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What are healthy boundaries and Why Do We Need Them?

By: Ilona Myllniemi

6 min read

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Healthy Boundaries
Building healthy boundaries requires a lot of self-reflection and awareness of the role you play in your relationship patterns. In this article, we will discuss boundaries and how to set them for better mental health.

At this point, most of us have heard something about boundaries – they get talked about a lot, and for a good reason! Knowing how to set and maintain healthy boundaries is often essential for mental well-being, healthy relationships, and getting our needs met. However, knowing what healthy boundaries look like and being able to recognize when your boundaries need some work is not always as simple as it sounds.

All Relationships Require Boundaries

Yes – all of them! Boundaries are necessary for every single one of our relationships; with family, significant others, friends… Boundaries are the tools that enable us to maintain a healthy distance between ourselves and others: with healthy boundaries, we can create relationships that feel balanced and fulfilling instead of one-sided and draining. Having clear boundaries and knowing how to communicate them allows us to say “yes” to the things we want to say yes to – and they also let us say “no” to those things we want to say no to. This balance is essential for living an authentic, balanced life.

What Are Boundaries

To understand our own boundaries – or lack thereof – it’s important to understand the concrete role of boundaries and how they can show up in everyday life. Boundaries help us differentiate between ourselves and others, and they help us highlight the things that are ours to deal with – and the things that aren’t.

There are many kinds of boundaries that we might want to set in our lives, and these types are often divided into four main categories: physical boundaries, emotional boundaries, material boundaries, and time boundaries.

Physical Boundaries

Physical boundaries focus on boundaries around personal space and physical touch. Setting physical boundaries with other people can sound like…

  • “I don’t like hugs – how about a high five?”
  • “I love physical affection when we’re in private, but I’m uncomfortable with public displays of affection.”
  • “I’m a bit uncomfortable with you standing so close to me, could you give me some more space?”
  • “I want you to ask for consent first before touching me.”

Emotional Boundaries

Emotional boundaries, on the other hand, are boundaries around what we’re willing to share with others and how we want others to treat us. They help us separate other people’s feelings from our feelings.
Setting emotional boundaries can sound like…

  • “I’m actually not comfortable talking about that.”
  • “I don’t want to hear comments about my body.”
  • “I appreciate you opening up to me, but I don’t have the bandwidth to discuss this right now.”

Material Boundaries

Material boundaries are boundaries you have regarding money and other material possessions.
Setting material boundaries might sound like…

  • “I don’t want you to wear my clothes without permission.”
  • “You can use my car during the weekend, but not on any other day.”
  • “Sorry, I can’t lend you any money.”
  • “I’m not comfortable with you using my phone.”

Time Boundaries

Finally, time boundaries are exactly what they sound like – they are boundaries that focus on how you spend and prioritize your time. Setting time boundaries (with yourself or others) can sound like…

  • “I’m unable to take on any more responsibilities.”
  • “I can’t help you today, but I have time tomorrow.”
  • “I don’t respond to work emails on weekends.”
  • “Let me get back to you tomorrow.”

Setting boundaries requires communication, and sometimes we might need to assert our boundaries several times before people understand and remember them. It’s also important to know that someone else’s negative reaction to your boundary doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have set the boundary – in general, that’s usually a sign that boundaries were needed!

It’s also important to know that you’re not obligated to justify your boundaries to other people – and that your boundaries don’t have to make sense to others. What matters is that they help you feel authentic and balanced in your relationships. However, especially in our closest relationships, and when we know that the other person is genuinely curious and interested in hearing our perspective, we might want to explain our boundaries and our thought processes behind them to the people who we’re setting boundaries with. Doing so can help you feel understood and help with emotional closeness and communication – but simultaneously, know that you’re not under an obligation to justify what works for you to anyone else, especially if you know that the other person’s aim is to discredit or ridicule you.

Are your boundaries weak, healthy, or rigid?

All boundaries aren’t healthy boundaries. Boundaries can usually be described as healthy, weak, or rigid, with weak and rigid boundaries falling to the unhealthier ends of the spectrum: these kinds of boundaries don’t necessarily help us, and they can sometimes make our life harder.

Knowing whether our boundaries are working for us can require quite a bit of self-reflection, and journaling can be a great tool for clarifying your thoughts. Using a mental health app, like Mooditude, with a built-in journaling function can be helpful for keeping track of your thoughts and feelings on the go! Some feelings to keep track of regarding boundaries are feelings of discomfort, resentment, and enmeshment that relate to our relationships. When you notice these kinds of feelings emerging, it can be helpful to tune into your body and mind and reflect on what patterns trigger these experiences.

Healthy Boundaries

Healthy boundaries work like doors: they let people and things in – or keep them out – depending on the situation. Some features of healthy boundaries include…

  • Flexibility: you’re able to adjust your boundaries based on your needs as situations change.
  • Your relationships feel balanced; you don’t feel isolated, but you’re not living other people’s lives for them, either.
  • You’re able to trust others, but not blindly, and you feel like your own person.
  • You’re also able to say “no” or “yes” to things or people based on your authentic preferences and needs.

Weak Boundaries

With weak boundaries, on the other hand, there’s no door to keep people out or let them in; everyone can walk right in and take what they please. Weak boundaries can look different in different situations, but they often include things like…

  • Overextending yourself to please others and disregarding your own needs in the process
  • Oversharing to strangers
  • Not speaking up when you’re treated badly and making excuses for poor treatment
  • Feeling like everything’s your responsibility, and feeling like you’re underappreciated despite constant sacrifices
  • Feeling drained and burned out in your relationships
  • Feeling like an unpaid therapist to your loved ones

Ridgid Boundaries

In addition to weak boundaries, the other extreme is rigid boundaries. With overly rigid boundaries, the “door” we have with healthy boundaries is more like a wall: no one gets in, and you might feel isolated and lonely. Your boundaries might also feel like strict rules: they are not flexible even if you want them to be. Rigid boundaries are also often a response to past trauma or experiences of being treated poorly, and an attempt to protect yourself from further harm. Some signs of overly rigid boundaries are…

  • Never giving second chances and being quick to cut people out over small mistakes
  • Saying “no” to everything that isn’t exactly like you planned
  • Keeping people at an arm’s length: your connections with other people remain surface-level, and you might feel reluctant to share anything about yourself
  • Refusing to acknowledge other people’s perspectives or feedback

Understanding the Role of Healthy Boundaries

Building healthy boundaries requires a lot of self-reflection and awareness of the role you play in your relationship patterns. However, building this awareness can help you create a life where you’re able to be your most authentic self in relationships that feel supportive – but not engulfing or too shallow.

Not having boundaries is not selflessness; it’s often a sign of self-abandonment, and it often leads to deep resentment and discomfort in your relationships. Boundaries help you maintain clarity and help everyone be on the same page in your relationships. They’re not a way to control others: they’re a way to protect yourself. Healthy boundaries also have numerous mental health benefits, such as having more emotional energy, feeling less resentful, and cultivating a stronger sense of self-esteem and self-worth. Healthy boundaries are acts of love towards yourself and others – and you deserve them.

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Ilona Myllniemi

Ilona Myllniemi is a mental health advocate based in the UK and the founder of the social enterprise I Go to Therapy. After seeking therapy for the first time at age 17, they became passionate about destigmatizing going to therapy and educating people on mental health, therapy, and mental health disorders in a nuanced but approachable way. She hopes that eventually, mental health discussions will become as normal as talking about what you had for breakfast.

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