In self-development circles, we often hear about the importance of boundaries. However, we don’t hear or see as often about how to handle overstepping boundaries or what healthy boundaries look like.
For some people, discussion around boundaries often brings up a lot of resistance.
On the one hand, we have people who use boundaries as rigid walls or barriers. Boundaries for them are forms of electric fences to protect themselves from being hurt. They find it difficult to trust people or express vulnerability, and as a result, they feel isolated and disconnected.
On the other hand, we have another extreme of people who think it’s selfish to express boundaries. They tend to put someone else’s needs above their own and, as a result, feel depleted and resentful. This pattern is often accompanied by codependency, people-pleasing, and enmeshment (losing own sense of self).
So What are Healthy Boundaries?
Many people see boundaries as imaginary lines that separate you from others. Something like your own personal space, so to speak.
I see it a bit differently. Setting boundaries means simply expressing what we prefer. Being straightforward. Saying how we feel. Asking for changes. Standing for what we believe in despite potential disapproval. Saying no without having a need to make excuses or justify our preference.
At the same time, boundaries are not there to control what other people do or don’t. It also doesn’t mean that we will always get what we want.
In short, boundaries are about defining and following our preferences, personal integrity, desires, and needs.
Therefore it is crucial to know yourself more and your own personal truth if you want to develop healthy boundaries.
In short, your personal boundaries are based on your own value system and perspective and might be totally different from those of your friends, other people, parents, society or partner.
Nobody else but you can tell you where your boundaries lie.
Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you understand your boundaries more:
What are my non-negotiables?
What do I value the most?
Another misconception is that boundaries are set in stone. The truth is they can change over time, and they vary depending on the relationship and circumstances.
For example, the time you can give to others is more limited when you have a baby or start a new business project.
What Are the Signs of Not Having Healthy Boundaries? (+Boundaries Quiz)
Do you want to find out if you have healthy boundaries? Take this Boundaries quiz.
- Feeling guilty or selfish when you say no to someone
- Going against yourself to please others or to be accepted
- Not addressing it when someone has mistreated you
- Saying yes when you mean no or vice versa
- Allowing physical touch when you don’t want it
- Overextending yourself just to be perceived in a good light
- Constantly trying to fix other people’s problems or difficulties
- Not communicating your emotional needs in relationships
- Allowing others to take advantage of you
- Feeling depleted and overwhelmed
- Avoiding uncomfortable conversations because of potential conflict it may create
- Not wanting to ruffle the feathers
- Feeling resentful for always giving and not receiving enough
- Apologizing for things that are not your fault just to keep the status quo
- Not speaking up when you have something to say
“A lack of boundaries invites a lack of respect.” I read this quote by Ritu Ghatourey, which made me pause and reflect.
We can’t control what others do or say, but we can set boundaries and determine our response and consequences for overstepping boundaries.
However, it goes deeper than that. How we treat ourselves sets the tone for how others treat us.
In other words, we can’t expect respect from others if we don’t respect ourselves. We can’t expect others to value us and our time if we don’t value ourselves.
If we keep putting ourselves last, how can we expect others to start putting us first?
Picture Maria. She’s a typical nice girl. She does everything that’s required of her and more. In doing so, she might secretly hope that someone will notice her one day and acknowledge her. So she never says no, and yet she is undervalued, underappreciated and feels constantly depleted.
And then there is another colleague – Suzy, who is not afraid to speak up her mind and ask for pay raise. She doesn’t pick up the phone from her boss on weekends or vacations because that’s her time off for family. She values her time and knows her priorities.
Can you see the difference?
So perhaps rather than asking how to make others respect our boundaries or why other people overstep our boundaries, we can ask:
Do I communicate my needs clearly and assertively?
Do I even know what are my non-negotiables?
Can I be ok with disappointing others if it means following what’s true to my heart?
Do I stay true to my words, values and priorities?
“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others.” ~ Brene Brown
Why Do People Hesitate to Set Boundaries?
There could be multiple reasons why we’re afraid to set boundaries or hesitant to speak up when someone is overstepping our boundaries:
- putting other people’s needs and feelings first
- thinking it’s selfish to express boundaries
- not knowing ourselves
- not feeling that we have rights or authority
- thinking that setting boundaries will upset or disappoint the other person and ruin our relationships
- lacking the skillset because we haven’t learned how to set boundaries
Oftentimes, we’re afraid to set boundaries because of the potential consequences it might have. It’s especially difficult when we derive our self-esteem from external validation from others.
Communicating what we want, feel, and need can be uncomfortable and scary because others might dislike it and get upset.
But as with everything else, the more we practice, the easier it gets.
It’s not our job to save or fix people. To do it all. To please everyone.
It’s our job to be authentic. To take it one step at a time. To communicate our boundaries and speak our truth.
Why Are Healthy Boundaries Important?
By allowing people to overstep our boundaries, we go against ourselves. The main consequence of disrespecting boundaries is low self-esteem and resentment towards self and others.
If we don’t express ourselves openly, we might end up in unfulfilling relationships.
We will feel like people closest to us don’t really know us or don’t love us for who we really are. Having healthy boundaries prevents us from losing ourselves in relationships.
When we abandon our personal truth, it feels like we can’t trust ourselves anymore. It can feel like a self-betrayal. The only way to correct this is to attune back to our emotions, to know and love ourselves enough to act in alignment with our own personal truth.
“When we avoid difficult conversations, we trade short term discomfort for long term dysfunction.” ~ Peter Bromberg
How Do We Recognize If Our Boundaries Were Overstepped?
Our feelings always communicate to us whether our boundaries have been violated or not with emotions such as anger, frustration or resentment. Therefore it is crucial to befriend our own emotions and pay attention to them.
Knowing how we feel can be confusing if, in our childhood, we were shamed or dismissed for how we felt and for what we wanted. When our boundaries were constantly violated. We think that overstepping boundaries is normal and that ignoring our boundaries is normal.
This childhood dynamic often leads to disconnection from our feelings. And disconnection from our feelings leads to a struggle with making decisions, taking actions that are in alignment with our true authentic selves and recognizing overstepping boundaries.
I talk more about emotions in these articles:
People who overstep boundaries often:
- take without asking
- belittle others
- ignore what you say or how you feel about something
- are controlling and manipulate
- make decisions for you without consulting you first
What Do Healthy Boundaries Look Like?
- Being clear about your values and preferences
- Having a healthy openness and vulnerability with people who earned your trust
- Saying no without having a need to justify your preference or making excuses
- Respecting other people’s boundaries without taking it personally
We set our boundaries by communicating them and then acting in alignment with our words.
There are different ways of communicating our boundaries.
Difference between passive, aggressive and assertive communication:
- long rambling sentences, also known as beating around the bush
- using phrases such as “if it wouldn’t be too much trouble…”
- the voice is often dull and monotonous, over-soft or over-warm
- frequent justifications, e.g., “I wouldn’t normally say anything”
- apologies, e.g., “I’m terribly sorry to bother you..”
- self-dismissal, e.g., “It’s not important” or “It doesn’t really matter”
- self-pity, e.g., “I’m useless…hopeless” or “You know me…”
- Sarcastic or condescending undertone
- Use of threats, e.g., “You’d better watch out” or “If you don’t…”
- Put downs, e.g., “You’ve got to be kidding…” or “How can you be so stupid..”Why on earth did you do it like that?”
- Evaluative comments emphasizing concepts such as: should”, “bad”
- Opinions expressed as facts, e.g., “Nobody wants to behave like that” or “That’s a useless way to do it.”
- Appears upset but refuses to admit it
- Silent treatment or ghosting
- Sarcastic or condescending undertone
- Acting moody without explaining why
- Focus on problems but not on solutions
The healthy version would be assertive communication.
So let’s take a look at four main areas where we set our boundaries – Family, Work, Romance and Friendship.
What are Healthy Boundaries with Parents?
As we get older, we start to lean away from our parents’ influence. This is an essential part of becoming an adult.
I carried a lot of guilt around being a ‘bad daughter’. I found it difficult to separate my own needs and desires from my parents’ expectations of me. Therefore it was hard for me to set boundaries with them. I didn’t want to make them disappointed or upset.
They wanted me to stay close to my house, and I couldn’t wait to spread my wings and explore the world. I felt a constant inner conflict inside.
Maybe some of you can relate to this.
Boundaries with your parents can look like this:
- Being open about how you feel and expressing your opinions
- Managing your time and finances in a way that works best for you and your lifestyle
- Not allowing them to force you or guilt-trip you into attending every family event
- Not badmouthing your partner in front of your parents
- Saying no
- Introducing your partner to your parents only when you feel ready
- Handling your own issues with others
- Not allowing them unannounced visits at your home
- Saying no to gifts that are given with the hope of getting a specific outcome from you
- Telling your parents that you don’t want to discuss topics that make you feel uncomfortable, such as your dating life, having kids, getting married, or any other
- Staying in a hotel instead of a family house when you visit them if you wish
- Not allowing them to push you into living your life on their terms
Family overstepping boundaries examples
Here are some examples:
- family showing up unannounced at your place
- telling you which partner you should choose, how you should manage your finances or how you should raise your children
- guilt-tripping you to get you to do what they want from you
- emotional abuse
Examples of communicating healthy boundaries with your family:
- “Before you stop by to visit, I’d like you to call.”
- “I know you mean well and want the best for me, but I need to handle things in my life and relationship without your interference.”
- “I understand how important it is to you that I remain connected to my family, but I need to have my own space. Let me decide how I want to maintain connections.”
- “When I have issues with my sister, I don’t want you to get in the middle. We are adults and can resolve it between us.”
- “I won’t accept money from you if it comes with the intention to control me.”
- “I can’t lend you any more money. I would be happy to help in another way.”
What are Healthy Boundaries in a Relationship?
Every relationship operates on its own unique set of rules and boundaries. It’s up to you to discover what you want in your relationship and to communicate it.
For example, if having kids is important to you, it’s better to express it sooner rather than later. This way, both you and your potential partner can determine whether you’re compatible with each other.
Otherwise, you might push your partner or yourself to become a square peg in order to fit in a round hole. Needless to say, this is a recipe for unfulfilling relationships and life.
Open communication and honesty are the main pillars of every healthy relationship.
Overstepping Boundaries in a Relationship
You may be asking…What is overstepping boundaries in relationships? That’s a very subjective question because every relationship is unique. Therefore it’s best to first determine where your boundaries lie within the relationship.
Here are some questions to as yourself:
- How do you envision your relationship?
- What are your top 5 needs in a relationship?
- Are your values compatible?
- What are your deal breakers?
- Do you believe in monogamy?
- What do you consider cheating?
- How will you share your finances and household duties?
- Is it ok to talk to others about your issues with your relationship?
Once you have answers to these questions, you’ll know where your boundaries lie so you can communicate them to your partner.
What are Healthy Boundaries in Friendships?
Building connections with others can definitely make our lives more rewarding and enjoyable. It’s always a good sign if your friends want to see you grow.
Good signs of healthy friendship:
- your friendship is mutually supportive and beneficial
- you feel safe to express your vulnerability, including your quirks and insecurities
- setting boundaries doesn’t threaten friendship
- you can be yourself around your friends
- you can talk to them openly about your feelings.
Overstepping Boundaries in Friendship
- Chronic complaining and gossiping
- Competitiveness and jealousy
- You feel emotionally drained after your interactions
- They talk badly about you behind your bag
- They share your private matters with others
- Can’t be mature about disagreements
- The friend is around only when she or he needs something from you
- It’s all about them
- Not taking responsibility for mistakes
If your friendship is toxic rather than nurturing, it might be best to first communicate your concerns. Considering it still doesn’t make any difference, the next step would be distancing yourself from them or completely cutting them off.
What Are Healthy Boundaries at Work?
- “Let’s chat during lunch. I have a few projects I need to push through.”
- “I have a lot of things on my plate, so I can’t help you with your project.”
- “I cannot work past five o’clock.”
- “I don’t check work emails while on vacation.”
- “I need more assistance with my workload.”
- “I don’t talk about personal subjects at work. It makes me uncomfortable.”
- “If you want to chat, let’s have lunch together; that way, I can focus on our conversation.”
- “Thank you for inviting me to hang out with you this weekend, but I won’t be able to make it.”
- “I don’t want to grab drinks after work, but how about going to a yoga class?”
- “I’m not available to help you with your request after hours. I like to focus my time on my family.”
Examples of Overstepping Boundaries at Work
Some boundary issues at work can include:
- taking on more than you can handle
- working overtime without pay
- engaging in toxic interactions among colleagues
- not taking time off.
Boundaries quiz to find out if you have healthy boundaries
Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A guide to reclaiming yourself by Nedra Glover Tawwab
Centre for clinical interventions in Australia
Unfuck Your Boundaries Build Better Relationships Through Consent, Communication, and Expressing Your Needs by Faith G. Harper