What are healthy boundaries and how to set them

healthy boundaries
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I first learned about healthy boundaries in my recovery program. Having been raised in a home where such things were never discussed, my first foray into boundary setting came well into my 30s.

Depending on your experience, this may shock you. If you grew up in a home like mine, however, you may feel glad you’re not alone.

My parents kept me in line by registering their disapproval at every turn. This led me to believe my very existence required an apology. So, I did my best to shrink, not ruffle any feathers, and always always put other people’s needs ahead of my own.

I had heard of boundaries, but did not believe they applied to me. At the time, my self-awareness hovered around zero, which prevented me from articulating this fact. But my life showed all the evidence.

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Now that I’ve learned to set healthy boundaries, it’s hard to imagine a time when I couldn’t say ‘no’. Now ‘no’ is my default answer. You have to give me a good reason to say ‘yes’.

Now that I've learned to set healthy boundaries, it's hard to imagine a time when I couldn't say 'no'. Now 'no' is my default answer. Click To Tweet

Let’s talk about what healthy boundaries are not.

1. Healthy boundaries are not walls.

Some people who grow up with abuse and neglect wind up with nonexistent boundaries (like me). They realize from being told over and over (with or without words) that their needs are inconsequential. Their job is to discern other peoples’ needs and take care of those instead.

They self-sacrifice and people-please. They lack a concrete sense of self because they never learned their strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. That’s because they were too busy studying other people to know themselves.

healthy boundaries
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But there’s another outcome from childhood abuse and neglect that often gets overlooked. That’s the child who decides they’re going to make damn sure their needs are met.

This leads to extreme self-sufficiency and a decision that everyone else is to blame for anything that goes wrong. They cannot afford to believe they are at fault because their sense of self is too fragile to handle that.

They have a fixed mindset and believe people don’t change. That means they have to be perfect and the best way to do that is avoid emotions at all cost. This equates to an extreme fear of intimacy and stonewalling anyone who tries to discuss emotions.

These are not boundaries, but walls, and they are just as dangerous as having no boundaries at all. Because they ensure the person will never enjoy true connection with another human being.

2. Boundaries are not rigid.

Rigid boundaries are another hallmark of an emotionally avoidant attachment style. This means you give no second chances when someone crosses your boundaries.

You have a rule that you only wait 5 minutes for someone at a restaurant. If they’re a minute late, you start ordering for yourself.

You cut people off easily when they slight you. You’re not interested in apologies or extending forgiveness. They should have known better.

You work so hard to be perfect and other people should, too. If they don’t, isn’t it fair they pay the price?

You may have many friendships but they’re all superficial. Your fear of intimacy and lack of trust prevent you from allowing anyone to get too close.

You can’t tolerate criticism, and lash out at anyone who dares challenge you. Your fragile ego can’t handle the idea you might be wrong.

What are healthy boundaries?

On the other hand, healthy boundaries are born out of love for self and others. Not a mistrustful need to protect oneself from constant perceived attack.

Healthy boundaries tell the world what you want and don’t want. They tell people what you will and won’t tolerate. They improve communication and make relationships go more smoothly.

Healthy boundaries tell the world what you want and don't want. They tell people what you will and won't tolerate. Click To Tweet

You speak up for yourself when mistreated. Though you give second chances, you won’t stick around for abuse.

You know you can forgive people without continuing a relationship with them. That’s different than cutting someone off at the first slight.

Comfort with saying no is the best way to set healthy boundaries. You are tuned into yourself enough to know your bandwidth.

You won’t overextend yourself to please someone else. This prevents the burnout and overwhelm that afflicts so many of us.

You won’t overshare by telling your whole trauma story to someone you’ve just met. You’ll let them get to know you over time. And only if they reciprocate with their own sharing.

If you’re busy or tired and someone needs your time, you’ll be honest. You’ll either say ‘no’ or put a limit on the amount of time you have available. This prevents resentment and misunderstanding.

If you're busy or tired and someone needs your time, you'll be honest. You'll either say 'no' or put a limit on the amount of time. Click To Tweet

If you’re dating someone and only want to see them once a week, that’s okay! Our culture loves to promote the idea of being joined at the hip. But healthy boundaries include limits on time spent with your love interest.

What other examples of healthy boundaries come to mind for you?

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