Boundaries: What They Are And How to Set Them

The Nystrom & Associates provider consulted for this article on boundaries is Dr. Karin Ryan, PsyD, LP, Clinic Director, Outpatient Therapist.  You're probably hearing a lot of buzz about boundaries these days. The term is used frequently in conversations, social media, and by celebrities. But what are boundaries? What are the different types of boundaries, and how can you start setting them in your life? Keep reading to find out!

What Boundaries Are (And Are Not)

Boundaries is one of those words that has become so commonly used but not so commonly defined. Before you can know if you need to set boundaries, it helps to know what they are in the first place. Let's break it down. Dr. Karin Ryan states that boundaries are a way of distinguishing yourself and your needs from other people and their needs.
Boundaries are where I begin and end and where you begin and end - where there’s a line kind of between two people…It’s being able to be like, “I have my own feelings, my wants, my needs, my opinions, my own emotions , and you have yours."
They clarify who is responsible for what and reinforce the fact that I am responsible for myself and that you are responsible for yourself. They notify others that you have the right to think your own thoughts, feel your own feelings, and protect the privacy of your own physical being. A healthy boundary is sharing your wants or needs regarding things that will affect you directly. It is about your behavior. Some examples of a healthy boundary are:
Telling a friend you are uncomfortable with his hugging you. Informing your employer that you will not respond to work emails on the weekend. Voicing that someone's words or actions were hurtful to you. 
Boundaries are not about controlling others. They do not dictate how someone else behaves by themselves or with others.
Some examples of things that are not boundaries:
Expecting a family member to pursue a career you would be more comfortable with. Deciding who your partner can and cannot spend time with. Dictating how someone else spends their free time. 
These last examples involve sharing wants and needs, but they require controlling another person.
Related: What's Your Communication Style? 

The Six Types

Broadly speaking, there are six types of boundaries. They protect six different aspects of us.
  1. Physical
    • How you protect your physical space.
    • Choosing how close you stand to someone, if you hug someone, or the space you need in the bedroom or bathroom.
    • Example: "I am uncomfortable standing so close to each other."
  2. Emotional
    • How you protect your emotional wellbeing.
    • Voicing what you feel comfortable talking about, what you share and with whom, and when you choose to be vulnerable.
    • Example: "I do not want to share more about this traumatic event right now." 
  3. Intellectual/Mental
    • How you protect your thoughts and beliefs.
    • Asking for respect for your thoughts and ideas, choice in what is talked about, and speaking up if someone puts down your beliefs.
    • Example: "I ask that you respect my vegetarian beliefs by not making those jokes to me." 
  4. Material
    • How you protect your personal belongings.
    • Communicating what you share, with whom, and how much.
    • Example: "Please do not use my favorite coffee mug."
  5. Sexual
    • How you protect your needs and sexual safety.
    • Voicing what acts you are comfortable with completing and what you're comfortable discussing.
    • Example: "I am not comfortable with these sexual jokes that you are making around me."
  6. Time
    • How you protect the use and misuse of your time.
    • Choosing if you attend an event, how long you stay, and who will join you.
    • Example: "This busy season at work is stretching me thin, so I will not be able to coach soccer this season."
Related: 4 Conflict Resolution Skills for Better Relationships

How Do You Know If You Have Good Boundaries?

Now we know what boundaries are. But how can we tell if we need to implement them? Dr. Ryan says to keep an eye out for a few words that will clue us in if we need stricter boundaries.
A helpful word to keep in mind is pressure.  A sign of boundaries not being honored is feeling pressure to give in to what the other wants or unhelpful expectations. Another critical sign we are not honoring our boundaries is resentment. If you find yourself feelings resentful to others, check in on your boundaries.
If a relationship is pressuring you or causing you to feel resentment, there's a good chance your boundaries could use some adjustment. Related: How to Manage Stress So It Doesn't Lead to a Breakdown

Nystrom & Associates on Boundaries

Watch Dr. Karin Ryan on Twin Cities Live as she discusses what boundaries are and how to set them. 

Setting boundaries

Perhaps you're noticing some resentment building up in yourself. Or you're feeling more drained in a relationship or pressured to do things you don't want to. How do you firmly establish a boundary?
  1. Identify where the leak is
    • Where are you losing your energy? Once you identify where you're feeling drained, you can start to set a boundary.
    • Example: "My partner invites his friends to our small apartment every week, and I feel tired and drained because I need more alone time than he does."
  2. Know that you are worthy of having personal boundaries.
    • This may be easier said than done. Many believe it's selfish to think of themselves. But how would you feel if the roles were reversed?
    • Example: "I wouldn't expect my partner to be okay with feeling drained from his weekly house guests.  I am just as important as he is."
  3. Start simple, and be direct
    • Use clear language and "I feel" statements so as not to come off as accusatory.
    • Don't apologize for speaking up for yourself.
    • Example: "I feel drained and tired from having your friends over every week. I would like to limit the number of times they come over to once or twice a month."
  4. Stick to your boundaries
    • After some time has passed, people might test your boundaries again. Politely stand firm in them.
    • Example: "I know we spoke in the spring about only having your friends over once or twice a month, and this is the 3rd time you've asked them to come over this month. My feelings have not changed, and I still need that limit to be maintained."
Related: 4 Steps to Assertive Communication

A Word From Nystrom & Associates

Healthy boundaries help us to feel safe and respected. They're one of the ways you care for yourself and honor your needs. They're also a way to say that you matter and deserve to take up space and be respected as much as anyone else. While boundaries may be difficult to set in the short term, they allow you to be more present in a relationship and continue in the long term.

This process requires a lot of self-knowledge and communication skills. Those can be difficult to cultivate on your own. A therapist can help. Nystrom & Associates offers individual, couples, and family therapy.  Call 1-844-NYSTROM or request an appointment online.

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