Relationships need boundaries. A boundary delineates where I end and where you begin. It says this is how you can treat me.

Think of your boundaries like a property line. My friend Chris had a problem with his neighbor that perfectly illustrates how boundaries work. Chris neighbor would come into his yard and bring Chris newspaper from the driveway to his doorstep. Shed pick a few of Chris flowers along the way. Chris felt annoyed but didnt say anything. Chris figured it wasnt worth making a stink over it. The neighbor probably assumed it was okay for her to move the paper and take a few flowers. Maybe she thought she was doing Chris a favor. Months passed like this. Chris would sometimes find her neighbors dog in his yard. The dog pooped on his grass and chased away the birds at his bird feeder. Still, Chris said nothing. He wanted to be a good neighbor. He didnt want a reputation for being difficult and he worried his neighbor might get angry at him if he told her to stay off his property. Finally, Chris came home one day to find the neighbors kids playing in his yard yelling, running through the bushes, empty juice boxes on his front step, throwing toys around like they owned the place. Understandably, Chris blood was boiling at this point.

Chris was responsible for not setting and enforcing the boundary. He allowed his neighbor to take advantage of his lack of boundaries.Certainly it seems Chris neighbor behaved badly. She is, of course, responsible for her own actions, her kids, and her dog. Some behaviors are clearly wrong, but many, like the actions of Chris neighbor, start out in the gray area – acceptable to some people and not acceptable to others.Chris neighbor may or may not have known that Chris didn’t like her picking the flowers.The point is, when you dont speak up and say that a boundary has been crossed, it gives the impression that youre okay with it.

It would have been better for everyone if from the beginning Chris had said, Hi Neighbor. Im sure you didnt realize it, but I like to bring in my own paper and please don’t pick the flowers in my yard.

When a boundary is crossed, you need to providefeedback saying it’s not okay. The boundary is worthless if you dont enforce it by giving feedback and consequences. Some people will easily accept a boundary and others will continue to challenge and escalate it. So, if Chris neighbor continued to violate the boundaries, hed need to address it with her again. The specific consequences depend on the nature of the relationship and the relationship history.

Chris could build a 10-foot-tall fortress around his house. This would definitely keep his neighbor away, but it would also keep out his friends and everyone else he wants to see. Chris needs a flexible boundary, like a fence with a gate, that keeps unwanted people out while still allowing other people in.

Like Chris, without boundaries, you’re going to have dogs sh**ting all over your lawn. You’ve probably already experienced the human equivalent of this.

1. Boundaries allow you to be your true self

Boundaries create a separateness that allows you to have your own feelings, make your own decisions, and know and ask for what you want without needing to please others.

2. Boundaries are a form of self-care

Healthy emotional boundaries mean you value your own feelings and needs and youre not responsible for how others feel or behave. Boundariesallow you to let go of worrying about how othersfeel and places accountability squarely with the individual.

Boundaries also keep you from overextending yourself. You can’t take on every project, work every shift, or be on every committee that you’re asked to join. Boundaries mean saying “no” to things that don’t align with your priorities.

3. Boundaries create realistic expectations

Whether its with a friend, spouse, neighbor, or boss, relationships function best when we know whats expected. When you clearly communicate your boundaries, people know how theyre expected to behave. When expectations aren’t communicated and met, resentment and anger grows.

4. Boundaries create safety

Boundaries provide physical and emotional safety by keeping out what feels uncomfortable or hurtful.

Now that weve talked about what emotional boundaries look like and why we need boundaries, lets explore why we fail to set boundaries even when we believe theyre important.

1. Fear

Its scary to do something different.What are you actually afraid of? How likely is this to happen? What will happen if you set a boundary? What will happen if you dont? By asking yourself questions like these, you can give yourself a reality check and find out if your fear is alerting you of real danger or keeping you stuck.

2. Ambivalence

Similar to fear, ambivalence represents that you arent 100% convinced that boundaries will solve your problem. Some ambivalence is fine. You don’t need to be 100% sure before you act.

3. You dont know how

If you grew up in a family without boundaries, you probably never saw anyone model or teach you healthy boundaries. Setting boundaries is a skill that can be learned. Stay tuned: my next post is going to teach you specific steps for setting boundaries.

4. Low self-worth

Some part of you feels unworthy or unlovable. Therefore, you always struggle to prove your worth by putting other people’s needs before your own. Youre not used to being treated with respect, so you dont even know what it looks like.

5. People-pleasing

You dont want to ruffle feathers. You dont want to disappoint people. Youll pretty much avoid conflict at all costs.

The truth is that setting boundaries does disrupt relationship systems. You will get resistance. Sometimes this resistance isnt as bad as you imagined. Other times, there is a real danger. If you think that setting a boundary will put you in serious harm, please get help. One such resource is the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or


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