You may be familiar with the psychological term “boundaries,” but what does it mean and how does it apply to you?

Put plainly, boundaries are the line between where I end and you begin. Healthy boundaries define who we are in relation to others. They also help us to know what the extents and limits are with others. Personal boundaries are how we teach people who we are and how we would like to be handled in relationships. Boundaries help you to say, “This is who I am.”

Good personal boundaries protect you. Without them life feels scary and you may feel anxious. Having a sense of boundaries and limits also helps you to connect with your true self. They are based on your beliefs, thoughts, feelings, decisions, choices, wants, needs, and intuitions. They are clear, firm, maintained, and sometimes flexible.

Ultimately, when you don’t protect or overprotect your boundaries, your needs go unmet, which can lead to anxiety or compulsive behaviors such as overeating, addictions, or working too much. Setting healthy boundaries allows you to connect with yourself, your emotions and your needs. It allows you to feel safe, to relax and to feel empowered to care for yourself.

Loose Boundaries Lead to Emotional Drain

When boundaries are loose, you may easily take on the emotions and needs of others. There is a little sense of a separate self and you may experience difficulty identifying your own emotions and needs. People with loose boundaries often are hypersensitive to others’ comments and criticisms.

Common signs of loose boundaries include overinvolvement in others’ lives; perfectionism and people pleasing; trying to fix and control others with judgments and advice; staying in unhealthy relationships; taking on too much work or too many commitments; and avoiding being alone too much. When your boundaries are too loose you can feel responsible for everything and everyone, powerless, imposed upon, and resentful.

Unconsciously, loose boundaries may represent your own need for caretaking. Ultimately, however, they disconnect you from yourself as you’re not connected with your own emotions and needs. The disconnection can lead to compulsive behaviors such as overeating and working too much.

Rigid Boundaries Lead to Loneliness

For some people, too much closeness is anxiety-provoking. Intimacy may be frightening due to fears of being suffocated and the loss of independence. Some may also avoid connection with themselves due to a harsh internal critic. Feelings of emptiness and depression may be present, along with difficulty giving and receiving care and concern.

Ultimately, rigid boundaries can lead to chronic feelings of loneliness. It can be a double-edged sword – craving connection while fearing closeness. Rigid boundaries represent a protection from vulnerability, where hurt, loss and rejection can occur and be especially painful.

Here are some signs that your boundaries need adjusting:

  • Feel unable to say no
  • Feel responsible for others’ emotions
  • Concerned about what others think to the point of discounting your own thoughts, opinions and intuition
  • Your energy is so drained by something that you neglect your own needs (including the need for food, rest, etc.)
  • People-pleasing
  • Avoiding intimate relationships
  • Inability to make decisions
  • Believe your happiness depends on others
  • Take care of others’ needs, but not your own
  • Others’ opinions are more important than your own
  • Have difficulty asking for what you want or need
  • Go along with others vs. with what you want
  • Feel anxious or afraid
  • Not sure what you really feel
  • Take on moods or emotions of others around you
  • Overly sensitive to criticism

How to Set Effective Boundaries

If you find that you may have loose or rigid boundaries, it’s OK. Try not to judge where you are right now. Rather, approach it with curiosity and openness. Read through the following suggestions and find one thing you can start with today. Give it a try to see how you feel. Remember, it may be uncomfortable at first as you are learning a new skill. Stick with it. You deserve to be treated as valuable, which is what healthy boundaries communicate. You may need to remind yourself that this is a form of loving self-care and you’re doing the best you can. You don’t need to feel guilty for what you need.

  1. Know yourself. This means knowing your innermost thoughts, beliefs, feelings, choices, and experiences. It also means knowing and connecting with your needs, feelings and physical sensations. Without knowing your true self, you can’t really know your limits and needs, i.e., your boundaries. This will also help you to more clearly define your needs when boundaries are crossed.
  2. Be flexible. Having healthy boundaries doesn’t mean rigidly saying no to everything. Nor does it mean cocooning yourself from others. We are constantly growing, learning and evolving as human beings.
  3. Stay out of judgment. Practice having healthy compassion for others without the need to “fix” them.
  4. Let go of judgment about yourself. Easier said than done, but start practicing compassion and acceptance. When you can accept yourself for who you are, there is less need to hide your true self. A more positive inner world can help you feel safe with vulnerability. Connect with the voice of someone loving and nurturing and imagine what he or she would say to you in this moment instead.
  5. Accept the truth in what others say and leave the rest. Feel what you feel and don’t take responsibility for or take on the emotions of others. Give back their feelings, thoughts and expectations.
  6. Practice openness. Be willing to listen to others about how your behavior impacts them.
  7. Watch out for black and white thinking. Do you have difficulty saying no? Try, “let me think about it and get back to you.” Do you have to do x, y, or z or else? Try to find the middle ground.
  8. Pay attention to activities and people who drain you and those who energize you. Protect yourself by saying no to those who drain you or finding ways to reduce them through delegating, setting limits, or lowering perfectionistic standards. Add more energizing activities to your day instead.
  9. Pause. When you feel the urge to (insert compulsion here), stop and check in with yourself. What are you feeling? Can you allow that feeling to be present without acting on it for the moment? What do you need? Dig deep and see what comes up for you. Take five or 10 deep breaths if need be, focusing on exhaling completely.
  10. Get clear on what you value and desire. What do you really want or long for? What is truly important to you in your life? Get clear on your most important values. Use your values to guide your decisions vs. others’ opinions or expectations. Use this to help you find what is missing from your life.