What are healthy boundaries?
You might hear the word “boundaries” and imagine walls that separate you from other people. In a sense, that’s true. But boundaries aren’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, they’re an important ingredient in healthy, balanced relationships. They're also a crucial part of maintaining your identity, mental health, and physical well-being.
Boundaries can include restrictions on physical actions, such as asking a roommate or partner not to look through your phone or not to interrupt when you’re working from home. They can also be psychological, such as asking your spouse to accept that your goals and dreams may not always be the same as theirs.
Healthy boundaries serve to:
- Encourage autonomy and reduce codependent habits.
- Set expectations when interacting with others.
- Give you a sense of empowerment and self-respect.
- Ensure your physical and emotional comfort.
- Clarify individual responsibilities in a relationship.
- Separate your wants, needs, thoughts, and feelings from those of others.
Types of healthy boundaries
Personal boundaries can come in many forms. However, not every relationship requires you to address every type of boundary. For example, you might need to set physical restrictions with a coworker but not financial ones.
Physical boundaries help keep you comfortable and safe, not just when you’re dealing with strangers, but also when you’re interacting with those closest to you. For example, you might tell someone that you’d prefer handshakes instead of hugs. Or you could tell a friend that you need to take a rest during a lengthy bike ride. If a physical space belongs to you, you can set limitations around that as well. Perhaps you don't want someone to intrude in your bedroom or clutter your office with their items.
Sexual boundaries could involve anything from asking for consent before being physically intimate to checking in with your partner’s comfort level during sex. Even if you’ve been with your partner for years, you should make an ongoing habit of communicating your preferences. You might want to reassess limitations and expectations surrounding things like frequency of sex and contraception use.
Emotional boundaries ensure that others are respectful of your emotional well- being and internal comfort level. When setting an emotional boundary, you might say something like, “I don't want to talk about this subject while I'm at work because I need to focus.” You might also use these barriers to prevent yourself from feeling overwhelmed by other people’s feelings. For example, you can acknowledge you’re not responsible for how another person reacts to your decision to turn them down for a second date.
Material/financial boundaries extend to your belongings, such as money, clothing, car, or home. If you’re a charitable person, you might have a hard time saying “no” to people who want to borrow items. However, people may intentionally or unintentionally take advantage of your goodwill, and then you may notice your own resentment building. When setting a material restriction, you might say something like, “You can borrow my phone charger, but please put it back when you’re done” or “No, I can’t loan you money for new shoes.”
[Read: Coping with Financial Stress]
Time boundaries allow you to focus on your priorities at work and in your personal life without feeling crowded by other people’s needs and wants. Imagine that you’ve had a stressful work week and want to spend the weekend recuperating. You might decline a party invite or set a limit on how long you’ll be there. Other time-related restrictions could include asking a friend to avoid calling you during work hours or asking a partner to delay an important conversation until a more convenient time.
Boundaries aren’t etched in stone. You’ll need to adjust them as circumstances change and relationships grow. This can be especially true in long-term relationships. Communication is important as you reevaluate and revise your boundaries. You want the other person to be clear on the change and the reason behind it.