Many people have a negative perception of personal boundaries. They believe they are restrictive and shouldn't exist. In fact, personal boundaries help us maintain healthy relationships and contribute to our well-being.
Without borders, relationships are unlikely to thrive and be fulfilling, so they give way to disappointment, resentment and frustration. Being able to establish different types of personal boundaries is essential to protect our personal space and build our identity, which will protect our mental health in the long term.
In fact, a study conducted at the University of South Australia revealed that healthcare professionals activate emotional boundaries in daily life, often without being fully aware of them, to protect themselves from psychological pain.
Therefore, the problem is not borders, but inadequate borders. Boundaries are neither positive nor negative per se. It all depends on how we apply them.
A person who does not set boundaries to their interpersonal relationships may seem very open and receptive, but also exposes themselves to being continually hurt or exploited by others. On the other hand, a person with extremely rigid boundaries will withdraw from relationships and may not have a social support network to support them in the most difficult times. The key, like everything in life, is balance.
What are personal boundaries?
Personal boundaries are our rules that we set in relationships. They are a kind of imaginary line or shield that separates us or protects us from others when they try to undermine our mental balance, knowingly or unintentionally.
These rules are meant to signal our red lines, the things we are not willing to allow or are not comfortable with. There are many examples of healthy personal boundaries: not allowing humiliation, deciding what to do with our free time, staying true to our values or defending our privacy.
The 3 types of personal boundaries
1. Rigid boundaries
This type of boundary is characterized by inflexible rules that the person strictly applies, regardless of the context or the rights and needs of others. These people think that their values, ways of thinking or needs are the only possible ones and leave no room for others, closing themselves off to change.
In fact, those with rigid boundaries avoid intimacy with others and maintain emotionally distant relationships. It establishes an emotional barrier that is difficult to overcome, which is why it tends to have few friends. These people are unlikely to ask for help when they have a problem because they prefer to keep it to themselves.
They are people who defend their privacy a lot, to the point that they can come to seem cold and detached, even with their partners. In fact, these rigid boundaries are often the result of a defensive attitude as these people prefer to keep others at a distance to avoid possible rejection. Borders are the emotional walls behind which they protect themselves.
2. Porous borders
The person with porous boundaries has virtually no emotional boundaries or is extremely lax. He does not keep anything for himself, he has no difficulty in telling the most intimate problems, even to strangers, so he often ends up exposing himself unnecessarily.
She also tends to be too involved in other people's problems, to the point of developing a profound empathy syndrome. This near absence of borders also makes her more vulnerable to emotional manipulation, which is why she is usually a person subject to abuse or disrespect. He also often feels responsible for the problems of others or guilty for the feelings of others.
In fact, he has difficulty saying “no” to the excessive demands of others, so he ends up overloading himself with tasks and obligations that do not correspond to him. At the base of the porous boundaries there is a high emotional reactivity and a deep dependence on the opinion of others. Fearing social rejection, these people prefer to submit and continually loosen their boundaries by allowing others to impose their own needs, wants or points of view.
3. Healthy borders
People with healthy personal boundaries tend to be balanced. They are clear about their values and know in which cases they are unwilling to compromise, but they are also able to adapt to circumstances and, if necessary, expand their boundaries. They are aware of their needs and wants and are able to communicate them assertively. It means that they know how to say "no" when the requests are excessive, without feeling guilty. And also accept "no" for an answer.
This type of personal limit allows us to distinguish our emotions, thoughts and values from others and helps us to take responsibility for them, but at the same time prevents us from taking on the blame of others who do not correspond to us.
People with healthy borders establish balanced relationships where they share personal information appropriately. They don't give in emotionally to the first change, but neither do they build walls as the relationship progresses. Healthy boundaries come from strong self-esteem and great confidence in personal abilities and values. This self-confidence is what also allows you to recognize mistakes and make boundaries more flexible or widen them when needed.
In an ideal world, we should apply those wholesome boundaries to all spheres of life. However, we find it easier to apply different types of personal boundaries. For example, we can have rigid boundaries at work, where we do not let anything pass, but we apply too porous boundaries in the family or in the relationship with the partner to the point of falling into emotional dependence. Therefore, it is always valid to rethink our personal boundaries.
How to establish healthy and assertive personal boundaries?
It is necessary to set boundaries on oneself or in relationships with others. A study conducted at the University of Innsbruck, for example, found that when work stress crosses our psychological boundaries, our family pays the bill.
Instead, healthy boundaries have a protective effect. They prevent us from giving unwanted advice and meddling in the lives of others, as well as preventing others from intruding too much on ours. They also help us not to blame others and not to become their scapegoat.
A sine qua non for establishing healthy boundaries is being aware of our feelings, values and responsibilities towards ourselves and others. If we are not clear about who we are and what we want, we will not be able to set healthy boundaries.
The other condition for these boundaries to be effective is knowing how to communicate them. To do this, we need to focus on ourselves. We must be clear that personal boundaries serve to protect ourselves, not to control others.
So instead of saying to a person: "stop meddling in my life" you can say: "it's a personal matter, I'll decide". With the first sentence, the person may feel attacked or even hurt if they try to help you in good faith. With the second sentence you are politely refusing his help as you establish a personal boundary.
If we try to set boundaries out of anger or because we've been scolded, they won't listen to us. Borders are not meant to punish, but to protect our well-being. Therefore, they are most effective when we show a firm but assertive and calm attitude.
The third important detail we need to keep in mind is that many times we cannot establish any kind of personal boundaries without defining the consequences. In other words, when setting boundaries, we need to clarify to the other why they are important to us and how far we are willing to go to defend them. This way the other person can make an informed decision.
In short, the key to setting healthy boundaries is understanding what we want and being clear with others, always within a framework of respect and assertiveness. Setting boundaries is not selfish. Whenever you say "no" to something that hurts you, you are saying "yes" to yourself.