Do You Have Unhealthy Boundaries?

by Carolyn Moriarty, LCPC

Setting boundaries is an important, but often misunderstood, tool. Some people think boundaries are only needed in extreme scenarios where physical or emotional abuse is occurring. Other people may believe they have good boundaries when in reality they are putting up walls or avoid asserting their own wishes and preferences out of fear as being seen as “unkind”. In truth, boundaries are indicative of self-esteem and healthy relationships.


What are boundaries?

Think of boundaries as teaching people how you want to be treated. A common misconception is that boundaries are ways that you require other people to act. However, it is more helpful to think of boundaries as the way you will act in act in order to keep yourself emotionally and physically safe.  They apply to any kind of relationship you have, including family, friends, co-workers, roommates or romantic partner.

In order to identify your own boundaries, start by paying attention to how you feel about and react to situations around you. Feeling uncomfortable, anxious, drained or resentful after an interaction with another individual is a good indication that setting a boundary within that relationship would be beneficial. It might be helpful to write down the emotions and thoughts you experienced during this interaction in order to clarify what type of boundary needs to be in place.


Types of boundaries:

Boundaries can be social, physical, mental—anything at all. It is important to remember that your boundaries in different facets of life may looks completely different from one another. For example, you may be extremely physically affectionate with your family but are extremely uncomfortable with physical touch from strangers.  You can feel comfortable having very few boundaries in one area of your life but feel more sensitive and vulnerable in another area.

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Below are common areas in which people set boundaries:

  • Physical boundaries include need for personal space, comfort with touch, and physical needs like needing to rest, eat food, and drink water.
  • Emotional boundaries are all about protecting your emotions and energy. Setting emotional boundaries may involve limiting emotional sharing with people who respond poorly. Violations of this boundary can include telling other people how they feel or “emotionally dumping” on people without their permission
  • Intellectual boundaries are healthy when there is mutual respect for respect for ideas and opinions. They can be violated if one person is made to feel shamed, dismissed or criticized.
  • Time boundaries means knowing when to say “no” to extra obligations and avoid overcommitting yourself
  • Financial boundaries are the limits you set involving your money. It can look like prioritizing your own financial needs before those of others, not giving money that supports unhealthy behaviors and saying “no” to requests for money or saying that you need time think about it, rather than immediately saying “yes”


How to communicate boundaries:

Any boundaries a person determines for themselves should be assertively and openly communicated to others in a clear way. However, sometimes it is not enough to just tell people how we want to be treated and expect that you can control their behavior. It is often more effective to teach people the consequences of pushing boundaries by taking an action ourselves.

For instance, let’s say a friend shows up at least thirty minutes late every time you get together. You might tell them several times “please try to be on time! I don’t like waiting for you for so long”. In the moment, your friend might apologize and promise to be on time in the future. But sure enough, the next time you make plans you end up waiting for them again! Your friend is likely not trying to be rude and disrespectful, but they are continuing to act in whatever way suits them best because there are no consequences for their actions. After all, you keep waiting for them so what is the incentive for them to change their behavior?

Setting a boundary would look like saying “I keep asking you to be on time but you keep showing up super late. Next time, I am only waiting 15 minutes for you and then I’m leaving”. However, the most important part of setting boundaries is what happens next—you have to enforce them. This is the part that is usually uncomfortable for people with poor boundaries, because they are not accustomed to saying “no” to people who are trying to push their limits. Enforcing boundaries by consistently following through with an action is an important part of getting people to take you seriously and accommodate your needs.


Image by upklyak on Freepik


Additional boundary-setting phrases:
  • “I am not much of a hugger. Let’s stick to shaking hands”
  • “Next time, please ask me before going into my office.”
  • “I will share my opinion if you are able to listen to it without arguing with me.”
  • “I need to eat before we can have this conversation.”
  • “I prefer not to talk about that right now.”
  • “I can only stay for an hour.”
  • ‘As much as I would love to, I don’t have it in my budget to contribute money right now”

Important phrases to read every day:

Sometimes, people respond to boundaries by trying to wear you down. If you are struggling to enforce your boundaries and feel yourself starting to relent, keep these phrases in mind:

  • I am not responsible for other people’s emotions
  • I do not have to anticipate the needs of others
  • My needs are valid
  • I love myself enough to set boundaries
  • My time and energy are precious
  • The only people who are upset about me setting boundaries are the ones who are benefitting from me having none.



Seeking Mental Health Support

If weak interpersonal boundaries has left you feeling emotionally drained and anxious, it may be time to speak with a professional. Scheduling an appointment with Chicago Counseling Center may be the first step in making your mental health a priority in the new year. Meet our team to learn more!


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