Personal boundaries – are yours in place?

A personal boundary can be considered anything that we ask others to respect. They exist as the individual rules, guidelines, moral and ethical principles, which determine how we act in the relationships we form. We create them in the mental and physical space we share with people, from fleeting moments of interaction to lifelong commitments.

Examples of boundaries include:

  • Physical: our body, personal space and possessions
  • Emotional: what we feel strongly about, what upsets us and excites us
  • Sexual/intimate: sexual preferences, consent to touch
  • Intellectual: our opinions, beliefs and values
  • Financial: money and other forms of wealth and value
  • Professional: work/life balance

Why are personal boundaries important?

One answer lies in protecting what we value. By placing boundaries around who we are, what we do, and the life we lead, we communicate to ourselves and others that we matter. Therefore, firm boundaries are essential for developing good self-esteem and self-worth and the basis for healthy, supportive relationships. In relationships, boundaries are an important form of communication. They provide other people with vital information about us and what they need to accept to play a role in our lives.

Positive mental and physical health and wellbeing are also dependent on us having clear boundaries. For example, time boundaries help us manage our personal and professional commitments so we don’t become exhausted or worse experience burnout. Relationship boundaries prevent us from being taken advantage of or mistreated.

Quality conversations

Awareness of boundaries is critical. Physical boundaries are easy to spot because we only need to bump into them to know they are there, whereas relationships boundaries are much harder to see. These we discover through the quality of our conversations. A bruised forehead tells us about a physical boundary; a conversation fulfils this role for an invisible one. At different stages of life, how we learn and who we learn from changes, but the one constant is the quality of our conversations for keeping our awareness high. Boundaries are a paradox, though. They can be deceptively easy to ignore, forget, or misinterpret for something so important. This is why we must work hard to ensure our conversations’ quality remains high.

A valuable boundary

One of the easiest ways to understand where our boundaries exist is by identifying what we value, and the best way to achieve this is through tuning into our emotions. Human beings’ two dominant emotions – anger and anxiety – are excellent indicators of value. They are like an X on a treasure map. When we give our value away, we feel anxiety; when others take it without permission, we feel anger. Therefore, whenever we feel anxiety or anger, we know we are at a crucial personal boundary. Emotional intelligence allows us to tune in to these emotions and know if our boundaries are acknowledged and respected – or not.

An education in personal boundaries

Who we are, what we do, and how we live our lives is represented in the people’s minds of the people in our lives – and this includes our boundaries. As far as possible, their representation of our boundaries needs to be the one we want them to have, and the way we do this is to educate. We need other people to know our boundaries, so they treat us how we like to be treated. This is not something we can leave to chance. We must ask questions, find out what they know, confirm, challenge, or update the knowledge they possess. Whether we know someone well or not, the aim is the same: educate. Human beings will fall back on assumption and inference in the absence of concrete information about boundaries, which never ends well.

Agreeing a contract

Want to know how to establish positive boundaries? Establish a relationship contract. All of us are familiar with contracts when we start a new job or buy a product, and ideally, we should also apply them in our relationships. Many issues, which occur due to misunderstanding or misinterpretation of boundaries, can be prevented by a good contract. The most watertight are those where all parties enter a relationship with a clear or ‘explicit’ understanding of how the relationship will support and respect mutual boundaries. What might an Explicit Contract cover?

  • Do’s and don’ts
  • Acceptable and unacceptable behaviours
  • Ethical and moral matters
  • Sharing of responsibilities
  • Acceptance of the other – similarities and differences
  • Needs and wants such as levels of intimacy and individual autonomy
  • Ongoing commitment to review and update contract BECAUSE PEOPLE CHANGE
  • A get-out clause

While no relationship is perfect, explicit contracts can make them more robust through a continuing commitment to ensuring mutual agreement of boundaries. And if this isn’t possible? All contracts have a get-out clause.

Breaking and keeping

Given the importance of boundaries, it might seem odd that someone would find them hard to establish and maintain. So who breaks their boundaries and why? As a general rule, people with low self-esteem break boundaries due to their overdependence on others. When a partner, friend or colleague breaks a boundary, they do a mental calculation: end the relationship or ignore the transgression. The first option requires them to depend on themselves, which they will not have a history of achieving. While difficult, the second option preserves what preserves them: the relationship’s continuation.

In contrast, people who value themselves – who have good self-esteem – demand boundaries in their relationships, stay with those who respect them and leave those who don’t. Theirs is a history of self-dependence and reliance, which means their relationship motto is: I want to be with you, but I don’t need to be with you. When someone transgresses their boundaries, they see this as an opportunity, not a threat.

How effective are your personal boundaries?

Here are some questions to help you think about your personal boundaries:

  1. Do you find it easy or hard to say ‘No’ to people?
  2. Do you identify with the term ‘people-pleaser’?
  3. If you say ‘No’ to people do you feel guilty or not?
  4. Do you ignore difficult emotions that arise in relationships or tune in to them?
  5. Are you too generous with your money and possessions, or do you get the balance right?
  6. When it comes to sharing personal information, do you give too much, too little or just the right amount?
  7. Is privacy an issue for you? Can you ask for it?
  8. How clear are your time boundaries?
  9. What are your personal or professional limits when it comes to taking on new projects?
  10. Do you find it easy or hard to stand up for yourself in arguments?
  11. Would other people know what you are thinking and feeling?
  12. Are you happy with your own company or do you need to be around people?
  13. Is it your job to make others happy or not?
  14. Can people invade your personal space – touch, physical closeness – without your consent?
  15. Do you have a positive or difficult relationship history?

What do you think about your answers? Do they tell you what you already know or have they created some new insights?

Getting support

Do you need support with your personal boundaries? Contact me for your free IMPACT consultation. I will give you as much time as you need to feel confident I am the right person for you. You will have the opportunity to tell me about what you are going through and find out how I can support you. Even if you choose not to work with me, I promise your consultation will give you more ideas, knowledge, and insight than you had before. Read what people say about working with me.