What’s the difference between healthy and unhealthy boundaries? Can you learn to set healthy boundaries now, even if you’ve never had them before? Why do some of us struggle to set boundaries in our lives?
In this article, we’ll take a look at what defines an unhealthy boundary. We’ll explore signs and causes, and later we’ll explain how you can begin to set healthy and firm boundaries starting today. First, let’s define what a boundary actually is.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries can look different for everybody. What one person enjoys or can tolerate is not necessarily a source of enjoyment or easily tolerable for another.
Life experience, preference, emotional sensitivity, and one’s sense of safety and well-being all influence what boundaries are necessary and how they should be upheld.
No matter what boundaries you need, no matter what your own life experience and level of stress tolerance, it’s important to create, define and uphold at least some boundaries. They are one of the few things in life over which we have control and are a means of prioritizing our mental and emotional well-being.
Having boundaries help us maintain a healthy life, one in which we feel safe, confident, positive, and self-assured. When we achieve these things, it’s easier to show up for ourselves and others and be our best selves.
Boundaries help us set limits around how and with whom we spend our time. They help us to focus our energy on things that serve our highest well-being and protect us from things that bring us down, make us feel bad about ourselves or the world around us, and waste energy that can otherwise be used for self-growth and personal development.
Boundaries can be both physical and emotional. Physical boundaries help us choose who gets to share our physical space. Emotional boundaries help us set limits around things and people that jeopardize our emotional well-being.
Healthy boundaries vs. unhealthy boundaries
Not all boundaries are healthy. Unhealthy boundaries are those that are lacking. A boundary, by definition, is something that marks a limit, so when your boundaries are unhealthy, that means that your personal limits are unclear.
When your personal limits are unclear, then people don’t know how to treat you. It will be great if people naturally treated each other with kindness, respect, compassion, and loving care, but that’s unfortunately not the world we live in.
People often take advantage of each other. We disrespect others and ourselves, often unknowingly.
When someone sets a healthy boundary, they let others know what they will and will not tolerate and follow through with the consequences if that boundary is crossed.
For example, one of your boundaries may be about yelling during a conflict or confrontation. Now, you can’t control whether they yell or not, but you can control how you respond.
They yell, so you decide to walk away, or you simply discontinue the conversation. You haven’t told them what to do, but you’ve shown them the consequences of the unacceptable behavior.
If your boundaries are unhealthy, you probably will not show this person your personal limit. You may shut down emotionally and become sheepish or yell in return and escalate the intensity of the conflict. Both of these responses are maladaptive.
Signs you have unhealthy boundaries
You may not always be aware that you have unhealthy boundaries. The realization that your boundaries are unhealthy is often profound and enlightening, and you wonder how you’ve allowed so much time and energy to be misused.
If you’re just lately realizing that your boundaries are unhealthy, or you come to that realization after reading the signs below, no need to worry. There is no timestamp on this realization.
We all live life at our own pace. The important thing is that you do eventually gain greater self-awareness and insight and vow to make the positive changes necessary to improve your life.
Some of the most common signs of unhealthy boundaries are:
- Oversharing – unnecessarily letting people know your business, people who don’t have your best interests at heart
- Jumping into a relationship or intimate connection with someone you barely know or have just met
- Neglecting or abandoning your beliefs and personal values to make room for those of another person or to please them
- Living your life by another person’s plans or agenda for you
- Basing your identity on the values and opinions of others
- Accepting gifts or offering physical touch, or emotional venting or gossip you don’t want, just to please or appease another person
- Failing to speak up and assert yourself when another person makes you feel uncomfortable
- Allowing others to enter your personal space when you want to be left alone
- Lying about your well-being so as not to cause a scene or upset others
Why do I have unhealthy boundaries?
Healthy boundaries are taught when one is fortunate to have grown up with healthy caregivers who can teach them how to regulate their emotions and be confident and self-assured in childhood. Healthy caregivers are those who can provide high-quality parenting to a child and teach them the why’s and how’s of boundary setting.
Many of us are not so fortunate. We may have grown up with caregivers or parents who struggle with boundaries and have not been able to teach this invaluable life skill. Others among us may have been a victim of boundary-crossing by their caregivers themselves, such as physical, verbal, or sexual abuse, emotional smothering, or disrespect for the child’s personal space, privacy, and need for healthy independence.
Understand that if you weren’t taught why and how to set healthy personal boundaries when you were younger, you can learn this skill today. Not exactly today – learning how to create and maintain healthy boundaries takes time, patience, and a lot of conscious inner healing work, so you don’t learn the skill overnight.
Instead, you learn it through exploring and understanding yourself and why you’re intrinsically entitled to set boundaries in your life, and practicing daily.
How to set healthy boundaries
1. Know yourself
The first step in setting healthy boundaries is developing a greater understanding of yourself.
For example, suppose a friend or partner showing up late for dinner triggers an uncomfortable feeling and reaction in you. In that case, you know that tardiness without an explanation is your trigger and is something around which you need to set a boundary.
Perhaps you feel overwhelmed when your boss gives you extra work too often. You want to help them out, but the extra energy required to complete the work and do it well overlaps with your time and the energy you may otherwise spend on things outside of work.
Understanding that excess work exhausts you and jeopardizes your well-being makes you aware of the need to set a boundary by expressing how much extra work you can reasonably get done.
2. Prioritize your wants, needs, and overall well being
Put on your oxygen mask before you attend to others.
If you want to have healthy relationships, a thriving career, or a high-quality family dynamic, you need to be able to show up for yourself. You need to practice self care by looking after your physical, mental, and emotional health in a way that helps you be the best version of yourself. That’s the person who will create and reap the benefits of the good things in your life.
When you first begin to set boundaries, you may meet some resistance from others, so be prepared.
There may be people in your life who take advantage of you and benefit from your lack of healthy and firm boundaries. These people won’t want you to be assertive, confident, and self-assured because that will pose a threat to whatever benefit they gain from taking advantage of you.
“People without boundaries respond automatically to the anger of others. They rescue, seek approval, or get angry themselves.” –Dr. Henry Cloud, Boundaries
As you begin to create and strengthen your boundaries, connect with those you love and trust for support. People may attempt to cross your boundaries or manipulate you to neglect them, so stay strong and remember why you’ve begun to set them in the first place.
“The first thing you need to learn is that the person who is angry at you for setting boundaries is the one with the problem.– Dr. Henry Cloud, Boundaries
3. Learn how to say ‘no’
Many people struggle to set boundaries, or lack them entirely because they are also people-pleasers.
They focus on the want, needs, wishes, and agendas of others and neglect those of their own. They say yes too much – whether that’s to going out for drinks, taking on extra work, or listening to unhealthy ranting and gossip.
They either literally say ‘yes,’ or they don’t take the opportunity to stand up for themselves and express their own wishes.
If you struggle to set boundaries and find yourself somewhat of a people-pleaser, it’s worth your time and energy to learn how to say no.
It can be scary at first because somewhere inside, you fear the other person’s anger, judgment, or disappointment. That fear is often an echo of a feeling you had about an authority figure when you were younger, so consider if you’re actually worried or afraid of the person in front of you or if an unresolved emotion has been triggered.
Understand that when you say no to others, as daunting as it seems, you’re saying yes to yourself.
You’re choosing where and how to spend your time and energy and not misusing or abusing it. You’re creating more space in your personal life for things you actually want to do and which serve your growth.
Unhealthy boundaries are boundaries that don’t exist or that do exist in theory but that you don’t uphold.
We can tell others about all of our boundaries and personal limits, but if we don’t follow through with the consequences of a crossed boundary, then we’re not really teaching others how to treat us.
Setting boundaries is a must if you want to enjoy your life, have self-respect, maintain a healthy relationship with yourself and others, and use your energy for your personal growth and development rather than for the sole benefit of others.