How to Set Healthy Boundaries
This is an updated version of my old article Establishing Healthy Boundaries.
A lot of people have really bad boundaries these days
Over the years, one of the things I’ve noticed is that a lot of people have really poor boundaries. They don’t actually think about the idea of boundaries as they go about their lives and they don’t realize how important it is to have healthy ones.
The reason why boundaries are so important is because they keep us safe. They keep our relationships clear and they make all the expectations obvious. Without healthy boundaries, things can become complicated and confused and all sorts of problems can ensue.
An example I can recall of poor boundaries is when, years ago, I attended a friend’s wedding and the groom’s therapist was a guest there. This was before I did my psychiatry residency but even so, I was horrified to see this man’s therapist at his wedding.
I perceived it as a boundary violation because the therapist knew all sorts of deeply personal details about the groom and about his relationship with the bride and she was at a social event with all of his friends and family.
This did not seem at all appropriate to me. Someone who knows that much intimate information about another person without it being a reciprocal relationship should not be socializing with them.
Therapists who socialize with their clients are violating their boundaries
In general, once you are seeing a therapist, they should never socialize with you or do anything with you that is not part of the therapy. The power dynamic is so one-sided.
The therapist is privy to more personal information than the average friend or family member would ever have, and has more influence and impact on the client’s life than almost anyone else. This is not someone who could ever be a friend.
Another example of a boundary violation would be when a boss would become friends with an employee. I have seen this happen on far too many occasions, and it has almost never worked out.
The problem is that the boss has the power to fire the employee if they are displeased with anything they do. They can exploit the employee and even get them to do the boss’ job. They can make the employee’s life miserable if the employee doesn’t do what they want. How could this create the context for a normal friendship? It is totally one-sided.
Another obvious boundary violation is when a person in a position of power becomes overly familiar, seductive, or touchy-feely with someone in a subordinate position.
The person in the one-down position is caught between a rock and a hard place. They know that if they object to the other person’s behaviour, they could suffer consequences. All of these behaviours constitute abuse.
Social media promotes bad boundaries
In our new normal, social media supports the blurring of boundaries. People overshare deeply personal information online with no thought to the consequences of this behaviour. This encourages others to do the same, so that more and more people are ignoring their own and each other’s boundaries.
When we don’t have healthy boundaries, we put ourselves at risk of getting hurt. People can take liberties with our bodies and our secrets. We make it easier for people to abuse their power over us.
We can have role confusion and we can end up doing someone else’s job or putting ourselves in danger in the workplace of getting fired or in our social life of getting exploited or mistreated.
Healthy boundaries empower us to have healthy relationships
We need to re-learn healthy boundaries so that we can have healthy personal and professional relationships. It’s not that complicated to do so but it takes some conscious intention.
A common reason why people have poor boundaries is that many of us have encountered boundary violations during our childhood. What do these consist of?
They could be the experience or the witnessing of emotional, physical or sexual abuse. They could be when a person in a position of power, like a teacher, a coach or a parent shared inappropriate personal information with a child and made them feel burdened and overwhelmed because they didn’t know what to do with this information.
They could be a parent asking their child to take on the parental role and be their emotional care-taker. All of these things can be confusing to a young person as to where normal boundaries should be set, and what to expect from other people around these boundaries.
So, what are you to do if people disregarded your boundaries when you were growing up or if you’ve been spending so much time on social media that the concept of boundaries doesn’t seem to exist?
The first thing is to recognize that you have a right to your privacy and personal space. You have a right to stay in your own role, whether it’s that of friend, colleague, employee or boss.
You are not obliged to take care of the person who has more power than you. You don’t have to be pals with your employer. You also have a choice about what you let another person share with you. If you feel uncomfortable about what you’re hearing, you can stop listening.
Boundary violations in childhood can be healed
Knowing that your boundaries are yours to protect, you can begin making different choices as an adult. You can see that you don’t need to reveal intimate details about yourself to people until and unless you know them and trust them well.
You don’t need to engage in any type of intimate activity with anyone until you have established that they respect you and that you feel safe and comfortable with them.
Understanding your rights around your boundaries means that you take your time getting to know people and making sure that there is a reason and a context for any type of communication or contact that is more than just casual.
Broken boundaries can be healed. It takes time, and it can be somewhat uncomfortable; if only because it means facing the fact that your boundaries were disrespected in the first place.
Self-compassion is necessary in building better boundaries
It can also be upsetting to realize that you’ve been neglecting your own boundaries. It’s important to understand the reasons for this and to forgive yourself for it.
If you haven’t been able to set good boundaries in your life, it’s not your fault. It’s because of what you experienced while growing up and it’s because social media strongly encourages everyone to violate their own boundaries.
Being compassionate toward yourself around your not-so-good boundaries will go a long way in helping you to heal, and in helping you understand what constitute healthy boundaries. This will allow you to feel safer and more empowered in all of your relationships.
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