Many people have the wrong idea about boundaries. They believe that they already have good boundaries when in reality they have brick walls, or they believe that boundaries are “unkind.”
Healthy boundaries are the ultimate guide to successful relationships. Without healthy boundaries, relationships do not thrive—they result in feelings of resentment, disappointment, or violation. These feelings, unchecked, can lead to being cut off from others or enmeshment, where there’s no clear division between you and others’ needs and feelings. Neither of these situations is ideal.
Because so few of us understand what boundaries actually are, we rarely see evidence of them working. But when they do, you feel it—it does wonders for your mental and relational health.
What healthy boundaries look like
Boundaries are what happen when you can sense yourself and what you need and want and access your voice to speak to those things. We all have “limits,” and we all experience violations of our limits.
Most of the time, people are not trying to violate your limits—they just aren’t aware of what they are. Sometimes, this is because we are not clear with ourselves or other people about what we want or need.
Here are six boundaries you deserve to have and what they might look like in practice:
1. Physical boundaries
Physical boundaries include your needs for personal space, your comfort with touch, and your physical needs like needing to rest, eat food, and drink water.
It is OK to let people know that you don’t want to be touched or that you need more space. It is also OK to say that you are hungry or that you need to rest.
Healthy physical boundaries might sound like:
- “I am really tired. I need to sit down now.”
- “I am not a big hugger. I am a handshake person.”
- “I need to eat. I am going to go grab something.”
- “I am allergic to [insert here], so we can’t have that in our home.”
- “No. I don’t want you to touch me like that.”
- “Don’t go into my room without asking first.”
Physical boundary violations feel like receiving inappropriate or unwanted touch, being denied your physical needs (told to keep walking when you are tired or that you need to wait to eat or drink), or having someone come into your personal space in a way that is uncomfortable (entering your room without permission, for example). This can vary on a spectrum from mild to severe. The most severe violations result in serious physical abuse or neglect.
2. Emotional boundaries
Emotional boundaries are all about respecting and honoring feelings and energy. Setting emotional boundaries means recognizing how much emotional energy you are capable of taking in, knowing when to share and when not to share, and limiting emotional sharing with people who respond poorly. Respecting emotional boundaries means validating the feelings of others and making sure you respect their ability to take in emotional information.
It might sound like:
- “When I share my feelings with you and get criticized, it makes me totally shut down. I can only share with you if you are able to respond respectfully to me.”
- “I am so sorry you are having such a tough time. Right now, I am not in a place to take in all of this information. Do you think we can come back to this conversation later?”
- “I am having a hard time and really need to talk. Are you in a place to listen right now?”
- “I really can’t talk about that right now. It isn’t the right time.”
Emotional boundary violations include:
- Dismissing and criticizing feelings
- Asking questions that are not appropriate for the relationship
- Reading or going through personal and emotional information
- Asking people to justify their feelings
- Assuming we know how other people feel
- Telling other people how they feel
- “Emotionally dumping” on people without their permission
- Sharing inappropriate emotional information with your children
3. Time boundaries
Your time is valuable, and it is important to protect how it is utilized. Setting time boundaries is incredibly important at work, home, and socially. Setting time boundaries means understanding your priorities and setting aside enough time for the many areas of your life without overcommitting. When you understand your priorities, it is much easier to limit the amount of time you are giving to other people.
Healthy time boundaries might sound like:
- “I can’t come to that event this weekend.”
- “I can only stay for an hour.”
- “Do you have time to chat today?”
- “I would love to help, but I would be over-committing myself. Is there another time?”
- “We have family time on Sundays, so we won’t make it.”
- “I am happy to help with that. My hourly rate is…”
Violated time boundaries looks like asking professionals for their time without paying them, demanding time from people, keeping people in conversations or on tasks for longer than we told them we would, showing up late or canceling on people because we over-committed, and contacting people when they said they would be unavailable. Article continues below
4. Sexual boundaries
Healthy sexual boundaries include consent, agreement, respect, understanding of preferences and desires, and privacy.
Healthy sexual boundaries include:
- Asking for consent
- Discussing and asking for what pleases you
- Requesting condom use if you want it
- Discussing contraception
- Saying no to things that you do not like or that hurt you
- Protecting the privacy of the other person
This might sound like:
- “Do you want to have sex now?”
- “Is this comfortable for you?”
- “Tell me what you like.”
- “Tell me what you don’t like.”
- “I don’t like that. Let’s try something different.”
- “I don’t want to have sex tonight. Can we cuddle instead?”
- “I am really into [insert desire here]. Is that something you would feel comfortable with?”
Sexual boundary violations include:
- Sulking, punishing, or getting angry if someone does not want to have sex
- Not asking for consent
- Pressure to engage in unwanted sexual acts
- Unwanted sexual comments
- Lying about contraceptive use
- Lying about your health history
- Criticizing the other person’s sexual preferences
- Unwanted touch, assault, or rape
5. Intellectual boundaries
Intellectual boundaries refer to your thoughts, ideas, and curiosity. Healthy intellectual boundaries include respect for the ideas of other people, and they can be violated when your thoughts and curiosity are shut down, dismissed, or belittled. Respectfulness and willingness to dialogue and understand are important here.
Healthy intellectual boundaries also mean considering whether or not it is a good time to talk about something.
They might sound like:
- “I know we disagree, but I won’t let you belittle me like that.”
- “I would love to talk about this more, but I don’t think talking about it during Thanksgiving dinner is the best time.”
- “When we talk about this, we don’t get very far. I think it is a good idea to avoid the conversation right now.”
- “I can respect that we have different opinions on this.”
Does this mean that you need to be accepting of all thoughts and opinions? Absolutely not. It is also important to learn to recognize the difference between healthy and unhealthy discourse. If someone is sharing an opinion that is inherently harmful—i.e., racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc.—then you have every right to put a hard line in the sand. You can set the boundary in your own way. It might sound like letting the person know you do not tolerate that kind of talk, distancing yourself from them, or cutting off. You do not have to have “intellectual” discourse with someone who is violating you or other people.
6. Material boundaries
Material boundaries refer to items and possessions like your home, car, clothing, jewelry, furniture, money, etc. It is healthy to understand what you can and cannot share and how you expect your items and materials to be treated by the people you share them with.
Having limits on how your material items are treated is healthy and prevents resentment over time.
This might sound like:
- “I can’t lend out my car. I am the only person on the insurance.”
- “We can’t give any more money. We would be happy to help in another way.”
- “Sure! I am happy to share my dress with you. Just a heads-up, I do need it back by Friday.”
Material boundaries are violated when your things are destroyed or stolen or when they are “borrowed” too frequently. Another material violation is the use of materials (money and possessions) to manipulate and control relationships.
The more we set boundaries, the more we recognize them. In setting boundaries, we help people show up for us, and we also become better at showing up for them.
In the words of Brené Brown, “Clear is kind.”