What are Boundaries & How Do I Set Them?

By Sarah Saffold, MSW, LMSW

What are boundaries? Boundaries are emotional, physical, mental, behavioral, intellectual, financial, and sexual limits that we set to protect ourselves. They teach others how to treat us, and they show others and ourselves what we will allow. They are extremely important in committing ourselves to cultivating what is good for us and keeping out that which is bad for us.

So how do you actually go about setting boundaries?

First, figure out where you currently are with your boundaries by assessing if they are already rigid or loose.

Are your boundaries too rigid? Someone with too rigid of boundaries may put up a lot of walls that prevent connection. They may not allow for any flexibility in relationships or may not be able to tolerate an error of any kind. For example, they might never talk about themselves to others or never consider forgiving a friend for a thoughtless comment. These boundaries may be too rigid. Does this sound like you? If so, you may want to consider what kind of connections you want to foster in your life and how you might loosen your boundaries to get there.

Are your boundaries too loose? Someone with too loose of boundaries may dump all of their thoughts or personal problems on others. They might ask too personal of questions or violate physical boundaries (like giving hugs) without permission. Differently, they may bend over backwards to accommodate any request someone else makes. For example, they may regularly work far past their scheduled work hours to get a project done. These boundaries may be too loose. Does this sound like you? If so, you may want to consider what you need to recharge your own battery and how tightening up your boundaries can help you achieve that.

Good, healthy boundaries feel both generous and secure.

This could look like rescheduling a chat with a friend when you’ve had a very full day at work and can’t give her your full attention. It could also look like challenging yourself to be more open and vulnerable with people you trust. Good boundaries means resisting the urge to make others happy at your own expense and resisting the urge to avoid activities or behaviors because of a fear of rejection or loss of control.

Once you are aware of where you stand with boundaries, you can determine if there are areas where you want to shift your boundaries by either making them tighter or looser.

It is our responsibility to teach the people in our lives how we want to be treated. Boundaries create a context for happiness, trust, wellbeing and confidence. When you know who you are and what you will allow, you will feel respected in the greatest relationship of your life– the one with yourself. 

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