What are boundaries and why do I need them?
Boundaries is a scary word for a lot of people. We get a lot of mixed messages about whether they help or hurt, how they should look, and whether they make any difference in our relationships. In some families and some relationships, “you complete me” is an ideal to strive for, rather than a signal of codependency. In those relationships, boundaries are viewed as a divider that pushes people apart.
Healthy relationships tend to have this common ground: good, clear boundaries. Setting boundaries is not about cutting people off or isolating yourself. It is about creating space to take care of yourself and teaching others how to be in relationship with you! Healthy boundaries allow you to protect your space and care for yourself first. When you care for yourself first, you can bring your best self into your relationships—and your relationships overall will be stronger and healthier.
Let’s take a look at these 10 questions that will help you check your boundaries and identify what works, what doesn’t, and what you can do about it.
Healthy boundaries define your space
Boundary Check #1: What does the word “boundaries” mean to you?
What is your emotional response to the word “boundaries?” Do you view them as a good thing, a bad thing, or an impossible thing?
Healthy Boundary Tip #1: “Boundaries” is a loaded word because of the many distorted beliefs about what they are and what they do. In a healthy relationship, boundaries are a simple indication of where one person ends and another begins. They are value neutral and provide a guideline or map for how to relate to one another in a healthy and loving way.
Boundary Check #2: What do healthy boundaries look like?
What do you picture when you think about boundaries? A brick wall? A chalk line on the floor? A castle moat full of crocodiles with the drawbridge up?
Healthy Boundary Tip #2: Healthy boundaries should most closely resemble a fence with a gate that you can open or close as needed. They should be low enough to look over the top and scope out who’s on the other side, high enough to keep people from popping over the top, and strong enough to withstand stubborn pushing. What do your boundaries look like?
Boundary Check #3: Do you have a hard time setting boundaries or saying no? What makes that hard for you?
Have you ever regretted agreeing to something, but stuck with it because you felt obligated and guilty? What feels bad, wrong, or scary about setting a boundary?
Healthy Boundary Tip #3: Many people struggle to say no because they feel unloving, selfish, or mean. Or they think it will be easier to just give in than to fight and cause stress in the relationship. While this might be true in the short term, it ultimately prolongs the pain and breeds resentment. Saying no sets a boundary that can protect relationships.
Healthy boundaries help you understand yourself better
Boundary Check #4: Do you say yes by choice, or out of fear, obligation, or guilt? How does it feel different to say yes by choice?
Giving with grace and willingness feels very different than acting out of obligation!
Healthy Boundary Tip #4: When you say yes because you feel obligated to, you may find yourself resenting anyone who ever asked you for anything. When you set and protect your own healthy boundaries, you give yourself a choice, and you can give more joyfully. Giving by choice rather than obligation is a more authentic expression of love than doing something “because I feel like I have to.”
Boundary Check #5: When you do comply out of fear, obligation, or guilt, how does that affect your relationships?
Do you feel more or less positively toward people who ask things that you don’t want to give? Do you feel better or worse when you give in?
Healthy Boundary Tip #5: Saying yes to things that aren’t good for you—or being unable to say no—is a quick trip to frustration, resentment, and burnout. Boundaries work both inwardly and outwardly. By setting and protecting them, you protect your love of the other person. Setting boundaries allows you space to give willingly rather than out of fear, obligation, or guilt.
Boundary Check #6: If you struggle with accepting your own needs, what gets in your way? What does it mean about you if you allow yourself to have needs?
Do you have negative feelings about yourself for having needs?
Healthy Boundary Tip #6: What beliefs do you hold about having needs? Is it ok for you to have needs, or is there a negative connotation for you? If you believe having needs of your own makes you selfish, destructive, or shameful, you may struggle to ask for or accept help when you need it. Be gentle with yourself, and be curious about where those messages about needs came from. Does it serve you to hold onto them, or could you try out some new beliefs?
Healthy boundaries help you teach others how to treat you
Boundary Check #7: Are you able to ask for what you need, or accept help when it is offered? If not, why not?
Boundaries that are too rigid can cause just as many problems as boundaries that are too loose.
Healthy Boundary Tip #7: When boundaries are so rigid that you can’t ask for or accept help, you deny yourself the love and care you deserve. And if you don’t love and care for yourself, you will not be able to love and care for others the way you want to. You deserve love, too!
Boundary Check #8: How do your beliefs about having needs affect your beliefs about how relationships should look?
If you can’t express your needs, can they ever be met? How can you give yourself permission to have needs that are just as important as anyone else’s?
Healthy Boundary Tip #8: You can’t get what you need if you don’t ask for it. And no, not everyone you ask will be able to give you what you need. It can be hard to shake old beliefs about how you don’t deserve time, love, or attention – but you can, and you do. What do you need to be able to give yourself permission to express your needs?
Boundary Check #9: Have you ever found yourself repeating a relationship pattern that you hate? How did that feel?
We often repeat things that are familiar to us, even if we don’t like them. What patterns would you like to change in your relationships? Where can you start?
Healthy Boundary Tip #9: If you’ve grown up with a distorted perspective on healthy relationships, it’s very likely you’ve picked up some bad relationship habits. That doesn’t mean you can’t create a better future, but you have to be willing to look inside and see what’s going on. Be curious about why your favorite shape is “doormat,” or why you steamrolled someone to meet your needs. Your ability to change begins with insight.
Healthy boundaries can have a ripple effect
Boundary Check #10: Where do you feel really good about your boundaries? What comes easily to you, and can you bring that to other areas that are harder?
Boundaries can be functional and/or relational. Where do you feel you do really well in setting boundaries? Where are your areas for growth?
Health Boundary Tip #10: Be curious about your strengths and struggles, and see what you can learn about each. If you can say no to working late but fold like a lawn chair over family expectations, be curious about what feels different. Give yourself credit for what you do well, and invite yourself to bring those strengths to the areas that need some attention.