Like peanut butter and jelly, relationships and boundaries go hand in hand. Having boundaries is a key part of almost any and every kind of relationship, whether it’s with a friend, family member, co-worker or yourself.
These boundaries — more specifically, the guidelines, limits or rules that people create to identify permissible, reasonable and safe ways for others to behave toward them and how they respond when someone crosses those lines — are an integral part of everyone’s lives, permeating every aspect of them.
“Boundaries are a part of the framework in how we build healthy relationships,” says Joelle Shipp, a licensed clinical mental health counselor at MindPath Care Centers in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Just like trust, honesty, consistency, commitment and understanding are important characteristics in any healthy relationship, boundaries are also key. Healthy boundaries are often set in place for the safety and protection of others. Without boundaries, there are many opportunities to hurt others in physical, emotional, verbal and mental ways.”
Paying it forward
Creating and maintaining boundaries is often easier said than done, according to Shipp. Some people may have difficulty identifying their wants and needs and then communicating them with someone else, she says.
“Having self-confidence and respect can increase your ability to feel and know that you deserve to be treated with respect and then be able to communicate this with others,” Shipp says. “Sometimes others are not respectful of boundaries that are set in relationships. This may cause a person to have to determine if they continue their relationship or not. Just as you expect others to honor your boundaries, you must be willing to respect another person’s boundaries.”
Jann Blackstone, a Phoenix-based psychologist, says the primary reason healthy boundaries are essential is to ensure relationships are mutually respectful, supportive and caring.
“They protect against manipulation and let people that love you or should respect you understand exactly what you will accept and what you won’t,” she says. “Healthy boundaries are rooted in self-confidence and positive self-esteem. The more self-confidence one has, the easier it is to establish healthy boundaries with others.”
Blackstone says self-confidence and self-esteem plays not only into establishing your own healthy boundaries, but respecting others’ boundaries as well.
“Simply, treating others how you would like to be treated is the key,” she says. “If you listen carefully, friends and loved ones, even business acquaintances, will tell you what is acceptable — and if you are clear with what you will accept from them, then then the relationship will be rewarding for both participants.
“People often have trouble establishing clear boundaries because they don’t want to appear bossy or be disliked or regarded as a bad person. If people are more concerned about being liked than respected — these are the people who have trouble establishing healthy boundaries.”
Shipp adds that it’s also important to model healthy boundaries for others, including children and teens.
“Children are often very aware of how others treat each other and will often imitate what they see,” she says. “I find boundary setting is something that is taught and established in children at an early age. It can become a healthy part of building relationships throughout the life span.”
Drawing the line
You can set up healthy boundaries in many different aspects of your life. For the work setting, they can include not working during a lunch break, arriving to work and leaving work when scheduled, determining what topics you discuss with others in the work setting, and deciding whether you spend time with your co-workers and boss outside the work setting, Shipp says.
“Boundaries can be set with co-workers by communicating personal wants and needs. These boundaries do not always need to be initially communicated but on a situational basis, or when a personal boundary may be perceived to have been crossed,” she says.
Boundaries between friends and family can include when you spend time with them and how often, the activities you do and don’t do together, the topics you discuss, and what language — positive and negative — you use when speaking with each other, Shipp says.
Racheal Cook, a business strategist and consultant based in Richmond, Virginia, says in her line of work, a big part of customer experience is having a clear plan and clear boundaries in place to help manage expectations and relationships. Every time you say yes to someone or something, there is a tradeoff. But as you move from a startup phase, you can set more boundaries based on what tradeoffs you are willing to accept, she says.
“Family and friends can be much harder to set boundaries with — especially if they have never had healthy boundaries in that relationship,” Cook says. “Personally, I’ve found the easiest way to do this is hit a ‘reset’ by letting people know you are taking a little time to yourself and will reach out when you are ready to reconnect. Then you can hopefully share an honest conversation about what your needs are.”
Cook says in her own experience, “We decided years ago when we had kids that we were not available for traveling to extended family every single holiday,” she says. “We wanted some time with our new little family, too. So we let our family know which holidays we would be available to spend with them, including summer vacation time, and planned from there.”
Healthy emotional boundaries can include being able to share feelings and emotions with a trusted person without the fear of being harmed or being made to feel poorly for talking about your feelings, Shipp says.
“It is also good that as you communicate these feelings, that the other person is emotionally available to be receptive of how you are feeling,” she adds.
Cook says a healthy emotional boundary could be as simple as you saying you are not OK with people saying disrespectful things to you, or you are not comfortable with certain behaviors, like heavy drinking around your family or small children.
According to Blackstone, healthy boundaries are safeguards to ensure all parties feel respected.
“What makes you feel comfortable is the correct personal boundary,” she explains. “When you feel acknowledged and respected you will feel as if your boundary is appropriate.”
Lastly, Cook says, in her business, they lay out all boundaries and expectations up front, whether training a new team member or onboarding a new client.
“We share the boundaries and expectations in multiple ways during those first weeks together. As we continue to work together, we simply navigate people back to those boundaries and guidelines. Setting boundaries is an ongoing process, but it always starts with an open and clear conversation,” she says.