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  • Writer's pictureAveril

The Power of Healthy Boundaries: Staying Protected and Connected in Relationships

Updated: Jul 14, 2023

Boundaries are the invisible yet essential rules that define our personal space and emotional well-being in our interpersonal relationships. Healthy boundaries allow us to take care of ourselves, supporting a sense of agency as we realise that we are not at the mercy of how others choose to act. They help protect our own physical and emotional wellbeing as well as the wellbeing of others, and foster safe, mature, authentic connections.

Boundaries are a huge topic. In this first post, we will delve into a definition of boundaries, different types of boundaries, and the important difference between boundaries and expectations. In the next post, we will explore ways to establish and maintain boundaries that strengthen your sense of self and relationships with others.

Defining healthy boundaries

Healthy boundaries are guidelines that we set to protect our physical, emotional, and mental well-being. They create a sense of safety, respect, and autonomy in our interactions with others. Healthy boundaries involve clearly communicating our needs, limits, and expectations, while also respecting those of others. Some of these boundaries are set and accepted by the society in which you live – for example, social and cultural boundaries around personal space and physical touch. Other boundaries are personal and individual, and will vary between people and across relationships.

Boundaries can be conceptualised in two ways – those that we set for ourselves and our own behaviour, and limits that we set on what we will and won’t accept from others. Healthy boundaries function as fences, with gates that we choose to open and close. There is strength in a boundary, with built-in flexibility that acknowledges the complexity and variability of humans and relationships.

Internal Boundaries

Internal boundaries guide what we let out into the world. We might have certain boundaries around the level of personal information that is appropriate to share when first meeting someone, or at work versus in our personal lives. We might set a boundary with ourselves that we do not raise our voices at people, or follow our partners around the house when they ask for time out during a conflict. Our internal boundaries show respect for ourselves as well as the boundaries of others.

Healthy internal boundaries also support us to let out the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that connect us to our people. We cannot truly love or be loved from behind a wall. It’s a balance of letting people see enough of our internal worlds to be known, without overwhelming them with an unfiltered torrent of us.

External Boundaries

External boundaries are the limits that keep you protected. They allow us to say “I don’t want you to be around my kids when you’re drunk”, or “I need you to call and ask me first if you want to come over”, “I don’t read work emails after 5:30pm,” or “I don’t take criticism from people (online trolls) I wouldn’t take advice from.”

As well as keeping certain behaviours and energy out of your life, healthy external boundaries help us to appropriately discern what feedback we should take in from others. When we slow down enough to thoughtfully observe the feedback that is offered to us, we can better discern whether it (or some of it) is helpful for us to take in.

The ability to look at feedback in this way is supported by an appropriate level of self-esteem. Being our own wise friend allows us to know when it is fair to say “You know what, you’re right. I could do better at that” and when to conclude for ourselves that we’ve thought about it, but the feedback doesn’t ring true, so we’re going to trust our discernment and not take it in. When we trust ourselves to filter the feedback that comes in, we feel less under attack, and thus more able to respond without a knee-jerk defensiveness. Taking in fair feedback is vital to the maintenance of deep relationships.

Benefits of Healthy Boundaries

Increased self-esteem

Healthy boundaries enhance self-esteem by showing us that we value and respect ourselves. They empower us to manage and prioritise our wellbeing and extricate our self-worth from others' opinions or approval. Boundaries that are reasonable, considered, and firm but flexible have a stabilising effect. We can trust ourselves to take excellent care of ourselves and our relationships.

Improved relationships

Healthy boundaries foster balanced relationships that are both protected and connected. When both parties respect each other's boundaries, it leads to increased trust, understanding, and mutual respect. It enables open and honest communication, creating deeper and more meaningful connections. We know what to expect of ourselves and the other person, which develops a deep sense of relational safety.

Reduced stress and resentment

By setting and maintaining healthy boundaries, we reduce the stress and resentment that can arise from overextending ourselves or sacrificing our needs. Boundaries provide a sense of control and ensure that we allocate time and energy according to our priorities. Operating from a sense of obligation or duress is a breeding ground for resentment – boundaries allow us choice and willingness.

Reduced guilt

When we acknowledge the necessity of appropriate boundaries, we are relieved from much of the guilt that might have accompanied our past attempts to set limits or say no. We accept that as adults, we are required to take care of our own physical and emotional wellbeing and energy, and thus all adults need some reasonable boundaries. If part of my job as a human is to take good care of myself so that I can continue to operate as a healthy person, partner, employee and member of society, then I can acknowledge that at times I will have a responsibility to say no or set a limit in order to stay well. I am no good to anyone if I don’t look after myself.

Types of Boundaries

Physical boundaries

Physical boundaries refer to privacy, personal space, and touch, both of our bodies and our belongings. Examples include how close we stand to others depending on the familiarity of the relationship, and hugging hello and goodbye, as well as whether someone can borrow your possessions without asking or go into your cellphone.

Emotional boundaries

Emotional boundaries involve defining and maintaining limits in our emotional interactions. It means recognising and honouring our feelings and needs, while also respecting the emotions and boundaries of others. It supports our ability to notice when we need to take a step back for our own self-care, whether that’s taking a day off from work or disentangling ourselves from a relationship with someone who is abusing substances.

Healthy emotional boundaries involve expressing ourselves genuinely, though this does not mean we are permitted to say everything we think and feel without consideration for its impact. “I’m just being honest” and “This is just how I am” are cop-outs. We can say anything we need to say, while choosing our words and tone in a way that considers the impact on the listener and relationship. We don’t get a free pass to express our own emotional needs while wilfully trespassing the boundaries of others.

Mental boundaries

Mental boundaries relate to our thoughts, beliefs, and values. They involve respect for our intellectual property, personal opinions, and the right to disagree. Healthy mental boundaries allow us to have our own perspectives, engage in constructive debates, and maintain a healthy sense of self. Mental boundaries support us to think critically about the information we take in, which might allow us to be both appropriately flexible without being too easily swayed. It is of course equally important (though sometimes more difficult) to show respect for the mental boundaries of others that we might strongly disagree with.

Boundaries versus Expectations

At times, we might think we are expressing a boundary in a relationship, when we are really coming from a place of expectation. Expectations tend to involve the words “should” or “must” sound like “My boyfriend/girlfriend must text me back within half an hour,” “We should vote for the same political party”, “My partner should enjoy the same activities as me”, or “In order to feel loved by my partner, we must have sex daily.”

Expectations are rigid, and focused on controlling the behaviour of another person. We might become very upset when our expectations are not met, and feel that the other person must abide by our expectations in order for us to feel OK again. However, most people do not respond well to being controlled, and the rigidity of such rules makes the likelihood of failure and conflict extremely high.

When we feel tempted to place expectations on another person, it’s helpful to reflect on what need we are trying to meet (connection? Appreciation? Shared values? Quality time together?). Additionally, what place are these expectations coming from - fear? Lack of trust? Insecurities based on past hurts? If we want a healthy, mutual relationship that is characterised by willingness rather than control, we can reflect on allowing a range of ways that same need can be met, to give the other person choice, agency, and respect for their own boundaries and energy. It is absolutely fair to have needs for connection and quality time in close relationships, and being able to meet these needs through a range creates far more opportunity for satisfaction and success. It’s like buying a lottery ticket with 10 lines of numbers rather than just one.

This is not to say that we cannot have any expectations in relationships, and that others can act as they wish and we should just let it bounce off. It is reasonable to expect basic respect, for example – to have the expectation that our boss does not swear at us, or our partner lets us know if they are going to be late home, or our friends will tell us if they need to cancel a plan rather than standing us up. Individuals are also allowed reasonable expectations around intimacy in a long-term relationship, though this is a complex and nuanced topic to navigate.

In fact, not allowing ourselves to have any expectations is another type of boundary failure, where we do not permit ourselves to have reasonable needs, usually from a desire to maintain co-dependency or a fear of abandonment. If you are unsure whether an expectation is reasonable, it can be helpful to seek the thoughts of a balanced and trusted friend or therapist – just be sure to consider your partner’s boundaries if disclosing any information about them to someone in your personal life, and remember your mental boundaries to thoughtfully consider your confidante’s opinion before moderating your own.

By establishing and maintaining appropriate boundaries, we protect the physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing of ourselves and others, while fostering trust and genuine connections. With this understanding of the meaning and purpose of boundaries, as well as the difference between boundaries and expectations, the next post will explore helpful processes in establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries in relationships.


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