The word “boundaries” is used a lot nowadays, and the significance of it can get diluted in the amount of self-care memes and Instagram posts that exist. Boundaries in relationships are still very important, and I think often misunderstood. Boundaries can be physical and emotional, healthy and unhealthy. Whether you’re living with family, an intimate partner, or alone, boundary issues are likely to be heightened during times of high stress. All this time at home has inevitably made us highly aware of some of the boundary issues we have in our relationships. Without the typical distractions of life, I know many people have struggled with over- or under-boundaried relationships at home and at work. 

What is a Healthy Boundary?

A personal boundary is a limit or guideline we set for how we give and take, physically, emotionally, and mentally, in relationships. Boundaries determine how we exchange energy with another person in our lives. They can be both conscious and subconscious, meaning we can actively put them into place or they exist without our awareness because they are learned. Mark Manson describes healthy boundaries well: “Taking responsibility for your own actions and emotions, while not taking responsibility for the actions or emotions of others.” This can feel especially hard with family members, which can lead to challenges in our intimate relationships as adults. 

What a Healthy Boundary is Not 

A boundary is not a punishment. Many associate boundaries with what we don’t allow or “put up with” from the people in our lives. Although this may be part of it, boundaries are also what we allow in. Boundaries are not only putting up rules about how we refuse to be treated, they also define what we are able to receive in our relationships. 

Healthy boundaries are not rigid. Rigid boundaries can look like blaming others for their own emotions and actions. People with healthy boundaries are able to keep an open mind, listen to different points of view, and allow space for understanding without having to control the outcome. 

Healthy boundaries are also not enmeshed. Enmeshed boundaries can look like taking on too much responsibility for others’ emotions. People with healthy boundaries are able to hear a friend or loved one’s pain without taking on their feelings, and they can maintain a stable sense of self during discussions about emotional topics. 

Internal Boundaries

Personal boundaries also exist in our relationship with ourselves. Healthy personal boundaries can look like discipline around taking care of your own physical and mental health, learning to manage negative thoughts, and taking responsibility for our life experiences. Healthy internal boundaries lead to healthy self-esteem.

Setting Personal Boundaries

Developing new boundaries in relationships can feel challenging, as it involves other people and it changes an existing dynamic. Other people involved may not be ready or willing for the relationship to change. A key to understanding and establishing boundaries is remembering it’s about your behavior, not the other person’s. Time, patience, and self-awareness are key to developing new, healthier boundaries. Working with a therapist on this can be helpful. Here are some resources for learning more about boundaries: Boundaries by Henry Cloud, Where to Draw the Line, Boundary Power  

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Ali is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist-Associate in Austin, TX. She works at The Practice and is supervised by Dr. Mathis Kennington, LMFT-S. Ali helps her clients create change and improve relationships, whether that’s a relationship with themselves, their partner, or a family member.