I explore the topic of boundaries in my writing a lot. I do this because boundaries form the basis of healthy relationships with both others and ourselves. Boundaries are essential. They’re more than barriers and fences that we put up. They speak to something greater (which you’ll learn more about below).
According to psychologist Katayune Kaeni, PsyD, boundaries are: “knowing your own limits, needs and desires in order to maintain your sense of self and express that to another person, so you can teach them how to treat you.”
Psychologist Sherry Walling, Ph.D, defines boundaries as: “a space between one’s self and that which is separate from the self… At every level of our existence, we form some kind of boundary to define what is us and what is separate from us.”
Below Kaeni and Walling shared six key facts about boundaries, along with suggestions for creating and maintaining your own boundaries.
Boundaries change dramatically depending on time and context.
“When life changes, boundaries may change,” said Kaeni, who specializes in maternal mental health with a mission to crush stigma, offer support, engage in treatment, train providers and advocate for women and families.
For instance, when you become a mom, you might realize that things that used to be OK for you aren’t OK for you anymore, she said. That is, you might realize that you don’t want your in-laws to drop by without calling first. You might realize that you don’t want your partner to drink as much as they did.
This is why it’s important to regularly reevaluate your boundaries. In another example, you might’ve been conservative with how much information you shared with your new coworkers, said Walling, also a yoga teacher in Central California and director of clinical training at House Psychiatric Clinic in Fresno. Two years later, however, you’re swapping personal stories at your favorite restaurant.
Fearing how someone will react doesn’t invalidate your needs.
Sometimes, we don’t set boundaries because we don’t want to upset the other person. But as Kaeni noted, being concerned about how someone will react doesn’t invalidate your needs. Even if you don’t think the person can honor your boundary, it’s still important to speak up, she said.
Remember that you can be kind and polite when voicing your boundary. Setting boundaries isn’t about being rude or unreasonable. Kaeni shared this everyday example: Your coworker keeps coming to your desk to chat, which interferes with your work. You tell them, “I’ve been realizing lately that it’s hard for me to work when you keep visiting my cubicle. Maybe we can limit our chats to a few times a day?”
When setting a boundary, you aren’t “taking anything away from someone else. You’re just letting people know ‘this is how I feel; this is what I need.’”
(You’ll find more tips in this piece about clearly and calmly communicating your boundaries.)
Boundaries are about safety.
Boundaries are protective, Walling said. They address our needs for safety and speak to what we’re comfortable with. For instance, Walling has a boundary around how well she has to know a family before her kids can have a playdate (without her presence) or sleep over.
This also is a great reminder to return to when you’re hyper-focused on how someone will react to your boundary. Remind yourself that you have a particular boundary because it’s keeping you (and possibly your family) safe.
Boundaries help us define who we are.
“I really think that boundaries aren’t just little gates that we put around ourselves; they’re about who we decide to be in the world,” Walling said. For instance, you might have a boundary around not gossiping. Instead of talking about someone behind their back, you prefer to remove yourself from these conversations or to say something like “we don’t know the situation, and I’d rather not talk about this.”
According to Walling, you have a voice within you that says: “I don’t want to do that. This is not who I am.”
Boundaries are about nourishing ourselves and our health.
“Boundaries are as much about what we let in as what we keep out,” Walling said. They’re a “way of modulating what we feed within ourselves.” This might include everything from nourishing healthy friendships to seeking beautiful environments to savoring nutrient-rich foods, she said.
“Boundaries are intentional choices that we make.” Walling stressed the importance of thinking through our boundaries on a deeper level and asking ourselves: “Who do I want to be in this world?
Knowing the “why” behind your boundaries is essential.
The boundaries you set must be of great importance to you. They aren’t based on shoulds or empty motivations. Walling often asks her clients the following questions (the answers can help you identify your boundaries): “What’s the highlight of today, this week, this month, this year? What’s going well? What’s not going well?”
These questions reveal both what brings you joy and what’s hurting you, which motivates our boundaries. For instance, Walling finds joy in spending uninterrupted time with her family. So she’s set the boundary of not answering her phone on Friday nights.
Setting boundaries helps us maintain our sense of self. Because if you’re frequently taking on too many commitments, or doing things that go against your morals or ethics or anything else that feels fundamentally wrong, you start to feel lost, Kaeni said. You are “at the whims of others’ needs,” without a sense of foundation. Repeatedly doing things for others at the expense of our own needs erodes our sense of self, she said.
Setting boundaries isn’t always straightforward or tidy. It takes practice. Continuous practice. But it is worth it. Boundaries are vital to our health, well-being and relationships. In other words, they’re vital to our lives.
Girl at the fence photo available from Shutterstock