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Terri Cole sits at her laptop and smiles.

Terri Cole

Updated: 08/23/2022

Do you ever say yes when you want to say no? Do you prioritize other people’s needs or desires above your own? Do you often feel like you should be doing more in all areas of your life? Are you overly invested in the decisions, feelings and outcomes of the people you love? Are you so resistant to asking for help that you end up doing most things yourself? If any of these questions resonate, then you, my dear, are one of my over-functioning, over-giving, totally exhausted sisters. You’re also in exactly the right place.

Healthy personal boundaries are the key to living a fulfilled, empowered and self-directed life. Based on my personal and professional experience as a licensed clinical therapist for the last 23 years, I believe this is a fact. Learning how to establish and enforce good boundaries is totally doable, with a little help! That's why I've written Boundary Boss — The Essential Guide to Talk True, Be Seen and (Finally) Live Free. Read on for a sneak peek into this crucial process.

Personal Boundaries 101

Let’s start by covering the basics of personal boundaries, so you can better understand why they matter every day. Visualize a house with a tall fence around it with signs that read “Keep Out” and “Violators Will Be Prosecuted.” We all understand that fence as a clear boundary. The signage spells out specific consequences for crossing the line.

Even though the underlying mechanism is the same, personal boundaries are more complicated than that fence. We can’t simply hang up signs and expect others to respect them. Personal boundaries are invisible and therefore need to be established with words (often repeated) and actions. Personal boundaries are also unique to each individual, informed by childhood experiences, cultural norms, gender roles and an array of other factors. There’s no one-and-done action (like nailing up a sign) that covers everything.

Personal boundaries are invisible, so they need to be established with words (often repeated), as well as actions.

Personal boundaries are like a guidebook that you create to clearly identify permissible ways that other people may behave toward you. Yup, that means you actually can tell a coworker you aren’t down with her daily dose of office gossip because you need to focus on your deadlines. Or let your judgy pal know that her snide comments about your weight/appearance/love life are not welcome. Boundary-setting includes a defined response when someone steps over those limits. That means establishing a clear set of consequences for repeat boundary offenders.

Creating healthy boundaries protects you from emotional harm and keeps your personal dignity intact. Yes, my dear, healthy boundaries help you to live out an essential truth: you are royalty. Treating yourself like the queen that you are means developing an unwavering ability to know, honor and protect yourself, instead of abandoning yourself. This is important because how you regard and treat yourself sets the bar for every other relationship in your life. You may have been socialized to believe that having healthy boundaries makes you selfish and confrontational, but in fact, having healthy boundaries makes you brave and generous.

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Boundary Categories

Boundaries come in five general categories: physical, sexual, material, mental and emotional. When any of these boundaries are crossed, we’re in trouble. Further, boundaries come in three types: rigid, porous and healthy. Understanding the categories and the types will help you to see where your boundary issues might be so you can start to correct them. Are your emotional boundaries way too porous? Are your mental boundaries too rigid? Where are you flexible and balanced? The following are personal boundaries that need your attention:

Physical boundaries

Your most basic physical boundary is your body. This includes who has permission to touch you and how, plus how much personal space you require. Someone grabbing you without your permission, using your deodorant (or your toothbrush!) or barging into the bathroom without knocking while you are in the shower are examples of physical boundary violations.

Sexual boundaries

You get to decide what level of sexual touch is acceptable, as well as where, when and with whom it can happen. Someone coercing or forcing you to be sexual with them, making lewd comments or behaving in any way that is intended to arouse or gratify their sexual impulse without your expressed consent are examples of sexual boundary violations.

Material boundaries

You determine how others may (or may not) access your material possessions. This includes whether you lend your money, clothes, car or other things to friends or relatives, and under what conditions. For example, what areas of your home, if any, are off-limits to guests? Do you require visitors to remove their shoes or not? Someone using your computer without your permission, taking clothes out of your closet or leaving garbage in your clean car are examples of material boundary violations.

Mental boundaries

You define your thoughts, values and opinions. In order to have mental boundaries, you must first know what you believe. Having healthy mental boundaries means that you can listen to others with an open mind, even if you disagree, while holding on to your core beliefs. Someone making demands instead of requests, disparaging your beliefs or disrespecting your no in an effort to get their way are examples of mental boundary violations.

Emotional boundaries

You alone are responsible for your feelings, just as others are responsible for theirs. Healthy emotional boundaries prevent you from giving spontaneous criticism or unsolicited advice. They prevent you from blaming others for how you feel and, on the flip side, from accepting blame for emotions that are not yours. Emotional boundaries deter you from sharing intimate details about yourself too soon, taking things personally or feeling guilty for someone else’s issues or negative feelings. Also, if you tend to be super emotional, combative or defensive, you may have disordered emotional boundaries. Someone who invalidates another person’s feelings, tells you how you feel or should feel or asks intrusive questions is violating emotional boundaries.

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Boundary Types

Within each category of personal boundaries, there are three types: rigid, porous and healthy. If yours are too loose or too tight, that’s symptomatic of boundary issues.

1 Rigid Boundaries

If you have too rigid boundaries, you might:

  • not ask for help when you need it
  • avoid close relationships to minimize rejection
  • be perceived by others as detached or cold
  • tend to isolate yourself

People might describe you as unavailable, closed off or inflexible. You might have adopted a “My way or the highway!” motto or give off an Ice Queen vibe. Since you don’t exactly play well with others, you are more likely to immediately exile offenders rather than tell them how they upset you. A common misconception is that having strict boundaries is equivalent to having healthy boundaries. Not so, people, because being inflexible gets in the way of building healthy relationships the same way being too flexible does.

2 Porous Boundaries

If you have too porous boundaries, you might:

  • overshare your personal information
  • say yes when you want to say no
  • find yourself taking on or overly investing in the problems of others
  • put up with disrespectful or abusive behavior

People might describe you as overly accommodating, conflict-averse or very, very nice. You might give off the vibe of a pushover or a peacekeeper. You are influenced by other people’s thoughts, feelings and problems potentially more than your own. (Like when you’re about to hit the gym but a friend calls with toxic romantic drama, and so you stay home, take out your copy of the 1985 self-help classic Women Who Love Too Much and start underlining quotes for your pal to read. Pot, meet kettle.) Maybe your attitude in life is, “As long as everyone else is happy, I’m happy.”

RELATED: The Stress-Hormone Connection

3 Healthy Boundaries

If you have healthy boundaries, you:

  • value your own thoughts and opinions
  • feel comfortable asking for or accepting help
  • know when to share personal information and with whom
  • can accept and respect the boundaries of others, including someone saying no to a request

People might describe you as dependable, trustworthy or confident. If you have healthy boundaries, others feel safe and at ease in your presence. You keep your word, communicate effectively and take responsibility for your own happiness. (No emotional blackmail required.) You are not emotionally reactive. For example, when you receive a late-night call from a family member who shares unsettling news, you decide to sit with your feelings about it until morning, instead of sending out an SOS text to your bestie after midnight or springing into action mode because you can’t bear feeling helpless. You are capable of managing your emotions.

If you have healthy boundaries, you also have an innate sense of context. You know when certain boundaries are appropriate. What’s appropriate with family and friends may not be with coworkers or your boss. For example, if you had a painful breakup, sharing your heartache with your gal pals is appropriate. Sharing the details of your breakup with a subordinate or your boss, however, is not. Cultivating healthy personal boundaries requires discernment and a long, honest and probably long overdue look at the state of your relationships, including the one you have with yourself.

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