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How to Establish and Sustain Healthy Boundaries

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Anne Pascale Stein is a German, English and French speaking licensed mental health practitioner in Berlin and online with over a decade of experience in private practice. Her approach combines body-oriented, emotion-focused, and attachment-based methods to help with anxiety, exhaustion, depression, grief and trauma.

Last Updated on January 5, 2024 by It’s Complicated

Personal boundaries are all about creating space for yourself, about you feeling protected and safe in this world and in your relationships. They clarify your needs and expectations, and let you know when to say no and when to say yes.

In this post, we will look at the essential aspects of being boundaried: noticing, communicating, and holding personal boundaries. Before we do that, let’s first define what personal boundaries are.

Understanding Personal Boundaries

Personal boundaries are a psychological process that allows you to protect yourself from the world and contain your emotional complexities. Boundaries shape your sense of self. They can be categorized into two types: protective and containing boundaries.

Protective Boundaries: Protective boundaries are the external boundaries we establish to communicate our needs and expectations to others. They create a safe and structured environment around us. These boundaries help us protect our space, time, and energy, and they often involve saying “no” when necessary. 

Containing Boundaries: Containing boundaries are the internal boundaries we establish to define what we need and expect of ourselves in relation to others and within our own inner world. These boundaries create a sense of safety and structure within ourselves. Containing boundaries involve saying “no” to behaviors or tendencies that may be harmful or counterproductive. They help us maintain self-control and emotional regulation.

So far, so good. However…

Boundaries in a culture of control

Our culture tends to view boundaries through the lens of control, often emphasizing rules, power dynamics, and punishment. The focus is on standing firm and not allowing any breaches. We are advised to set consequences for ourselves and others: “If you do this, I will do that.” When someone tells us, “You really need better boundaries,” it often translates to, “You should be able to change the other person’s behavior.”

But here’s the crucial distinction: boundaries are not about dictating to others what they should or shouldn’t do; it is not their responsibility to listen to your boundaries. Their job is to live their lives. To effectively protect ourselves we can’t focus on the results in the other person. Protecting means creating a space so you can reach a place of safety. 

Similarly, when it comes to containing boundaries, if we fixate on outcomes, we enter a power struggle within ourselves. It is the double bind of our culture regarding boundaries: either we’re encouraged to protect them through power and control, or we’re pushed to constantly expand them, expected to do and be more.

Whether it’s about protective or containing boundaries, the message is: “You need to be tough.” This has been a generational conviction, fostering an open door to toxic shame and guilt. However, we don’t need to establish boundaries—they already exist. What we need to do is notice and communicate them. Being boundaried means to openly acknowledge that we all have limits in terms of what we want and can take and give. 

Especially in close relationships, it requires patience and an awareness of both our own boundaries and those of the other person in order to create a space where both feel safe and respected. Unfortunately, we lack role models for this, having no idea what connected, loving, AND assertive boundaries truly look like. But we can create space and explore.

Experiential Movement: Making Space for Yourself
To get a felt sense of making space for yourself, choose a song that ignites feelings of fierceness, clarity, courage, or empowerment in you. Stand comfortably, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and recall a situation where you needed to communicate a boundary. If possible, express it in a single sentence (e.g., “I want,” “I need,” “I expect,” “I say no to…”). You can also say it out loud. How does it sound? What’s it like to hear it?

Then, play your chosen song and let yourself move freely. Find movements that feel expansive and liberating. Explore how your body wants to move, whether it involves stretching, shaking, or any other movements feel spacious.

After the song ends, pay attention to how you feel in your body and to your emotions. You can repeat your boundary sentence and observe if it has shifted. What’s it like to say and hear it now?

1. Noticing Personal Boundaries

We become aware of personal boundaries in social contexts and interactions. To notice our boundaries, we need to be connected to our emotions, receiving their messages and action tendencies, whether it’s anger, fear, disgust, excitement, joy, or love.

Here are some examples of what you might experience when encountering your boundaries:

  • Feeling annoyed or angry: Anger signals that something is not ok for you and provides the energy to protect yourself. Suppressing anger often diminishes its protective function, leaving you feeling bitter and resentful.
  • Feel anxious: Anxiety indicates underlying feelings, needs, or conflicts. Calming anxiety allows you to uncover those, whether it’s uncomfortable or mixed emotions, unmet needs, or unresolved conflicts.
  • Feeling guilty or obligated: There’s no such thing as guilt-free boundaries. Many of us were raised to believe that putting our needs first or having desires was wrong, instead, we were often responsible for fulfilling those of others.
  • Feeling overwhelmed and overloaded: Experiences of exhaustion and inner emptiness are very common, often resulting from the pressure to constantly achieve more. Demonstrating these boundaries requires courage, and it is life-saving.
  • Feeling uncomfortable: You may simply sense discomfort or unease and have an inner discussion whether something is still acceptable, valid, or relevant to you. Congratulations! This kind of inner dialogue means you met your boundary. It’s a good moment to get to know them!

Whenever you recognize your boundary, take time to clarify what it’s safeguarding and understand its protective role: your time, your energy, your money, your stuff, your body, your integrity, your emotions, your peace of mind… You have the choice to stop or go beyond it. There is no right or wrong in this; the key is to be aware of your decisions and motivations.

  • When You Choose to Stop: What’s it like for you when you decide to stop at a point where something within you signals: “This is enough”. What do you require to stop? Do you need encouragement, additional self-care?
  • When You Choose to Go Beyond: What’s it like when you decide to push beyond your boundaries? What does this experience entail for you? What resources, like a break or additional support, do you need afterward?

It’s essential to fully acknowledge your responsibility in choosing to stop or expand your boundaries. Protecting as well as expanding can provide a deep sense of personal freedom, and both can be emotionally challenging.

I DON’T HAVE TIME TO STOP! I hear you, if that is your truth. Maybe you’re working in health care, caregiving for a family member, delivering other services or whatever else your good reason might be. Take one minute. Close your eyes. Stop. Feel your feet on the ground. Take a deep breath. Notice for yourself: I am here. Right now. This is my truth. It’s a hard thing to remember. I know. I also forget. Still, it’s worth trying if you can. Once, a surgeon told me after a session: “I will be the first doctor that is actually breathing during morning rounds.” May you be the first in yours!

Taking a break
To notice our boundaries, we need to be connected to our emotions, receiving their messages and action tendencies. We therefore occasionally have to give ourselves a break in whatever capacity we can manage.

2. Communicating Boundaries

Expressing your boundaries to others can take various forms. Some days, putting your children in front of the TV might be an expression of a boundary (your need for a moment of solitude to eat in peace, for instance), while on other days, insisting on turning off the TV might be the boundary (reflecting your expectation for shared meal times).

Communicating boundaries is more than just marking your territory. We all coexist within one space, and on a broader scale, we’re beginning to recognize, through events like the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and migration, that our boundaries aren’t strictly separated territories. We often bump into each other, intentionally or not. While we don’t have control over what is happening in the world, we can influence how we engage with others and our circumstances—with power, control, and domination or with courage, kindness, and compassion.

Effective communication of boundaries is NOT:

  • Establishing territory: We all navigate one shared space according to our needs and wants.
  • A one-time empowerment act: It requires continuous cultivation of the capacity and energy to maintain boundaries.
  • An attempt to alter someone else’s behavior: Others act according to their wants and needs.
  • A battle to win: It’s not about initiating a fight in the first place.

Communicating boundaries IS about:

  • Creating space for yourself: Clearly and directly expressing your needs, wants, and expectations by saying things like, “I want…”, “I need…”, “I expect….” Be precise, avoid complex language, and say no when necessary.
  • Focusing on your needs: Prioritize what you need to do to ensure your safety and well-being.
  • Taking responsibility for your needs and wants: Always assume responsibility for them. They are legitimate.
  • Empowerment, even amid challenges: It involves confronting conflicts, guilt, awkwardness, and other difficult experiences.

It’s essential to understand that you cannot control how others will react. For example, believing that if you were more assertive with a colleague, they would stop inviting you to their network events is an oversimplification. While improving your assertiveness may help, there’s a significant chance that people won’t respond with acceptance. This is normal, as they, too, are guided by their own wants and needs.

Both boundaries and how we communicate them are flexible, subject to change in various contexts and over time. It is normal to need very rigid boundaries with certain individuals (e.g., bullies) while maintaining more open and flexible boundaries with others (e.g., trusted friends). Nonetheless, there are contextual “bottom-line positions” (Harriet Lerner)—boundaries that are non-negotiable even under relational pressure.

If you could use some encouragement in exploring how to share a boundary, listen to Dr. Kristin Neff’s Fierce Friend.

There is a line between people following their needs and wants in unpleasant and hurtful ways and behaviors that are criminal, violent, abusive, or neglectful. In cases of interpersonal violence and coercive control, it’s essential to recognize that these behaviors intend to violate your boundaries and break your resistance. They are often protected by structures such as patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, capitalism, and more. Understand that you are already doing what you can to protect yourself within the given situation, and you deserve all the help and support required to protect yourself.

3. Holding Boundaries

Maintaining your boundaries is often the most challenging aspect and requires a lot of attention and energy. Here’s what it means:

  • Facing other peoples’ protests: Be prepared to face various responses and protests from others when you communicate your boundaries. They are not used to it.
  • Facing your own discomfort: It is normal to feel uncomfortable or conflicted when you communicate your boundary. You are just not used to doing this.
  • Remaining responsible: You are responsible for your boundaries even after you’ve communicated them. It’s not about handing over control to someone else just because you’ve expressed your needs or expectations.
  • Navigating colliding boundaries: Be prepared to encounter situations where your boundaries clash with those of others or even within yourself. This can be especially challenging, and you’ll need strategies to navigate such conflicts.

Maintaining either protective or containing boundaries may not always be equally easy. Your ability to uphold boundaries depends on various factors such as your current stress levels, personal strength, perseverance, available support, privilege, patience, and sometimes, your nerves. The more adversity you are facing in response to your boundary-communication, the more it might be exhausting to maintain them. Adapting to what is possible for you at a given moment does not make you weak or neglectful of yourself. It’s essential to recognize your efforts and be kind to yourself. Get support if you need it! 

Possible Responses to Boundary Communication

When you communicate your boundaries, you may encounter a range of responses from others, including:

  • Understanding and respect.
  • Repeated disregard for your boundaries.
  • Offers of alternative solutions or attempts to negotiate.
  • Ignoring your boundaries as if they didn’t exist.
  • Arguments questioning the appropriateness or motivations behind your boundaries.
  • Feelings of being attacked or punished.
  • Complete withdrawal or avoidance.

How would you like to respond to these various reactions and what do you need to bolster your capacity to remain detached when others’ responses don’t align with your truth, are not your responsibility, or simply are hard to bear?

If you need fierce encouragement not to get defensive about your boundaries and let other people have their feelings about them, listen to and get the energy from How to state a boundary without needing to justify it.

Dealing with Discomfort

Sharing boundaries can lead to discomfort within yourself. Here are some of the ways it might feel and some ideas that might help you to get through it:

  • Guilt: Many of us have learned to feel guilty for prioritizing our own needs and wants. Get curious: What would you be feeling if you wouldn’t feel guilty? Reach out for support if needed.
  • Anxiety: You may fear the worst outcome when you share boundaries. Engage in whatever helps you calm down and try to make space for what the anxiety is covering up (Mixed or strong emotions, needs, conflicts). Talk it through with someone you trust.
  • Sadness: Setting boundaries might make you feel sad for having to be “not nice”, or you may need to grieve the loss that comes with boundary-setting. What could give you comfort?
  • Remorse: You might question if you went too far, were too harsh, or said something wrong. Remember: receiving a boundary is rarely pleasant, it is ok that the other person is feeling this!
  • Awkwardness: The dynamic of the relationship may change, and you may feel uncertain about how to proceed. Take a deep breath! You just did something uncomfortable for you and the other person. It’s ok to feel this.
  • Helplessness or Frustration: You may feel like nothing you can do will change the situation. Some situations are hard to bear. What can you do to make space for yourself without having to find a solution right now?

Journal Prompt: Exploring Your Own Boundaries
Think of the last time you communicated a boundary with someone:

1. How did you become aware of your boundary? Describe the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that made you aware of it. What was your inner response to it?

2. How did you share the boundary with the other person? Could you be clear and direct, or did you communicate it differently? How did sharing your boundary make you feel?

3. How did the other person respond to your boundary? What was it like for you to face their response? What did you need to maintain your boundary and stand up for yourself? How did you support yourself in doing so?

Colliding Boundaries

In certain relationships or situations where leaving is not an option, such as in parenting, shared custody, job obligations, hierarchies, or caregiving, you may encounter colliding boundaries. This can happen when:

  • Your boundaries clash with another person’s boundaries, which can be especially challenging in close relationships: your partner wants a big family, you don’t. 
  • Your protective and containing boundaries conflict: you need rest and don’t want to leave colleagues unsupported.

In these situations, making space for yourself begins with an internal act of being and staying present with yourself. It might also involve relying on the protection of your containing boundaries. This may require you to compassionately prevent yourself from reacting defensively or dismissively, both towards others and yourself.

If you’re a caregiver or need to make space for yourself in relationships where you can’t remove yourself, listen to Dr. Kristin Neff’s Self compassion for care givers or practicing Compassion with Equanimity.

Summary and Key Learnings 

  • Boundaries are about making space for yourself, not changing or controlling someone else’s behavior.
  • Our culture often presents a double bind about boundaries, emphasizing both toughness in protecting them and toughness in expanding them.
  • Boundaries may manifest in various ways, including through protective anger, anxiety, overwhelm, overload, and discomfort.
  • Boundaries can be protective or expansive, and understanding your reasons for each is crucial.
  • Sharing boundaries can take different forms depending on social contexts.
  • Holding boundaries means to handle responses from others and manage your own discomfort to maintain them once you share them.
  • This can be particularly challenging in close relationships and when dealing with colliding boundaries.
  • Remember: boundaries are a complex psychological process of self protection that requires courage, clarity, fierceness and compassion! Be brave and be kind, to yourself and others.

Sources and resources:

Nedra Glover Tawwab, Set Boundaries, Find Peace. A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself, 2021

Mark Groves Podcast, Harriet Lerner: 7 Steps On HowTo Find Courage And Use Your Voice

Pretty Deadly Self Defense Podcast, Susie Kalish About Winning and Losing in Self Defense

The work of Pia Mellow

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