Healthy boundaries define what is appropriate behavior in our relationships – behavior that keeps both parties safe.
And setting healthy boundaries is crucial for self-care and positive relationships.
But let’s first understand what boundaries are.
Boundaries differ from person to person and are mediated by variations in culture, personality, and social context. Boundaries appropriate in a business meeting would seem irrelevant in a nightclub with old friends! Setting boundaries defines our expectations of ourselves and others in different kinds of relationships.
Below, we will examine definitions of relationship boundaries, how to set healthy boundaries, the different types of boundaries, and how to establish healthy boundaries in different contexts. We review the New York Times bestseller “Set Boundaries, Find Peace”.
In addition, we offer these free Positive Relationships PDF worksheets to help your clients define and set healthy boundaries—essential for healthy relationships.
This Article Contains:
What Are Boundaries?
Let’s define boundaries. Put simply:
“A boundary is a limit or edge that defines you as separate from others”
(Katherine, 2010, p. 14).
Our skin is an obvious physical boundary, but we have other kinds of interpersonal boundaries too, including a limit that extends beyond our body.
Consider what happens when somebody stands too close for comfort. We often describe it as someone invading our personal space, but definitions of personal space vary according to culture, the type of relationship involved, and social context.
Comfortable boundaries with your partner at home, would not be appropriate in a different social context, such as attending a business dinner together.
Similarly, the level of physical intimacy deemed appropriate for expression in public spaces varies wildly across cultures.
When I lived in Sri Lanka, it was customary for children to greet their parents by touching their feet rather than hugging them. Meanwhile, touching, hugging, and kissing between married couples was frowned upon in public.
However, in the UK, hugging and kissing in public is acceptable, and embraces between friends, partners, and family members are deemed appropriate in shared public spaces.
Having said that, we all have friends or family members who are personally uncomfortable with hugging in any situation other than in private with their partner. Each individual is different.
How to Set Healthy Boundaries
Setting healthy boundaries requires self-awareness. We need to be clear about our expectations of ourselves and others, and what we are and are not comfortable with in specific situations. Setting healthy boundaries requires good communication skills that convey assertiveness and clarity.
Assertiveness involves expressing your feelings openly and respectfully. It does not entail making demands, but it requires people to listen to you. Setting healthy boundaries requires you to assert your needs and priorities as a form of self-care. Tawwab outlines three easy steps to setting healthy boundaries:
Step 1. Be as clear and as straightforward as possible. Do not raise your voice.
Step 2. State your need or request directly in terms of what you’d like, rather than what you don’t want or like.
Step 3. Accept any discomfort that arises as a result, whether it’s guilt, shame, or remorse.
The third step is common for people with poor boundaries, codependency issues, or are people pleasers.
Sometimes, adults have been raised by childhood carers who’ve taught them that expressing their needs is bad and selfish. However, not accepting the discomfort that comes from setting healthy boundaries in adulthood means settling for unhealthy relationships that can cause resentment, manipulation, and abuse.
Examples of Healthy Boundaries
Examples of healthy boundaries include:
- Declining anything you don’t want to do
- Expressing your feelings responsibly
- Talking about your experiences honestly
- Replying in the moment
- Addressing problems directly with the person involved, rather than with a third party
- Making your expectations clear rather than assuming people will figure them out.
Setting healthy boundaries also requires an awareness of different boundaries involved in relationships, as illustrated in our ‘7 Types of Boundaries’ diagram below.
Personal and Emotional Boundaries
In this section, we will look at personal and emotional boundaries. In the diagram above, personal boundaries refer to all seven types of boundaries that affect our personal wellbeing.
When we maintain healthy boundaries in all seven domains we will thrive, but when others cross or violate our boundaries, there will be a personal cost if we do not address it.
One domain refers to emotional boundaries which determine how emotionally available you are to other people. We all need support at different times when life hits us with unexpected events, or just help to process the onslaught of micro stressors during the day, sometimes referred to as ‘daily hassles’ in the psychology literature (Falconier et al., 2015).
However, we can’t always be there for people as we often have other priorities to attend to, such as work, domestic, and family responsibilities. As adults, we must take care of ourselves first. Self-care is the foundation of health, while putting others’ needs before our own is a characteristic of codependency that can lead to burnout.
When we don’t maintain healthy emotional boundaries with others, we may feel resentful, guilty, and drained.
As in the 7 Types of Boundaries diagram above, it is perfectly OK to state your limitations to people who make demands of your emotional resources. If they push back against your boundaries or continue to violate them, then this shows your relationship may be off balance, problematic, or even toxic.
If so, then restate your boundary and withdraw calmly. There is no need to over-explain yourself or apologize for setting boundaries, as everyone may say what they do and do not want to do.
When we are dealing with people who repeatedly cross or violate our personal boundaries, then the whole nature of the relationship may need to change. This can be tricky when the relationship is with somebody we cannot escape, such as co-workers and family members.
Boundaries in Psychology
Boundaries are essential for maintaining psychological wellbeing, especially when providing psychological services to clients as mental health professionals.
There is extensive literature on the harms caused by poor boundaries and boundary violations in clinical relationships with patients and clients (Aiyegbusi & Kelly, 2012; Aravind, Krishnaram & Thasneem, 2012; Davies, 2007).
The APA’s psychologists’ code of ethics does not make any explicit statements about professional boundaries, although it covers related areas including:
- multiple relationships (such as offering therapy to a student or friend),
- sexual intimacies with current therapy clients/patients;
- sexual intimacies with relatives or significant others of current therapy clients/patients;
- therapy with former sexual partners; and
- sexual intimacies with former therapy clients/patients (American Psychological Association, 2017).
Similarly, the BPS has no explicit statement on boundaries in their code of ethics for British psychologists and associated clinical professions, but outlines key principles including confidentiality and the related code of conduct (British Psychological Society, 2021).
Meanwhile, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) has a detailed position statement on boundaries which begins as follows:
“It is a therapist’s duty to keep their clients psychologically safe. Boundaries are agreed limits or rules which help provide this safety and protect both the client and the therapist. They set a formal structure, purpose and standards for the therapy and the therapeutic relationship” (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, 2020, para. 3).
Health professionals of all kinds occupy a position of trust in their patients’ and clients’ lives. In legal terms, clinical and caring professionals have a fiduciary duty toward their clients as beneficiaries of their services that entails maintaining professional boundaries that protect the client’s interests above their own, at all times (Aravind, Krishnaram & Thasneem, 2012).
Setting boundaries at work
Maintaining healthy boundaries at work has become increasingly difficult with flexible working, remote and hybrid working, and technological progress.
Setting boundaries at work begins during the interview process, where you can establish what kinds of work practices you will accept, especially accessibility during working hours, out-of-hours working, and remote working arrangements.
Career Contessa offers eight tips for establishing healthy boundaries in the workplace.
- Assess your personal boundaries first. These will be determined by your values and priorities. If you are not clear about your boundaries, then it’s much easier for others to cross them or violate them, leading to discomfort, stress, and even resentment.
- Communicate directly. Be upfront yet professional. Avoid getting involved in discussing your colleagues with each other. Let people know when you are available and how you handle emails that arrive in your inbox outside work hours.
- Create clear structures for your work, especially times for focused work, by letting your colleagues know when you do not want to be disturbed.
- Keep your relationships professional. As tempting as it may be to become best friends with colleagues, it can lead to blurred boundaries and problems later on.
- Delegate work when appropriate to manage your workload.
- Get comfortable saying no.
- Take time off.
- Use technology to set and maintain work boundaries, by keeping others informed and using shareable project management tools, such as Trello or Asana.
Watch their video below for more detail.
If you find yourself in a workplace where your boundaries are repeatedly crossed or violated despite setting boundaries, then you may be being bullied or harassed. Look at this article on workplace bullying on how to manage and address the situation.
Healthy boundaries in friendships
The tips for keeping healthy boundaries in friendships include some points mentioned above, especially understanding your personal limits in terms of time and emotional investment.
These can also change as life events occur that entail a shift in priorities. For example, the time and energy you invest in friendships may change after starting a family. Your children become a priority and friendships may become less important until your children become more independent.
In the TED Talk below, Shasta Nelson describes the three requirements for healthy friendships that she calls ‘frientimacy’ as:
Setting boundaries and maintaining them with friends requires mutual trust and respect. Refer to our seven types of boundaries diagram above to consider your boundaries in friendships.
Boundary setting with friends who have crossed or violated them can be difficult, and you may experience pushback. If so, reassert the boundary again and be prepared to take a break from them by ignoring messages and calls for a while if the pushback continues.
Dr. Nicole LePera is a clinical psychologist trained at Cornell University in the US who has her own YouTube channel called the Holistic Psychologist. In the video below, she outlines the three key boundaries she has identified as essential for healthy friendships:
Boundaries in relationships
This section will take a brief look at boundaries in intimate relationships between partners. Many of the tips offered above also apply to intimate partnerships, including marriage. Let’s just take a moment to consider this quote:
“Boundaries are the gateway to healthy relationships.”
(Tawwab, 2021, p. 3)
Romantic relationships often run into trouble when implicit assumptions are made about shared values and relationship goals.
The key to having healthy intimate partnerships is clear communication between partners about mutual needs and expectations. Our worksheets below will provide further guidance.
This video by FlexTalk discusses how to set and maintain healthy boundaries in marriage, which also applies to any committed intimate partnership.
Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Review
If you struggle with setting boundaries, then this book is for you. It prioritizes the self-care we need to look after ourselves and others.
The author uses real-life case histories from her therapeutic practice to illustrate a range of problems caused by poor boundaries.
In each chapter, she offers exercises to help readers identify communication skills deficits that lead to poor boundaries and provides helpful tips on how to set and maintain boundaries.
By setting boundaries in relationships, we also discover which relationships are healthy and which are not. As Tawwab explains, if friends, family members, or work colleagues push back against our boundaries by ignoring them, challenging them, or cutting us off, then the relationship was already in deep trouble and needed to end.
However, boundaries are not walls. Tawwab says that behavior that erects walls, such as cutting people off without giving them a right to reply, (sometimes called ghosting) or prolonged silent treatment, is not about setting healthy boundaries, it is emotionally abusive.
Part two is a guide on how to set boundaries in all kinds of relationships, including family, romantic relationships, friendships, at work, and with social media and technology use. This is all followed up by a self-assessment quiz to help you check your progress.
Find the book on Amazon.
7 Healthy Boundaries Worksheets (PDFs)
To assist your clients in determining their boundaries, and then be comfortable in asserting them, make use of this selection of helpful resources.
1. Visualizing Your Boundaries
The worksheet Visualizing Your Boundaries helps your client identify life areas needing firmer boundaries.
2. The Personal Boundary Continuum – A Self-Reflection Tool
The Personal Boundary Continuum exercise helps your client define their boundaries in different life domains, and understand which areas of life may need more flexibility or firmer boundaries.
3. How to Set Boundaries – Saying No
This Saying No worksheet offers tips on how to set boundaries using the word ‘no’.
4. How to Set Boundaries – Stating What You Want
This State What You Want worksheet offers tips on how to set boundaries by stating what you want.
5. Group Boundary Setting Exercise
This Group Boundary Setting worksheet describes a group exercise that uses body language and speech to set and maintain boundaries.
6. Dealing With Boundary Violations
Dealing With Boundary Violations presents eight steps for dealing with boundary violations, especially when we are setting new boundaries in difficult situations.
7. Setting Internal Boundaries
The Setting Internal Boundaries worksheet helps you set internal boundaries by committing to the behavior you want to embrace (e.g., taking regular exercise, keeping a journal) and avoiding behavior that leaves you feeling uncomfortable (e.g., getting drunk with friends, yelling at your partner).
Positive Relationship Resources
PositivePsychology.com has several other relationship articles with resources you may find useful. Click on the links below for more.
- Building Healthy Relationships: Helpful Worksheets
- The Importance of Positive Relationships in the Workplace
- Conflict Resolution in Relationships & Couples: 5 Strategies
- Conflict Resolution Strategies for the Workplace
- Emotional Intelligence in Relationships (+Activities for Couples)
A Take-Home Message
Setting healthy boundaries is an essential life skill and an important self-care practice. Healthy boundaries create healthy relationships.
While someone who’s not used to setting boundaries might feel guilty or selfish when they first start, setting boundaries is necessary for mental health and wellbeing.
Appropriate boundaries can look very different depending on the setting, but it’s important to set them in all areas of life where we interact with others.
Finally, while setting boundaries is crucial, it is just as important to respect others’ boundaries, including parents, children, romantic partners, managers, coworkers, and anyone else we interact with.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free.
- Aiyegbusi, A. & Kelly, G. (2012). Professional and therapeutic boundaries in forensic mental health practice. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
- American Psychological Association. (2017). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct (2002, amended effective June 1, 2010, and January 1, 2017). Retrieved on 28 Oct 2022 from http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/index.html
- Aravind, V. K., Krishnaram, V. D., & Thasneem, Z. (2012). Boundary crossings and violations in clinical settings. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 34(1):21-4.
- British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. (2020). What do counsellors and psychotherapists mean by boundaries – Client information sheet. Retrieved on 28 Oct 2022 from https://www.bacp.co.uk/media/8273/bacp-boundaries-client-information-sheet-april-2020.pdf
- British Psychological Society. (2021). BPS Code of Ethics and Conduct. Retrieved on 28 Oct 2022, from https://cms.bps.org.uk/sites/default/files/2022-06/BPS%20Code%20of%20Ethics%20and%20Conduct.pdf
- Davies, M. (2007). Boundaries in counselling and psychotherapy. Athena Press.
- Falconier, M. K., Nussbeck, F., Bodenmann, G., Schneider, H., & Bradbury, T. (2015). Stress from daily hassles in couples: Its effects on intradyadic stress, relationship satisfaction, and physical and psychological well-being. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 41, 221– 235.
- Katherine, A. (2010). Boundaries: Where you end and I begin. Hazelden Publishing.
- Tawwab, N. G. (2021). Set boundaries, find peace: A guide to reclaiming yourself. Little, Brown Book Group.