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How to Set Healthy Boundaries and Build Positive Relationships

עודכן: 24 ביולי 2023

Healthy boundaries define what is appropriate behavior in our relationships – behavior that keeps both parties safe. And setting healthy boundaries is crucial for self-care and positive relationships.

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Boundaries differ from person to person and are mediated by cultural, personality, and social context variations. Boundaries appropriate in a business meeting would seem irrelevant in a nightclub with old friends. Setting boundaries defines our expectations of ourselves and others in different kinds of relationships.

Below, we will examine definitions of relationship boundaries, how to set healthy boundaries, the different types of boundaries, and how to establish healthy boundaries in different contexts.

What Are Boundaries?

A boundary is a limit or edge that defines you as separate from others.

Our skin is an obvious physical boundary, but we have other kinds of interpersonal boundaries too, including a limit that extends beyond our body.

Consider what happens when somebody stands too close for comfort. We often describe it as someone invading our personal space, but definitions of personal space vary according to culture, the type of relationship involved, and social context.

Comfortable boundaries with your partner at home, would not be appropriate in a different social context, such as attending a business dinner together.

Similarly, the level of physical intimacy deemed appropriate for expression in public spaces varies wildly across cultures.

In the UK, hugging and kissing in public is acceptable, and embraces between friends, partners, and family members are deemed appropriate in shared public spaces. However, there are people who are personally uncomfortable with hugging in any situation other than in private with their partner. Each individual is different.

So, in summary, a relationship boundary is an interpersonal limit that is mediated by variations in personality, culture, and social context.

How to Set Healthy Boundaries

Setting healthy boundaries requires self-awareness. We need to be clear about our expectations of ourselves and others, and what we are and are not comfortable with in specific situations. Setting healthy boundaries requires good communication skills that convey assertiveness and clarity.

Assertiveness involves expressing your feelings openly and respectfully. It does not entail making demands but requires people to listen to you. Setting healthy boundaries requires you to assert your needs and priorities as a form of self-care. Here are three easy steps to setting healthy boundaries:

Step 1 - Be as clear and as straightforward as possible. Do not raise your voice.

Step 2 - State your need or request directly in terms of what you’d like, rather than what you don’t want or like.

Step 3 - Accept any discomfort that arises as a result, whether it’s guilt, shame, or remorse.

The third step is common for people with poor boundaries, co-dependency issues, or are people pleasers.

Sometimes, adults have been raised by childhood carers who’ve taught them that expressing their needs is bad and selfish. However, not accepting the discomfort that comes from setting healthy boundaries in adulthood means settling for unhealthy relationships that can cause resentment, manipulation, and abuse.

Advantages of Healthy Boundaries

גבולות יתרונות חשובים
Advantages of Healthy Boundaries

Examples of Healthy Boundaries

Examples of healthy boundaries include:

  • Declining anything you don’t want to do

  • Expressing your feelings responsibly

  • Talking about your experiences honestly

  • Replying in the moment

  • Addressing problems directly with the person involved, rather than with a third party

  • Making your expectations clear rather than assuming people will figure them out.

Setting healthy boundaries also requires an awareness of different boundaries involved in relationships, as illustrated in the ‘7 Types of Boundaries’ diagram below.

גבולות סוגים
7 Types of Boundaries

Personal and Emotional Boundaries

In the diagram above, personal boundaries refer to all seven types of boundaries that affect our personal wellbeing.

When we maintain healthy boundaries in all seven domains we will thrive, but when others cross or violate our boundaries, there will be a personal cost if we do not address it.

One domain refers to emotional boundaries which determine how emotionally available you are to other people. We all need support at different times when life hits us with unexpected events, or just help to process the onslaught of micro stressors during the day, sometimes referred to as ‘daily hassles’ in the psychology literature.

However, we can’t always be there for people as we often have other priorities to attend to, such as work, domestic, and family responsibilities. As adults, we must take care of ourselves first. Self-care is the foundation of health, while putting others’ needs before our own is a characteristic of co-dependency that can lead to burnout.

When we don’t maintain healthy emotional boundaries with others, we may feel resentful, guilty, and drained.

As in the 7 Types of Boundaries diagram above, it is perfectly OK to state your limitations to people who make demands of your emotional resources. If they push back against your boundaries or continue to violate them, then this shows your relationship may be off balance, problematic, or even toxic.

If so, then restate your boundary and withdraw calmly. There is no need to over-explain yourself or apologise for setting boundaries, as everyone may say what they do and do not want to do.

How to Set Personal Boundaries

איך להגדיר גבולות
How to Set Personal Boundaries

When we are dealing with people who repeatedly cross or violate our personal boundaries, then the whole nature of the relationship may need to change. This can be tricky when the relationship is with somebody we cannot escape, such as co-workers and family members.

The rest of the article focuses on how to set healthy boundaries in specific relationship contexts.

Setting boundaries at work

Maintaining healthy boundaries at work has become increasingly difficult with flexible working, remote and hybrid working, and technological progress.

Setting boundaries at work begins during the interview process, where you can establish what kinds of work practices you will accept, especially accessibility during working hours, out-of-hours working, and remote working arrangements.

Here are some tips for establishing healthy boundaries in the workplace:

  • Assess your personal boundaries first. These will be determined by your values and priorities. If you are not clear about your boundaries, then it’s much easier for others to cross them or violate them, leading to discomfort, stress, and even resentment.

  • Communicate directly. Be upfront yet professional. Avoid getting involved in discussing your colleagues with each other. Let people know when you are available and how you handle emails that arrive in your inbox outside work hours.

  • Create clear structures for your work, especially times for focused work, by letting your colleagues know when you do not want to be disturbed.

  • Keep your relationships professional. As tempting as it may be to become best friends with colleagues, it can lead to blurred boundaries and problems later on.

  • Delegate work when appropriate to manage your workload.

  • Get comfortable saying no.

  • Use technology to set and maintain work boundaries, by keeping others informed and using shareable project management tools.

If you find yourself in a workplace where your boundaries are repeatedly crossed or violated despite setting boundaries, then you may be being bullied or harassed.

Healthy boundaries in friendships

The tips for keeping healthy boundaries in friendships include some points mentioned above, especially understanding your personal limits in terms of time and emotional investment.

These can also change as life events occur that entail a shift in priorities. For example, the time and energy you invest in friendships may change after starting a family. Your children become a priority and friendships may become less important until your children become more independent.

Setting boundaries and maintaining them with friends requires mutual trust and respect. Refer to the seven types of boundaries diagram above to consider your boundaries in friendships.

Boundary setting with friends who have crossed or violated them can be difficult, and you may experience pushback. If so, reassert the boundary again and be prepared to take a break from them by ignoring messages and calls for a while if the pushback continues.

Boundaries in relationships

Boundaries are the gateway to healthy relationships.

Romantic relationships often run into trouble when implicit assumptions are made about shared values and relationship goals.

The key to having healthy intimate partnerships is clear communication between partners about mutual needs and expectations.

By setting boundaries in relationships, we also discover which relationships are healthy and which are not. If friends, family members or work colleagues push back against our boundaries by ignoring them, challenging them, or cutting us off, then the relationship was already in deep trouble and needed to end.

However, boundaries are not walls. Behavior that erects walls, such as cutting people off without giving them a right to reply, (sometimes called ghosting) or prolonged silent treatment, is not about setting healthy boundaries, it is emotionally abusive.

A Take-Home Message

Setting healthy boundaries is an essential life skill and an important self-care practice. Healthy boundaries create healthy relationships.

While someone who’s not used to setting boundaries might feel guilty or selfish when they first start, setting boundaries is necessary for mental health and well-being.

Appropriate boundaries can look very different depending on the setting, but it’s important to set them in all areas of life where we interact with others.

Finally, while setting boundaries is crucial, it is just as important to respect others’ boundaries, including parents, children, romantic partners, managers, co-workers, and anyone else we interact with.

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