Healthy Boundaries: When You Need Them, How to Create Them and How to Make Them Work for You

Healthy boundaries are necessary

You have an important deadline at work, and you need take the car to the repair shop. You skip breakfast, drop off the car, and get a ride to your job. By noon your stomach is growling. Just before lunch, your boss walks up and asks you to take care of something urgent. What do you do?

We depend on our boundaries help us cope with challenges every day. They are a necessary part of life, but they can be hard to define exactly. What does it mean to have healthy boundaries, and how do you put them in place?

What Are Healthy Boundaries?

Boundaries are guidelines that you create for yourself, to manage your actions and interactions with other people. They allow you to limit how others behave toward you, and to put safe limits on yourself. They help you choose words and actions that can ensure your well-being no matter what life throws at you.

Signs of Trouble With Personal Boundaries

Personal boundaries are essential to good self-care. But most people don’t realize how important boundaries are to managing the difficulties and distress they feel. It may be time to rethink your limits if:

  • You constantly feel overwhelmed
  • You frequently get sick
  • You say yes to too many things – you are exhausted trying to deal with all you have to do
  • People invade your physical, emotional or sexual space in ways that make you uncomfortable or that do not feel safe to you
  • Others “cross the line” when it comes to touch or the way they enter your personal space, and you don’t know what to say
  • Someone is saying something that makes you uncomfortable, whether it’s about you or somebody else
  • A person is asking too much of you, and you’re having trouble saying no

We want to help others, or “be a team player.” But when demands grow too big, it can be hard to know what to do. How do you set limits that are reasonable when you feel pressured to keep your troubles to yourself?

You Can Learn to Create Good Boundaries

Step 1: Practice Self-Awareness

The first step in creating healthy boundaries is self-awareness. This may feel uncomfortable at first, but it can also help you relieve some stress: “Clearly recognizing what is happening inside us, and regarding what we see with an open, kind and loving heart, is what I call Radical Acceptance,” says author and Buddhist meditation advocate Tara Bach. “By accepting absolutely everything… we are aware of what is happening within our body and mind in any given moment, without trying to control or judge or pull away.”

Do you sense a knot in your stomach, lump in your throat or notice other body signs of anxious feelings? Someone might be getting too close to you physically, or asking something you don’t feel you can give.

You may want to help your friend or your boss, but the request is too much now. Notice what you are telling yourself: “I should just do it. I know they will be disappointed if I don’t.” Pay attention to your physical response when you say these things to yourself.

Step 2: Practice Finding Your Voice

The second step in the boundary forming process is giving yourself permission to name what is bothering you. Take time to realize what you want and need in order to feel better about your situation. Seek support by talking with a confidant, a therapist or writing in a journal. This can help you find your voice.

Once you notice your feelings and your wishes, you can begin to recognize them and voice them. Finding your voice means being able to express what you want in words. You may tell yourself, “I really wish I didn’t have to do all this work,” but you may not be ready to say this to anyone. A good therapist can help you notice and name what you are feeling and develop the confidence to say what you want, first to yourself, then to the therapist, and then out loud in the world.

For example, a counselor may ask you: “What do you notice when you think of saying to your boss, ‘I’m feeling overwhelmed, I missed breakfast, and I need to get lunch. Can I accomplish this task after I eat?’ What do you think would happen?” When you can ask yourself similar questions, your self-awareness is finding its voice.

Step 3: Start Small

Third, start small. Think baby steps. A simple change might be enough to take better care of you. For example, to help yourself set a boundary around your relaxation time, you might decide to turn off the computer an hour or two before going to bed.

You could set your alarm to get up in time for breakfast. You can plan to have healthy foods in the house to enjoy.

You can start small by keeping promises to yourself.

Special Challenges for Those With a History of Trauma

Setting healthy boundaries sounds simple, but that doesn’t make it easy. Some individuals are ready and able to become more self-aware, practice processing thoughts and feelings, and plan small steps. For those without experience or role models for healthy boundaries, the process can be extremely difficult. This is especially true for trauma survivors. In the past, their personal boundaries were likely violated or betrayed so often that creating new boundaries requires extra care.

If you are a trauma survivor, you may feel tremendous guilt or shame when you try to say no. You may be terrified to state new limits. Self-awareness can mean having to face overwhelming feelings from your past (a topic we address more fully in another article). Still, the process for setting healthy boundaries works for trauma survivors too.

Setting Better Boundaries: An Example

Let’s take an example. Jane (not her real name) is a survivor of childhood trauma, and feels overwhelmed in her day-to-day life. Her therapist asks her, “What do you notice when you talk about feeling overwhelmed? What do you notice in your body when we talk about these activities? If the sensation you noticed in your body had words, what would it say?”

Jane names her feelings and thoughts: “I feel a pit in my stomach and I know that pit tells me I’m getting really anxious about this. I think it’s because I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know how I’m going to do it….”

Jane and the counselor acknowledge these observations, feelings and thoughts. The counselor asks, “Can you think of what you would like to do to take care of yourself? What feels like a 1, a 5, a 10 (from easier to harder) – what do you think would be a first step to take care of yourself?”

Brainstorming can provide ideas without the pressure to choose anything yet. As a final step, Jane decides to try one thing she feels she can do to stop over-extending herself.

You can make boundaries for yourself to promote your own well being, for example:

  • Taking a lunch break to rest and nourish yourself, as well as put space between yourself and work
  • Going to bed on time to take care of your body
  • Pausing each day to pay attention to your sensations, thoughts and feelings – maybe even a short meditation or yoga practice (there are some great apps for your phone, which can take as little as 1 – 10 minutes)

You can set up boundaries to limit how others interact with you, for example:

  • Asking for help from a trusted colleague or friend (lifting a boundary)
  • Finding words to limit what you take on: “I’m really sorry, I would love to do that, but I can’t. I don’t have the time right now.”
  • Finding words to give yourself time or space: “I want to do this with you, but I won’t be able to get to it until next week.”

How to Set Physical Boundaries

The need for physical boundaries is essential to feeling safe and calm. But limiting the way others interact with you physically can be very challenging. Difficulty making safe physical boundaries happens in families with a history of sexual or physical abuse.

You know that feeling you get when a person hugs you a little too long? It’s troubling when someone stands too close, or intrudes when you are talking with someone else.

It is absolutely acceptable–and necessary–to set a physical boundary when this happens. What can you do to feel safe and secure in these situations?

Take the time you need to decide what is appropriate, reasonable and do-able for you. For example:

  • A direct approach: “I’m not comfortable with you standing there when I’m talking to someone. I will come and get you as soon as we are done.”
  • An indirect approach: Stick your hand out to shake hands with someone who historically hugs you too long.

The Rewards of Living with Healthier Boundaries

Healthy personal boundaries are key to your everyday self-care. You need them to ensure you go to bed on time, to eat when you are hungry, and to keep the needs of others from becoming higher priorities than your own.

We all need healthy boundaries in our daily lives. What do you need to take care of you? How can you start, even with baby steps? Even if you struggle to set limits, know that you deserve to take good care of yourself. You are worth it, you are meaningful, and your wants and needs are just as important as anyone else’s.

The boundaries you create do more than keep you safe. They can be your tools to pursue your dreams and desires. Boundaries are necessary to keep the demands of the world to reasonable levels, and help us honor our promises to ourselves.

More Support for Setting Healthier Boundaries

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