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What does it mean to “need better boundaries?” (and how to do it)


The need for healthier boundaries has come up in sessions a lot lately. Many of us are stuck inside more without an "excuse" to not answer that Facetime call. And some of us are around people much more than we're used to and have lost our typical access to space and downtime. It seems that boundaries are being easily pushed against and needs are being unmet.


If you are wondering whether you need some different boundaries, one of the quickest ways to assess this is by noticing any feelings of resentment and irritability. If healthy boundaries are on one side of the coin, resentment is on the other side. When we don’t have clear limits for ourselves or others, we start to feel like things are unfair or that we are giving too much or being disrespected or being taken advantage of.


Boundaries are limits or agreements we have with ourselves about what we will do/not do or accept/not accept in our relationships and interactions with people. Boundary mismatches can show up in your workplace, your family relationships, with friends and neighbors and anywhere that you are interacting with people. Your boundaries and limits also vary depending on the type of relationship (ex. co-worker vs. best friend) and also depending on the setting (ex. being at a dinner party with friends vs. being at a grocery store).


Boundaries are often formed based on what we learned from our caregivers growing up. We tend to use caregivers as models for what is appropriate and to learn for ourselves what we feel comfortable or uncomfortable with. For example, if your mom had loose boundaries with sharing private info and decided to openly discuss with the neighbors that you wet your bed until age 13, maybe you learned that you wanted more rigid boundaries and decided not to tell neighbors anything personal about your kids. This could be a healthy boundary but it could also be overly rigid.


We also develop boundaries over time based on experiences and what has hurt us or helped us. If you had a job where a boss consistently dumped work on you at the end of your workday and expected completion before you could leave (and no overtime pay!), maybe you decided at your next job that you would communicate from the beginning that you need to leave work right at 5pm to catch your ride. This could be an example of a healthy time boundary but it could also create difficulty if it is communicated ineffectively.


As adults, boundaries are typically based on our values and things that matter to us. If I feel strongly about people wearing seatbelts in my car, I might have a firm boundary that the car doesn’t start moving until everyone is clicked in. If I value family time, I might guard my Sunday afternoon phone call time with my mother carefully and not accept invitations for other things.


Boiled down, unhealthy boundaries often look like going against your personal values or rights in order to please others or to avoid a negative outcome or reaction from others.


Everyone has different boundaries and it’s extremely helpful to know yours, to communicate them to others as needed, and to be open to hearing from others what their boundaries are too.


Common types of boundaries.


Emotional boundaries - these are about limits and protections for your feelings and the feelings of others. this is the one I hear about most in sessions. When these are violated, it can be really disruptive to the relationship. Healthy emotional boundaries address things like what to ask/not ask other people, what personal information to share/not share with others, when to share such information, and what type of emotional treatment we will accept from other people. Our emotional boundaries are violated when someone dismisses, criticizes or invalidates our feelings.

  • Unhealthy emotional boundaries can look like: telling very personal details to people you just met or don’t know well, falling in love quickly or getting obsessed with a new acquaintance, not noticing or responding when someone violates your boundaries, frequently letting others decide things for you or relying on the opinions of others, pretending that something doesn’t bother you, expecting others to anticipate your emotions or needs, and expecting others to fill your needs.

  • Healthy emotional boundaries can look like knowing what you need or what hurts you and stating that. Examples: “If the yelling continues, I will leave the room.” “It’s not okay for you to comment on my weight, please stop.” “I was disappointed that you did not call like you promised, please don’t do that again.”


Financial/Material boundaries refer to money and possessions. Having healthy material boundaries means identifying your limits on what you will share or spend, and with whom. For example, you may feel comfortable loaning a friend money but not a co-worker. Or you may be fine with a sibling borrowing your car, but not their teenage kid driving it. Our material boundaries are violated when someone pressures us to give/lend money or possessions, or if someone uses our things without permission or damages our possessions without making it right.

  • Unhealthy financial/material boundaries can look like: giving things to other people when you don’t want to, frequently giving things in excess of what you are receiving in the relationship (imbalance), spending money or giving things in hopes of winning affection or accepting food, gifts or items that you don't want or make you feel uncomfortable.

  • Healthy financial/material boundaries can look like: saying no when someone asks you to borrow something you are uncomfortable with lending ("I won't be lending you any more money. I care about you and I think it's best for you to take full responsibility for your finances."), not asking to borrow from other people if you are unable to replace the money or item (if it accidentally gets damaged), having a sense of your values and spending money in alignment with those values (for example, if I value living in my place, I can make sure my rent is paid first before spending money on eating out).


Time boundaries refer to how you spend your time. The first step to healthy time boundaries is reflecting on what things matter to you in life right now (work responsibilities, relationships, physical activity, community involvement, hobbies, home care, etc). Once you are clear on the things you value, the next step is to set aside enough time for each category. Thirdly, you will need to stay aware of things that may be encroaching on your ability to spend that time. Challenges often arise when other people want us to spend our limited time in ways that don't match how we want to spend it. Many people struggle to uphold their own time boundaries if they are afraid other people will be disappointed in them or upset at them.

  • Unhealthy time boundaries can look like: sacrificing sleep to stay up talk on the phone with a lonely friend because they call nightly, agreeing to co-chair a committee at work even though you already feel being on your regular tasks, not asking guests to leave even when you are waaaay done with the visit.

  • Healthy time boundaries can look like: being clear on how you want to allocate your time as well as what you can be flexible on, communicating clearly what your limits are (beforehand if possible “hey guys, I’ve gotta wrap up game night with you by 10pm tonight”), saying no to requests for your time even if it means the other person might be disappointed, being honest with yourself about your gut “No!” reactions when different opportunities to spend time pop up, and being respectful of the time boundaries of others in your life too.


Physical boundaries are about your preferences for personal space and physical touch. This is relevant in all settings - work, home, restaurants, stores, even in the car. How close can someone be to you and your stuff and what do you need to feel comfortable and safe?

  • Unhealthy physical boundaries can look like: assuming everyone is open to a hug upon greeting, not addressing it when people touch you or sit too close without your permission, digging through someone else’s things without asking, not addressing it when someone starts looking through your phone pictures and you are not okay with it, and noticing that you need some alone time but not asking for it.

  • Healthy physical boundaries can look like: asking permission before you touch anyone’s body or their things (“I’m a hugger, are you?”), being vocal about your own personal space needs (“Just a heads up, I’ll be wearing a face covering and I’d prefer if we keep distance when I come over.)” and addressing it when one of your boundaries is violated or you are feeling uncomfortable with someone touching your things or your person (“Please don’t do that”).


Sexual boundaries refer to the physical and emotional dimensions of sexuality. Healthy sexual boundaries involve clear expression and respect of limitations between sexual partners. Sexual boundaries can be violated with unwanted physical touch, pressure to engage in sexual acts, unwanted sexual comments or disclosure of intimate information outside of the relationship.

  • Unhealthy sexual boundaries can look like: not saying what you want or don’t want sexually, engaging in something you are uncomfortable with because you fear the other persons’ reaction, acting on sexual impulses without regard to consequences, teasing someone about aspects of their sexuality or being silent when it happens to you, touching someone without permission or being touched without permission and not addressing it.

  • Healthy sexual boundaries can look like: talking about what you like/don’t like before becoming intimate (“I would really like it if we could_____, what do you think?”), stating clearly if a boundary is being approached or pushed upon (“I’m not comfortable with that”), respecting the limits of others, being sexually respectful of your own health and safety and that of others.


The benefit of healthy boundaries

A key takeaway is that healthy boundaries create safety in relationships for both parties. Healthy boundaries establish clear expectations and it’s easier for both parties to feel confident in how to proceed. Even if someone is disappointed that you say ‘no’ to them, it’s easier for them to cope and plan because they know exactly where you & they stand and there’s reduced fear of irritation from you later. It reduces your resentment and it allows them to feel secure in the connection with you.



Ways to express your boundaries


Many folks I work with have trouble saying ‘no.’ I work with a lot of kind and helpful people who want to please others and be perceived positively by others. Even though “No” is a complete sentence on its own, it’s helpful to have some way to articulate your boundaries that you’re comfortable with.


Here are some examples to consider:


I need some time to think that over; I’ll get back to you.

Thank you for asking me. Although I want to support you, I won’t be able to help out at this time.

That’s not in the cards for me right now

I don’t have capacity for that right now.

I’m not able to take that on.

I won’t be able to do that/help with that.

I can’t do that for you.


Thank you for inviting me, but I’m not able to make it/be there/attend.

I need some time to think and reflect on what I want to do but If you need an immediate answer it will be no.


It’s hurtful to me when _______ happens, would you please _______ instead?

For the good of our relationship, I prefer for us not to talk about _____ anymore. Can we agree to avoid this topic together?


I’m not comfortable with this.

This doesn’t work for me.

This is not acceptable.

I don’t want to do that.

Not at this time.


I need to honor my need for some downtime.

I’ve decided not to...

I’m drawing the line at _______.


If you struggle with identifying your boundaries or the idea of saying some of the above phrases creates anxiety for you, it could be helpful to put some attention towards building your confidence and sense of self-worth. Your needs are important, your resources are valuable, and your time and energy are limited.


It's time to prioritize taking good care of you.

© 2017 Heather M. McKenzie, Therapist LCMHC PLLC

(919) 744-8335

heather@mckenziecounseling.org

all areas of North Carolina, United States​