. (2014, January). Healthy vs Unhealthy Relationships. Retrieved from http://depts.washington.edu/hhpccweb/health-resource/healthy-vs-unhealthy-relationships/
- IPFW/Parkview Student Assistance Program. (u.d.). Setting Boundaries with Difficult People. Retrieved from http://new.ipfw.edu/affiliates/assistance/selfhelp/relationship-settingboundaries.html
- Kairns, D.M. (1992). Protect yourself: set boundaries. RN, 55(3), 19-22.
- Katherine, A. (2000). Where To Draw The Line: How To Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day. New York: Fireside.
- Nelson, D. (2016, December 8). Self-Care 101: Setting Healthy Boundaries. Retrieved from http://www.dananelsoncounseling.com/blog/self-care-setting-healthy-boundaries/
- Prism Health North Texas. (u.d.). Establishing Healthy Boundaries. Retrieved from http://www.prismhealthntx.org/establishing-healthy-boundaries/
- Raynor, P.A., Pope, C., York, J., Smith, G., Mueller, M. (2017). Exploring Self-Care and Preferred Supports for Adult Parents in Recovery from Substance Use Disorders: Qualitative Findings from a Feasibility Study. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 38(11), 956-963. doi:10.1080/01612840.2017.1370520
- Sabin, J.E., Harland, J.C. (2017). Professional Ethics for Digital Age Psychiatry: Boundaries, Privacy, and Communication. Current Psychiatry Reports, 19(9), 55. doi:10.1007/s11920-017-0815-5
- Scottsdale, B. (2015, August 22). How to Develop Age-Appropriate Boundaries in Children. Retrieved from https://www.livestrong.com/article/353414-boundaries-expectations-exercises/