Establishing Effective Personal Boundaries

​​By: Chad A. Buck, PhD

The term "boundary" is used often but it is not always understood or properly-executed. A physical boundary is a wall or a barrier between two things. It keeps property separated so it is clear who owns it or with whom it belongs. A psychological boundary is not all that different.

A psychological boundary is like an imaginary fence around what thoughts, feelings, values, or desires belong to you. If your fence is built like a tightly-stacked stone wall, then nothing can get out or in. This type of boundary may serve to protect you from negative outcomes, but it can be too limiting and cut you off from others. If your fence is constructed with thin pieces of paper, then it is too fragile to contain your thoughts and emotions. It leaves you vulnerable to being overtaken by the thoughts and emotions of others, as well.

What does an effective personal boundary look like? An effective boundary is neither too rigid nor too loose. It offers protection while still keeping you connected to others, it offers structure, it limits the energy you devote to a person or situation, and it offers you choices rather than obligations or expectations. Visualize a stone wall with a gate that can be opened or closed. You are the gatekeeper, and no one gets access unless you say so.

Characteristics of Effective Boundaries

  • Limits are clear and decisive, yet reasonable.
  • Value is placed on your needs, as well as the needs of others.
  • The focus is on authenticity instead of pleasing others or playing the victim.
  • Boundaries are not the result of guilt, worry, fear, or shame.
  • Boundaries help you to channel anger and frustration into helping you determine what is unacceptable rather than moving you to aggressive action or shutting you down.
  • Boundaries are based in what the reality is instead of what you or another person wants reality to be.

Now that you know what effective boundaries look like, it is important to consider the key elements needed to develop or improve boundaries.

Steps to Create Effective Boundaries

  1. Give yourself permission to set personal limits with people. People worry that they will hurt or upset people by setting limits or boundaries. For many, love and approval are tied to pleasing others, and setting limits means you are taking a risk that you will not be loved or accepted. Others may worry that they are being selfish by setting limits. It is not selfish to take care of yourself and your needs while also considering the needs of others. It makes you more effective and less burned out from helping if you set some limits.
  2. Identify your own limits. No one will set limits for you, and good people tend to be given more responsibilities. It is your responsibility to know how much you are willing to handle, put up with, or tolerate. If you don't set the limit, then others will set it for you or just ignore that you have limits. Also, research has shown that people with less effective limits or boundaries are more likely to violate the boundaries of others.
  3. Be selective about when, where, how, why, and with whom you share information. It is important to consider the reality of the relationship you have with a person. If you have a co-worker with whom you feel connected but you do not communicate outside of work, then they are not close enough to be a confidante. Sharing personal information in the workplace can create problems if you reveal too much. If you are very guarded, however, people may assume you do not want to connect or are uninterested in relating.
  4. Communicate your needs if you want them met. As much as we would love it, there is no one on Earth that can anticipate our every need. We need to own and voice our needs and not hold people to an unrealistic expectation. Also, do not assume someone knows what they "should" do or what "should" happen based on past experience or past discussions. People need reminders some times. Try not to hold it against them and think about how others may not have the same values or expectations as you.

The more effective you are at setting and enforcing personal boundaries, the less likely you are to violate other people's boundaries. You are more likely to be seen for the person you are and not as the person others expect or want you to be.

Effective boundaries set the stage for positive relationships. If you take control of setting more effective boundaries, you have choices and opportunities for less stress and more engagement, in general.

Read​ a Huffington Post interview with Dr. Buck on this topic.