Updated: May 31, 2022
Discover the importance of boundaries and how they affect relationships.
When you think about the word boundary, you might have an image of a fence or of a border come to your mind. The fence might be used to keep two things separate from each other or to provide protection from another entity.
Psychological boundaries—or the standard by which we want people to treat us—are harder to identify. Psychological boundaries are also less fixed and change depending on circumstances such as the situation, one’s values, and cognitive, physical, or emotional capacity. Below are some examples:
How close to sit next to a person
If you can hug a person
Type of language to use
When to turn off your phone
Appropriate topics to discuss
Personally triggering topics
When we think about boundaries as only something that separates us from others, we forget that boundaries can also be a way to connect deeper to ourselves and the people around us. Sometimes we need boundaries to protect ourselves, especially from people that do not demonstrate that they value and respect others (e.g. narcissists, abusers). However, by practicing and cultivating our own insight and awareness, we can get to know ourselves in a deeper way and share that with our partners, friends, and family. Boundaries can be a way of demonstrating compassion towards yourself and compassion towards others.
What Do Healthy Boundaries Look Like?
Healthy boundaries are important for all types of relationships. That’s why setting boundaries is considered an important relationship skill (Cherry et al, 2021, Ciarrochi, Bilich, & Godsell, 2010, Davila et al, 2017, Ennenbach, 2014). Healthy boundaries include:
Insight and self-awareness
Insight and self-awareness are the abilities to understand your own motivations, needs, values , and more. Having strong insight is an important part of any relationship, especially healthy romantic relationships (Davila et al, 2017). Insight allows us to understand ourselves better and to communicate our needs to our family, friends, and partners. Without insight, we may not understand or even be able to identify our boundaries.
Acceptance, in the context of talking about boundaries, is embracing the belief that everybody has needs and that those needs are important. That is, it’s important that our needs are met and important that the needs of others are met (Davila et al, 2017, Ennenbach, 2014).
Acceptance is also important when considering the reality of the situation in which we are thinking about setting a boundary. We could practice accepting characteristics or constraints about the situation (I’m busy and everything is always urgent with this person) and how it impacts our own thoughts and feelings (Ciarrochi, Bilich, & Godsell, 2010).
When we are rigid in our emotions, behaviors, and thoughts we experience psychological inflexibility (Cherry et al, 2021, Ciarrochi, Bilich, & Godsell, 2010). Psychological inflexibility is a risk factor for experiencing mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression (Cherry et al, 2021, Ciarrochi, Bilich, & Godsell, 2010). Moreover, it can prevent us from living in a way that is intentionally aligned with our own values and goals (Ciarrochi, Bilich, & Godsell, 2010).
Psychological flexibility, on the other hand, is when we accept the reality of the situation, accept our own thoughts, feelings, emotions, and consider our values—all of which informs our behavior for that given moment (Cherry et al, 2021, Ciarrochi, Bilich, & Godsell, 2010). We use psychological flexibility to create and communicate boundaries for each situation rather than imposing a one size fits all approach.
How to Set Boundaries
Here are some questions to consider when thinking about setting boundaries:
Insight and awareness
What are your most important values?
How are they informed by life experience and culture?
What are some needs specific to you (e.g. alone time, regular meals, weekly book club)? Consider needs that if not met leave you feeling depleted.
Are any of these needs informed by experiences of trauma?
What are the needs and values of the people you are considering setting a boundary with?
What is the reality of the situation, how are your boundaries likely to be received?
How are your thoughts and feelings impacted by the situation?
What is your capacity (emotional, physical, and other) to set a boundary?
If you decide to say no to a request due to limited capacity, is there something else you can offer within your capacity?
Are you feeling emotionally or mentally rigid? If so, does your response fit this situation?
Are any past experiences, trauma, or memories influencing your boundaries? Is that feeling aligned with your own values and goals?
If your boundaries are not respected, what are some possible responses you might have to protect yourself?
What are different ways you can communicate your boundaries?
Setting boundaries can feel daunting for many of us, but when we take careful consideration we can create boundaries that are compassionate to ourselves and the people around us. In doing so we might find ourselves feeling closer, safer, and more energized in our relationships.
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Cherry, K. M., Vander Hoeven, E., Patterson, T. S., & Lumley, M. N. (2021). Defining and measuring “psychological flexibility”: A narrative scoping review of diverse flexibility and rigidity constructs and perspectives. Clinical Psychology Review, 101973.
Ciarrochi, J., Bilich, L., & Godsell, C. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a mechanism of change in acceptance and commitment therapy. Assessing mindfulness and acceptance processes in clients: Illuminating the theory and practice of change, 51-75.
Davila, J., Mattanah, J., Bhatia, V., Latack, J. A., Feinstein, B. A., Eaton, N. R., ... & Zhou, J. (2017). Romantic competence, healthy relationship functioning, and well‐being in emerging adults. Personal Relationships, 24(1), 162-184.
Ennenbach, M. (2014). Buddhist Psychotherapy: A Guideline for Positive Changes. Lotus Press.