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Welcome to boundary boot camp: Set limits, find more peace

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Personal boundaries are important to every aspect of your well-being. In fact, having the right boundaries in place can be the difference between burnout and a happier, healthier you. Learn what boundaries are, why they matter and how to set them.  

Setting boundaries is more than just a popular hashtag on Instagram. It’s a critical skill that can improve every aspect of your life, whether it’s your career, your relationships or even your health.

But it’s not always natural or easy for people to set boundaries. It can feel selfish or unkind — neither of which is true. In fact, others will often appreciate knowing where that line is, and that can help them set their own boundaries.

Most important: Becoming a pro at setting boundaries will help you feel happier and be healthier. Use this guide to understand the importance of setting boundaries, how to know if yours are working, and the strategies you can use to put them in place.

What’s a personal boundary?

Everybody knows what a physical boundary is. Maybe it’s that row of trees you’ve planted between your house and your neighbor’s or the lines on a basketball court. Yet when it comes to your personal life, boundaries are often invisible. As a result, we may not fully understand what they are and why they’re so critical.

What are personal boundaries? “They’re the limits you define for yourself so you can maintain balance in your life,” says Tasha Holland-Kornegay, PhD. She’s based in North Carolina and is the founder of Wellness in Real Life. She’s also an author and a motivational speaker.

In the same way that a physical boundary protects your property, personal boundaries can protect you — your time, energy, ideas and values. “It’s about guarding your time for the parts of life that matter most to you, which includes essentials like resting and treating your body well,” says Holland-Kornegay.

It’s also about deciding what behavior you will and won’t tolerate from others. You learn how to value yourself as much as you value your friends, family and co-workers.

Types of personal boundaries

Personal boundaries don’t come in a one-size-fits-all box, and there are several types, says Lori Ryland, PhD. She’s the chief clinical officer of Pinnacle Treatment Centers, based in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. Here are 5 important ones:

  • Physical boundaries: These govern how you want others to respond to aspects of your physical body. This includes placing limits around space and physical touch. They also refer to your ability to meet basic needs such as sleeping and eating.
  • Emotional boundaries: These refer to how you communicate and manage your feelings and availability. You may get overly involved in other people’s problems. On the flip side, you may have difficulty getting close to people.
  • Intellectual boundaries: These refer to your thoughts, ideas and opinions. How do you expect others to respond to your opinions, and how do you react to those of others?
  • Property boundaries: These help you manage your personal possessions. How protective are you over your belongings, including your clothes, car and home?
  • Boundaries around time and availability: This includes how you manage time with work, family and friends.

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The benefits of healthy boundaries

No matter the type, boundaries are key to fostering your physical and emotional well-being. “Being empowered to set personal boundaries is essential to fostering a healthy self-image,” says Karen Doll, PsyD. She’s a consulting psychologist in Edina, Minnesota, and the author of Building Psychological Fitness. When you set limits that help you thrive, it reinforces that your needs are valuable. That, in turn, boosts self esteem.

When someone sets boundaries that align with their priorities and values, and those boundaries don’t impinge on others, they’re said to have healthy boundaries. They can set you up for success in many ways.

“They allow you to engage in reciprocal relationships, maintain safety and experience strong self-esteem,” says Doll. For example, having a healthy boundary around the treatment you will tolerate from others— say from a friend or partner — helps you know when you need separation for your own well-being. Or having a healthy boundary around your time allows you the space to take care of yourself physically and mentally.

Healthy boundaries should also allow for a little flexibility depending on the situation and setting. 

Need help figuring out how to set healthy boundaries? Optum has digital mental health support tools that can help. You can work with someone one-on-one through AbleTo.

The dangers of weak or unhealthy boundaries

Without strong boundaries, you can suffer both physically and emotionally. If you have weak work boundaries — perhaps you take on new projects despite being busy — you can end up feeling tired, grouchy and burned out.

A weak or missing boundary in one area can have a domino effect on many aspects of your life. “The downstream consequences can include a lack of time or emotional availability for the people and things you care about,” Holland-Kornegay says.

For example, if you have a friendship that takes a lot of bandwidth — perhaps this person calls you constantly — you can end up short-changing people who are important to you. You may not get enough sleep or self-care time. This can impact your concentration at work, your mood and your health overall.

Another serious pitfall of poor boundaries: You increase the chances of being used, manipulated or violated by others. When you aren’t clear on what kind of treatment you’ll tolerate from others, you may be more vulnerable to accepting disrespect and abuse. (This doesn’t mean it’s your fault when you’re mistreated.)

Finally, a common consequence of poor boundaries is low self-esteem. “Not enforcing healthy boundaries will erode your self-esteem over time,” says Doll. You may get used to being taken advantage of or compromising. This can result in the sense that your feelings — that you — don’t matter as much as others do. It can create a vicious cycle where you struggle with overcommitment and fatigue from excessive exertion.

Bottom line: “Without clear boundaries, you can sacrifice your own self-care, well-being, agency and autonomy,” Doll says.

Why boundaries can be hard to set

Setting boundaries might sound easy in theory: No more volunteering to take on extra assignments? Done. An end to hours-long conversations with the neighbor about her divorce? Check. But it can be difficult in reality, and it takes practice to perfect. Some people struggle with it more than others. There are several reasons for this:

  • You’re afraid you’ll hurt someone’s feelings. It’s a fact that setting a boundary could cause the person on the receiving end to have negative feelings, Doll says. And for some folks, this possibility may keep them from setting limits. It’s normal to be empathic. But if you don‘t set limits for fear of hurting them, you’re essentially prioritizing their feelings over your own wellness.
  • Your personality may predispose you to avoid boundary-setting. Some personality types are more prone than others to having weak boundaries. For people who tend to want to please others or seek approval, boundary-setting isn’t always natural.
  • You’re not comfortable communicating your boundaries. Setting boundaries requires communicating them clearly to the people who challenge them, which can create discomfort. “It requires a level of assertiveness, and that can be challenging for some,” Doll says.
  • Your boundaries aren’t clear to yourself, let alone others. It’s impossible to communicate something that you haven’t fully defined for yourself. Taking time to figure out what’s important to you and how you will safeguard those priorities will help you identify the boundaries that you’ll set and communicate.

How to set healthy boundaries and gain some peace

Before you set boundaries, you should remember one important point. “Your goal isn’t to complicate your life with boundaries — it’s to make life richer,” says Holland-Kornegay. Here are some tips to do just that:

Go for doable. “Make boundaries achievable and clear,” Holland-Kornegay says. Don’t set such a high bar (no work on weekends ever) that you won’t be able to keep that boundary in place. Better: Set a moderate, specific boundary: 2 weekends each month completely work-free.

She adds that you also need to consider your personality when setting boundaries. For instance, if you’re naturally a workaholic, you might still fixate on projects even if you’ve left them at work. So try to create boundaries that don’t make you anxious.

Stick to the big stuff. Don’t fall into the trap of setting constraints on trivial things. Instead, “make a few sensible boundaries for the big-ticket stressors in your life and introduce more once you feel like you’re ready,” says Holland-Kornegay.

Focus on what makes you happy and work backward from there. Look for the high point in your day. Maybe you feel incredible when you find time to jog, read a book, hang out with the family, listen to a podcast or just relax in a bath. The question you need to ask yourself: How can I sprinkle more of these satisfying activities into my day?

“That’s where boundaries come in,” Holland-Kornegay says. “They shield your time for the things that matter so that you’re not lying awake at night wondering where the day went.”

Get personal with your values and “do you.” “Boundary setting requires distinguishing what you want from what people want from you,” says Doll. Sometimes, our idea of what is important can get caught up in what others prioritize for us, rather than what we truly value. “Think about what you need and develop deeper self-awareness by referring to your personal values, which can help guide you in establishing the right boundaries for you.”

Consider the relationship when setting a boundary. Limits will vary depending on the situation and who’s involved, Doll says. You’ll have different boundaries with your work colleague than with your spouse, for instance.

Don’t be afraid to communicate your boundaries. Once you’ve set your boundaries, be clear and consistent in communicating them to others. And don’t be scared to speak up when any boundary violations occur. “Many people will respect the boundary once they’re aware it’s important to you,” Ryland says. In fact, folks may appreciate knowing where that line is because that can take the burden off guessing what you are and aren’t comfortable with.

The best news? Only you get to determine the boundaries you establish in life — and others don’t have to like them or agree. “Your boundaries can and will look different than others,” Doll says. “And you get to change your mind at any time.”