Why, how and when to use them
Reprinted from the "Supporting Adult Children" issue of Visions Journal, 2019, 15 (1), pp. 37-39
Boundaries in a relationship are an important part of the relationship's foundation. This is true not just in our romantic relationships but in all of our relationships. When we fail to set clear boundaries with those around us, we can end up resentful and with the feeling that we are being treated unfairly or being taken advantage of.
In my role as Regional Educator with the British Columbia Schizophrenia Society, I teach a two-part, four-hour Healthy Boundaries workshop, using materials in the SMART Recovery Friends & Family Handbook. The handbook defines "boundaries" as "the guidelines that we identify to define what we feel are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around us and to treat us."1
In the first part of the Healthy Boundaries workshop, we learn what healthy boundaries are and how we can establish them. We learn how to identify our boundaries and the boundaries of others, and we discuss what to expect when we communicate with other people about our boundaries. In the second part of the workshop, we learn how to protect the boundaries we have set with our loved ones and others, we practise how to effectively communicate a boundary request and we learn the consequences when our boundary requests are not met.
Physical and emotional boundaries and what happens when we cross them
Often when we think about the concept of a boundary, we think of the visible demarcations that separate one place from another—the border crossing between two countries, for example, the fence between two pieces of property or the wall between two rooms. We don’t usually think about the invisible lines that we draw around ourselves and in our lives. These personal boundaries protect us from being hurt emotionally and physically—by ourselves and by those who are close to us. In this article, I talk about these types of boundaries, the invisible lines that we establish around ourselves for our own protection.
All healthy relationships have boundaries. Knowing our own boundaries helps us to communicate effectively if we are dissatisfied with the actions of someone else, and to request alternative behaviours from them. Knowing the boundaries of others encourages us to be respectful of other people’s choices and values. When our boundaries are crossed, or when we cross the boundaries of others, this can lead to communication breakdown, discomfort and even anger.
Some types of boundaries are easier to recognize and respect than others. Physical boundaries can be crossed if someone stands too close to us or goes through our desk without permission. It is easy to see when our physical boundaries have been crossed. Emotional boundaries (for example, when someone makes a joke at our expense or uses sarcasm as communication, when a partner cheats on us or when a loved one criticizes the way we look) can be harder to see. Sometimes it can be difficult to recognize when our emotional boundaries have been crossed. Often, when our emotional boundaries have been crossed, we can see clues: we might make excuses for (or try to justify) the bad behaviours of others, we might blame ourselves when things go wrong or when someone treats us poorly. We might feel shame for no reason, or we might second-guess our own decisions if someone else questions them. We might sense that something is "off" or wrong, or that we have given away our power to choose.2
Sometimes people intentionally cross our boundaries in the interest of their own personal gain. At other times, a person may not be aware that they have crossed our boundaries at all. In my workshops, I have everyone fill out a true-or-false questionnaire to see where their boundaries are being crossed—even if they are crossing their own boundaries. Most people are surprised to see how often they cross their own boundaries in their relationships.
Whether someone intends to cross a boundary or not, whenever a boundary is crossed, the result is the same. A trust is broken, and often people feel violated or uncared for.
Five steps to healthy boundaries
Establishing clear boundaries can decrease opportunities for miscommunication and can enable us to improve the health of our relationships with others. Healthy boundaries can help us maintain and enjoy our relationships more while enabling us to remain true to our own values.
In the Healthy Boundaries workshop, I teach participants five steps to establishing clear and healthy boundaries in their relationships.
Identify the symptoms of your boundaries being violated or ignored. For example, identify when you feel uncomfortable about something that a loved one has said, or if you feel uncomfortable or upset about something you have heard that someone else has said.
Take responsibility for your own upset. Sometimes we simply react to a situation or words said, rather than taking the time to acknowledge what is being said and how it contributes to us being upset. No one can make another person upset; we choose to feel this emotion.
Identify new, more rational, healthy thinking and beliefs. In the Healthy Boundaries workshop, we use examples for how to do this from cognitive-behavioural therapy.
Identify and practise new communication skills. In the workshop, we practise these skills by learning how to use "I" statements in various situations in order to increase participants' comfort levels.
Implement new healthy boundary-building beliefs and behaviours.3 We practise this in the workshop by using real-life examples and then working out our responses with others. Generally, we work these out on paper first so that people become comfortable setting the boundary.
How to talk to others about your boundaries
If you feel that one of your boundaries has been crossed, it's important to communicate this fact honestly with the person who has crossed your boundary. In the Healthy Boundaries workshop, I teach participants how to respond when they feel their boundaries have been crossed. We use role-playing to practise communicating effectively about our boundaries.
Boundaries are about ourselves, not about the person who has crossed our boundary. For this reason, when we are telling someone that our boundary has been crossed, it is important to communicate using "I" statements (rather than accusing them with "you" statements).
The Healthy Boundaries workshop teaches a three-step process for communicating a boundary request:
State our feelings. First, we tell the person how their action (or actions) made us feel. For example, we might say, "John, when you said that my dress made me look fat, I felt angry and hurt."
Request a change. Second, we request that the person who crossed our boundary change or stop the action that made us feel that way.
Inform the person of consequences. If the person does not stop or change their actions, we tell the person what the consequence will be if they continue the actions that cause us to feel that way. Again, it is important to frame the consequence using an "I" statement ("I will do X," as opposed to "You will experience X").
Some helpful boundary tips
Boundaries can be hard to establish and maintain. Setting firm boundaries and maintaining them takes practice.
Here are some helpful tips:
Remember why you are making boundary requests
Start small. Begin by addressing the sort of boundaries that are not obviously going to cause significant emotional stress. This helps us build confidence in the skills we need to set and maintain our boundaries
Consider delivery and timing. Keep in mind that if the individual you are speaking with is emotionally distressed, physically busy or using substances, it may not be the right time to set a boundary. Discussions about boundaries should happen when both parties are feeling calm and safe
Prepare to be challenged. When we start to set boundaries with people, they may push back harder to get what they want
Plan to protect the boundary we are setting by reinforcing it with the person
Lead by example. Show others that we respect their boundaries as well as our own by not crossing them. Remember that respect is a two-way street; if we want others to respect our boundaries, we must also respect theirs
About the author
Gail is Regional Educator for the British Columbia Schizophrenia Society in Quesnel. Gail holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a diploma as a Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialist. She is a member of the first team in Canada to gain national certification as a Peer Specialist for Families
- SMART Recovery. (2012). Friends and Family Handbook, p. 73.
- Tartakovsky, M. (2015). Why healthy relationships always have boundaries and how to set boundaries in yours. Psych Central. psychcentral.com/blog/why-healthy-relationships-always-have-boundaries-how-to-set-boundaries-in-yours.
- SMART Recovery. (2012). Friends and Family Handbook, p. 78.