Personal boundaries can feel vague or confusing for many. Boundaries are a concept that should be tied into establishing a firm sense of right and wrong regarding your comfort zone, your personal space, your emotions and feelings, and what you value in your personal safety and security. Since boundaries work both ways, they are also about understanding the nuances and limits on others’ personal boundaries as well and respecting the choices they make for themselves in their own life.

Clear personal boundaries can include many moving parts, such as establishing emotional or physical distance or intimacy, being able to have your own thoughts and opinions, and in having your own feelings regarding something. Strong personal boundaries provide limits on what you are comfortable with in your life and in what you feel is acceptable treatment for yourself from others.

Boundaries are in place from early in your life and are taught and learned in childhood. Social learning theorist Albert Bandura (1977) often spoke on his theory of modeling and imitation which can extend to teaching concepts such as boundaries. For example, if caregivers model and teach firm boundaries for themselves and their children, then children typically grow up imitating healthy boundaries that were initially taught. Contrarily, if parents or early caregivers are poor role models for teaching boundaries, then children can grow up with a shaky sense of personal boundaries.

As an infant, there should be rules in place for where you can crawl, who can hold you, or what is considered safe or unsafe. These boundaries should continue growing and evolving when you start school. As a young child you should be introduced to things like personal space and respect for others. And boundaries should also continue throughout your life to ensure your personal safety, your happiness and your continued growth. However, if boundaries were violated early in life, or if you were not valued as being able to establish your own sense of personal comfort or safety, then personal boundaries can suffer until, or unless, they are established.

When your personal comfort zone is overstepped, your boundaries may have been violated. Unhealthy or weak personal boundaries are often identified as having a poor sense of self-identity or limited feelings of self-worth. For many who grew up in a codependent environment, they may be out of touch with their own feelings, or may have not been allowed personal space earlier in life. Others may feel scared that establishing boundaries will push people out of their lives or risk leaving them feeling abandoned. If early life experiences have you feeling guilty or responsible for others’ happiness or if you were silenced or unable to verbalize your thoughts or feelings or were shamed for having basic needs, these types of negative experiences can shape weak personal boundaries.

Boundaries Are an Act of Self Love

Personal boundaries are important for establishing a sense of self-worth and a sense of self-love. Those who grew up unable to establish their own personal space or to have a sense of control over their own life may have learned to seek approval or validation from others instead of trusting themselves and building a solid sense of self-identity. Or others may have a deep fear of abandonment that impacts their ability to establish secure personal boundaries. Learning to establish personal boundaries and to feel safe and secure with the boundaries you’ve established for yourself is an act of self-love.

Here are 4 tips for helping tighten your boundaries while increasing your sense of self-worth and self-love:

Recognizing the type of boundary it is. Personal boundaries can pretty much be anything from how you feel about something, to how you interpret your thoughts or ideas, your personal space, physical proximity, or safety/security within your life. Boundaries are specific to each person who sets and establishes limits for themselves and others in their life. Becoming more familiar with the type(s) of boundaries you are considering establishing is one way to help better identify the type of boundary you are wanting in your life and, most importantly, in recognizing if it has been violated.

Create a list of boundaries. Once you have identified the type(s) of boundaries you are wanting to establish or strengthen, jotting down a specific list of boundaries that you are wanting to achieve can help make the process more concrete in the form of a structured goal. For example, if personal space is something that you value, consider concepts such as where your personal space is important to you (home, work, school, etc.) as well as concrete examples of what it includes for you and examples of what it would look like or feel like to you if your boundary were overstepped.

Verbal, written or nonverbal prompts. When you’re first establishing your boundaries it can feel awkward or uncomfortable. The process can start with non-verbal prompts such as taking a couple steps back if you feel someone has overstepped a personal boundary you have set for yourself. Writing down how you feel in certain situations such as if someone feels too pushy, or demanding of your time can help you in finding the right words to express your concerns as well as increasing your awareness of how you feel when establishing your personal boundaries, or if they are violated.

Consistency. Consistency is key for learning any new behavior or in introducing any new skill into your life, which includes strengthening boundaries. All skills take time to learn and should be completed through repetition until they are mastered. Fine-tuning personal boundaries is no exception. Knowing your limits regarding your personal boundaries can help you identify key areas for consistency in implementation. For example, each time you enforce a specific boundary you have set for yourself, journal it or have a checklist in place to ensure that you are reaching the goals you have set for yourself.

Reference: Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.