What the Heck Is a Boundary? An Explanation, Plus Examples

You have the power to define what is safe or unsafe for you.

A wooden fence and gate surrounded by lush greenery.

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What is a Boundary?

Everyone seems to be talking about boundaries on social media, but what the heck is a boundary?  According to Cloud and Townsend, in their book, Boundaries, a boundary defines where you end and someone else begins.  They say to think of boundaries like a fence with a gate.  Inside the fence is your yard, and outside the fence is everyone else.  The gate is there to let you decide who has access to your yard (or yourself).  

You get to decide what you will allow, or not allow, in your life.  Many of us who have had toxic relationships, especially in the formative years of childhood, have trouble delineating what is ours to decide or choose, and what is someone else’s responsibility.  It’s probable that someone else forced their will upon us, and as children, trying to survive, we learned that the grown-ups make the decisions.  You just sit back and do as you’re told.  

Now, as an adult, you may have a spouse, friend, coworker, or even your parents still, trying to make decisions for you.  For a long time, you may have been okay with that, because that is all you’ve ever known, or maybe you have felt intimidated or stuck.  At some point, the pain of not being in control of how people treat you becomes unbearable.  You begin to learn about boundaries, and want to make your relationships more equitable.  

How Do I Know What Boundaries To Set?

Most likely, something in your life is causing a pain-point.  Perhaps there are many things causing pain, depending on how much you have allowed others to walk all over you.  People-pleasers and co-dependents likely have numerous areas that are a struggle.

Write out a few things in your life that you would like to improve.  This is a good place to start setting boundaries.  Boundaries can be physical, sexual, mental, emotional, or material.  Is there one of these areas that you feel less confident in setting boundaries?  Like, maybe you are good at setting physical boundaries, you don’t let anyone touch you in a way that is uncomfortable, but when it comes to emotional boundaries, letting someone make you feel insignificant for example, you struggle.

Do you need some boundaries in regards to:

  • Friendships
  • Coworkers
  • Your boss
  • Your spouse
  • Your parents
  • Your children
  • Neighbors
  • Food
  • Medical physicians and procedures
  • Alcohol/drugs
  • Exercise
  • Spending/financial habits
  • Social media

These are a few areas to look at.  If you think of something I left off, add it in the comments.  

Examples of Boundaries and What To Say

For those of us who have struggled with boundaries, we first need to feel like we have permission to set boundaries.  I know that sounds strange for an adult to worry about, but remember, many of us have been indoctrinated to bow to authority.  You know on a conscious level that you are an adult with rights, but that subconscious child inside of you still worries that you will be unloved if you enforce boundaries.  

The thing is, the people that deserve to be in your life, and be loved by you, will respect and love you more for your self-conviction.  The people that have something to gain from you having weak boundaries, will not be happy, and will continually try to cross those boundaries.

Remember, a boundary is really for you.  It is to protect your physical, sexual, emotional, mental, and material health.  It is not to punish another person.  It’s not about what you will do to retaliate, it is about what you will do to protect yourself.  

Here are a few sample statements for communicating your boundaries.

“When I feel _________, I will need to _________.”

“I would like to talk to you about __________.  That makes me feel _________.  I’d like to make a request that in the future, you would___________.”

“I know you like ___________, but that is not something I’m really interested in.  In the future, when ____________ happens, I will excuse myself.”

Examples in use:

  • “When I feel unsafe because of you driving aggressively, I will need to take my own car and meet you.”
  • “When I feel threatened by your yelling, I will need to leave the room.  If you follow me, I will leave the house.”
  • “I would like to talk to you about how you criticized me in front of our mutual friends.  That makes me feel like our friendship is not important to you.  I’d like to make a request that in the future, you would not criticize my profession in front of others.”
  • “I would like to talk to you about when you brought friends home unannounced.  I was planning to have a quiet evening to de-stress.  In the future, could you please check with me before you bring multiple friends home?”
  • “I know you like to watch raunchy comedies, but that is not something I’m really interested in.  In the future, when you watch a raunchy comedy, I will excuse myself to read in the bedroom.”
  • “I know you like to gossip about the neighbors, but that is not something I am really interested in.  In the future, I will leave the conversation to go visit with someone else.”

When someone crosses your boundaries, try these statements:

  • “You’ve continued to drive aggressively, so I will no longer ride with you.”
  • “You are continuing to yell at me, so I am leaving.” 
  • “I am upset that you still brought friends home unannounced.  I value your right to have fun and build friendships. I hope we can come up with a good solution together.”
  • “When you talk about people in a judgmental way, it makes me feel like you will talk about me in that same way.  I feel unsafe to share details about my life with you.”

Keep in mind that if you have already voiced your boundary to this person, you don’t need to make any statement at all.  Just follow through with what you told them you would do if the behavior continues.  

Non-negotiable Boundaries

We all have certain boundaries that are non-negotiable, like we wouldn’t let anyone physically harm our children, or mistreat our dog.  You get to decide what your non-negotiables are.  

For me, I will no longer allow someone to criticize my work without helping me come up with a solution, the way one of my old bosses did.  It wasn’t constructive criticism.  It was just mean and unhelpful.  

I will no longer spend time with people who deliberately do something to emotionally manipulate me.  

I will no longer be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t value and respect my relationship with my children.

I will not allow anyone to manipulate or control me financially.  

Boundaries are For You

You have all the power.  Boundaries are for you and your health.

You have the right to no longer spend time with people that make you feel unsafe, physically, sexually, emotionally, mentally or who disregard your material possessions.  You get to decide what makes you feel safe, or unsafe.  Remember, you want boundaries that are like a fence with a gate, protective, but not impenetrable.  

People make mistakes sometimes without meaning too.  Maybe they don’t realize that something is bothering you, either because it doesn’t bother them, or they were raised in a home where that behavior was “normal”.  Unless they are doing something that is one of your non-negotiable boundaries, give them a chance to fix the problem. If you want!

But, also keep in mind that if you had childhood trauma, many behaviors that don’t bother other people may bother you.  For example, I hate when people honk their horn because someone cut them off or wasn’t letting them in a lane of traffic.  It makes me extremely anxious.  I realize that honking a horn is considered normal behavior to most people.  Is it fair for me to stop riding with them because of that?  Maybe that’s a little strong.  I could give them an opportunity to try not to honk the horn in anger when I’m in the car.  I could volunteer to be the driver.  I could communicate the reason it bothers me so much.  

Also, I’m an adult, in charge of my personal health and safety.  If I deem that riding in a car with someone that honks their car horn in anger feels dangerous for me, then that is my prerogative, and I can make the choice not to ever ride with them again.

Boundaries give you the power over your own personal health and safety.

There are lots of boundary resources out there.  The book listed above, by Cloud and Townsend is a great one, as well as Boundary Boss by Terri Cole, and Drama Free by Nedra Tawwab.
I also have a Healthy Boundaries e-book and video for free.

If you enjoyed this article, and would like to read more like it, consider joining me on Medium.com.  

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