You may have heard people talk about “boundaries” in relationships. What are boundaries? How do we identify them? How do we know if our boundaries have been broken? How do I start setting boundaries?

Sometimes we overcomplicate boundaries but, in it’s simplest form, a boundary is just a limit. Everything in this world has pre-determined boundaries, whether we acknowledge them or not.  Every physical object has boundaries around it’s shape and form. That’s what makes one object distinguishable from another object. A boundary, in the interpersonal sense, is simply a word to clarify that there is a point at which I stop and you begin. It is a form of clarifying one’s comfort level. A boundary says, “I am okay with this” or “I am not okay with this.”

Just like the borders of a physical object, setting boundaries with people first requires a definitive sense of self. You must know what you like or don’t like in order to communicate that to others. This is one area where a lot of people struggle with boundary formation. They may not know where their needs end and someone else’s begin.  They may feel responsible FOR other people instead of responsible TO them.

Unresolved tension and conflict can almost always be traced back to a boundary issue. Yelling hurtful things at your partner? Probably somewhere along the line you didn’t set a boundary with your own tongue. Having trouble following through with your goals? It’s time to set a boundary with yourself to quit breaking promises you make to yourself.  Feeling walked all over? It may be time to look at why you’re resisting setting boundaries with others (hint: It could be fear of rejection, identifying your identity as a helper, or abandonment issues that lead to people pleasing).

There are five main types of boundaries:

Physical boundaries refer to personal space and physical touch. Healthy physical boundaries include an awareness of what’s appropriate (and what’s not) in various settings and types of relationships. If you’ve ever been the recipient of an unwanted hug, you’ll understand why these are important. It may seem awkward at first, but it’s always okay to ask someone before intersecting into their personal space. A simple, “May I have a hug?” shows respect for the other person and confidence in yourself. Children, especially, can be taught physical boundaries by example. When a parent doesn’t force a child to hug someone, they are communicating that the child has ownership of their body boundaries. If you find this difficult at family gatherings with over zealous relatives, consider offering choices: “Grandma is so excited to see you! Do you want to give her a hug, high five or wave?”

Intellectual boundaries refer to thoughts and ideas. Healthy intellectual boundaries include respect for others’ ideas and an awareness of appropriate discussion. Our current culture has a habit of invalidating others’ intellectual boundaries. It is a breach of intellectual boundaries to write someone off completely just because they think differently than you. Next time you’re stuck in a conversation where the other party continually tries to convince you of their point-of-view and isn’t open to constructive conversation, calmly state, “It seems like we view things differently.” It may be hard not to “prove” your point, but you may just save the relationship in the process.

Emotional boundaries refer to a person’s feelings. Healthy emotional boundaries include limitations on when to share, and when not to share, personal information. One surefire way to respect emotional boundaries is by asking, “Is this a good time?” before launching into your life story or sharing your emotional pain.

Material boundaries refer to money and possessions. Healthy material boundaries involve setting limits on what you will share, and with whom. Toddlers are learning material boundaries every day. One way to honor material boundaries, even for the littlest of people, is to practice “taking turns” verses demanding a toddler share at all times.

Time boundaries refer to how a person uses their time. To have healthy time boundaries, a person must set aside enough time for each facet of their life such as work, relationships, and hobbies. Inconsistent time boundaries are at the root of many challenging life situations. When you feel stressed or resentful, break down your life into categories and identify where you’re struggling with setting boundaries. Do you have difficulty turning off the screen to honor your sleep boundary? Is work running over into family time? Any area where you find yourself repeating the same destructive patterns is an area that needs boundary development.

Boundaries take practice. Begin by implementing them in one area and then expand to others once you’ve seen measurable progress. You’ll begin to feel more in control of your life as you identify- and implement- healthy boundaries.

For a more detailed discussion on boundaries, check out the Positive Talk Podcast Episode: Healthy Boundaries for Successful Relationships.