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Boundaries: What They Are, What They Look Like, and How to Set Them

Feb 8, 2023

By Anne-Marie Sylvester, RCC

Boundary-setting is something I have struggled with for quite some time. It has only been in the most recent part of my life that I feel like I have learned what boundary-setting looks like. For the longest time, I knew what a boundary was, but had no clue what mine were let alone how to implement one. Boundary-setting can be tough and it is an on-going process, but we can learn strategies on how to set them! I hope this blog provides some helpful information, validation, and prompt some helpful reflection.

One way to conceptualize boundaries is that they are limits that we set, and these limits are based on our needs. A boundary can represent where one space ends and the next begins; so one way to think of a boundary is where your space of safety, comfort, or sense of self ends, and where the rest of the world begins. They can define what’s “okay” and “not okay” for us.

Boundaries can be set in regards to: how much time we spend and where we spend it, our comfort level around physical touch, how much energy we are willing to spend and where we are willing to spend it, how much we’re willing to do for others, how emotionally available we’re willing to make ourselves for others, and so forth. As you can see, there are many contexts in which we can consider setting boundaries. I hope to encourage boundary-setting, and here is why: We all have our limits of what’s healthy and what is not, in all areas of our lives. If we don’t draw a line somewhere in the sand, then we ourselves, and others, will no doubt engage in actions that have an unhealthy effect on us.  

Let’s use a metaphor that I heard years ago. Imagine that you have a property that is surrounded by a fence. This fence is tall enough to create separation, protection, and safety; it provides a demarcation of what your space is and what is not; others are able to clearly see where your fence line is but are still able to communicate and connect with you, and conversely it allows you to connect with the world on the other side of the fence while simultaneously having the protection and safety that the fence offers.   

Objectively speaking, putting a fence around one’s own property seems pretty reasonable, right? And yet, it appears to be quite difficult for so many of us to set an appropriately-sized fence to help maintain and protect our own well-being. So many of us don’t have boundaries or either struggle dearly with the process and still end up with our property being trampled over by others who don’t see a fence-line. Understandably this can often lead to feelings of burnout, frustration, annoyance, resentment, and the list can go on. Not a nice experience, to say the least.  

Here are some examples of what having loose or an absence of boundaries can look like:  

  • Difficulty saying “no” 
  • Feeling taken advantage of  
  • Feeling the need to people-please or be the “fixer” 
  • Getting sucked into other people’s problems to the point of overinvolvement 
  • Feeling like your needs are often neglected 

There is also the option of setting a fence that is so high that others cannot connect with us over the fence, nor are we able to truly connect with the world outside. This would be the scenario when one sets overly-rigid boundaries.  

Here are some examples of how it can look when one’s boundaries are very rigid:  

  • Being fiercely protective of personal information and personal belongings 
  • Having difficulty accepting or asking for help
  • Having difficult being closer and intimate with others
  • Seeming emotionally withdrawn or detached
  • Having many rules in order to avoid getting hurt 
Two basketball players in action

Having no boundaries means that our property will get stomped over, having overly-rigid boundaries means no one can even see our property and we heavily limit our ability to experience life outside of it.  

Here are some of the ways that a moderate fence, aka healthy boundaries, can look: 

  • Knowing your values and needs, and rarely compromising them 
  • Being assertive without being aggressive 
  • Being flexible without losing your sense of self
  • Being clear on what your responsibilities are, and not taking on responsibilities that aren’t yours. 

So let’s consider some of the common barriers that can make boundary-setting a lot more difficult. I have often heard others worry that boundary-setting can come off as selfish, be considered a punishment, it may lead to rejection, or will inevitably lead to getting hurt. However, boundary-setting is a form of self-care by making sure that your needs are met and are not being needlessly compromised. It can also be a tool that we use to take care of others. Most of the time boundary-setting does not lead to rejection or people leaving, but if people do leave, is it truly worth compromising your needs and well-being just so they stay?  

Not setting rigid boundaries does not mean we are only setting ourselves up to inevitably get hurt. Despite the intention to protect ourselves, sometimes closing ourselves off can be more harmful than opening ourselves up.  

Tips for boundary-setting:  

  • Practice saying “no” in easier settings (example: with your partner, and then with your most trusted friends, and move your way up to co-workers, and so forth).  
  • Have a few boundary-setting phrases in mind, so you can pull them out of your back pocket when you need them (example: “Thank you for the invite, it’s important that I have time to recharge for tomorrow though, so I won’t be joining”). 
  • Have a boundary-setting cheerleader (a friend, partner, therapist) who can root you on and help keep you accountable.  
  • Know what situations you are willing to make exceptions for and which ones you are not.  
  • Imagine, and repeatedly remind yourself, what life would be like if you set healthy boundaries. 

I’d like to acknowledge that discussing boundary-setting is a lot easier than putting it into action. Counselling services can help with the process of identifying what your needs are, what is getting in the way of being able to meet your needs, and how to set boundaries more effectively.  

Here is some food for thought that I invite you to reflect on:  

  • Are you holding any particular beliefs about boundaries, and are they serving you well? 
  • What are some needs of yours that aren’t being met?  
  • How do others treat you and how do you like to treat others? It may be worth considering setting boundaries if there is a big difference between the two. 
  • How will you know if your boundaries are breached? Consider a plan on what to do when this occurs.


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