What are Boundaries?
Updated: May 23
Boundaries are a pretty hot topic in modern culture these days. But what exactly do we mean when we say we need “boundaries?” What are they, how do we know when we need them, and how do we set them?
What are boundaries?
According to Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend in their book, “Boundaries,” Boundaries define “what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins.” Boundaries exist to protect something valuable, as well as to preserve relationships wherever possible. Think about a pasture full of horses - the pasture is always enclosed by a fence. Why? Because it protects the horses from escaping, and ideally protects them from outside harm or theft. Fence lines and boundary lines are permeable - we can redraw them at any time, and there is always a gate to allow access in and out. Our boundaries exist for the same purpose - strong enough to keep what is valuable to us safe from danger, but open enough to allow the good into our lives. Boundaries dictate what we are responsible for (hint: this includes ourselves - our feelings, our actions, our thoughts, our duties), and what we are not responsible for (hint: other people’s duties, actions, thoughts, or emotions). Boundaries are necessary for healthy relationships, communities, and individuals.
So how do we know when we need to set boundaries?
When you value something, you protect it. This is a proactive way of setting boundaries. Consider what you need to live a healthy life, and then proactively set boundaries for yourself and others. For example, is making it to church every Sunday important to you? Set a boundary for yourself to not stay up too late Saturday night so you can wake up on time. Are you very introverted and know you need some alone time on the weekends to recharge from the week? Schedule alone time every weekend and tell your friends no if they want to hangout during that time.
If you feel resentful, angry, bitter, or hurt by someone in your life, that is likely an indicator that they have crossed a boundary and it needs to be established (or re-established). For example, if you feel dread every time a friend calls at 10pm, perhaps you could set a boundary that you don’t answer phone calls after 9pm.
How exactly do we set these boundaries?
I will be honest with you - it is often easier said than done. But here are a few things to consider:
Consider what your specific need is - don’t be vague. Be practical.
Always communicate if it involves other people. Remember that other people cannot read your mind. You must communicate what you need to change if you expect others to respect your boundaries.
Decide before the conversation how flexible you can be. If this is really bothersome and causing great distress, you probably can’t take no for an answer. If this is something that you are willing to compromise on, decide your limit before you talk with the other person.
You must reinforce the boundary. People will keep crossing the boundary if you let them. For example, if you tell your friend you aren’t going to answer calls after 9pm, don’t answer their call. If you tell your child he can’t have his phone until he does the dishes, don’t give him his phone.
Boundaries are important in every relationship in life- with your kids, friends, spouse, family of origin, church, and workplace. If you feel stretched thin, overwhelmed, resentful, or angry, you might consider what needs are being disregarded or unmet. Consider setting boundaries with yourself and the safe people in your life to get started. If you are struggling to set boundaries in your life, think about scheduling an appointment with one of our counselors! We can talk about what is difficult about boundaries and help in the process of communicating and reinforcing them.
Mikayla Bugh, LPC
Cloud, H., & Townsend, J. S. (2017). Boundaries: When to say yes, how to say no to take control of your life. Zondervan.