Do you have healthy boundaries?
Boundaries weren’t something I spent much time thinking about for many years. I used to relate to the concept of boundaries negatively, but actually, boundaries are not only positive; they are essential for healthy relationships, families, teams, and communities.
Of course, I’ve known that boundaries are important, especially in the context of parenting, communication, work, and more. Still, the idea of having clear and specific boundaries had sometimes seemed limiting or restrictive to me and definitely challenging.
In the past few years, however, my lack of healthy boundaries has caused some real pain and challenge in my life and business in a way that has forced me to stop and pay more attention to them.
What Are Healthy Boundaries?
Boundaries are clear guidelines that we create to let people know what works and doesn’t work for us. They also communicate what we need, want, and expect from others and create accountability for us and those around us.
A few years ago, during a session I had with my counselor, Eleanor, she said to me, “Mike, you don’t have healthy boundaries! You may not even know what healthy boundaries are.”
“What do you mean?” I asked somewhat defensively.
“Well,” she said, “having healthy boundaries is about you setting up your life, your relationships, your work, and all the things that you do in a way that works for you authentically.” She continued, “When boundaries are healthy, they aren’t fixed, etched in stone, or filled with self-righteousness. They are, however, clear and clean.”
I’d been talking to Eleanor during that session about a few specific people who were upsetting me and a couple of situations that were difficult and painful.
“What happens to you,” she said, “is that you’re not clear, clean, and straightforward with people about what you want, what works or doesn’t work for you, or when you get upset. Then,” she continued, “at some point, you get angry enough to speak up, and when you do, you do so with a great deal of self-righteousness and judgment, which pushes them away and makes the boundary fixed and rigid, like the state line between California and Nevada.”
As I sat there and listened to Eleanor’s feedback, it hit me like a ton of bricks. “You’re right,” I said, “that’s what I do. It not only doesn’t feel good, but it also doesn’t work.”
“No, it doesn’t,” she said, “however, you’re not alone – many people do this. Creating healthy boundaries isn’t easy, but it’s so important.” She went on to say, “Mike, you, like lots of people, have a fairly immature perspective about boundaries. The cleaner you are with your boundaries, the easier it will be for you to negotiate them and also to operate with power, clarity, and integrity in all aspects of your life.”
Boundaries Impact Relationships and Other Important Areas in Your Life
As it often is, Eleanor’s feedback was a bit hard to hear but so valuable. What she said had a real impact on me and made me take a deeper look at how I operate in my life as a husband, father, friend, leader, colleague, client, author, speaker, coach, and more, in regards to boundaries. It’s both illuminating and humbling to see the impact of my lack of healthy boundaries in various important relationships and areas in my life.
What Happens If You Don’t Create Healthy Boundaries?
When you don’t set boundaries, it gives others the chance to do harmful and upsetting things towards you, even if these things aren’t done intentionally or with malice. In addition, it means that you will likely spend a lot of time and energy doing what others want you to do over what you want to do, which in the long term can lead to unfulfillment, frustration, and resentment.
What I’ve noticed is that when I don’t create clear and healthy boundaries with certain people or in particular situations, it’s often because of fear. I’m sometimes afraid to speak up and say what I want/don’t want or what works/doesn’t work for me. I find myself trying to navigate my life and relationships in such a way that I won’t offend or upset people while at the same time attempting to get what I want and have people like me. Maybe you can relate to this in some way?
When we don’t set boundaries, not only does it set us up for difficulty and failure, but it also sabotages our desire for healthy, strong, and authentic connections with other people.
How to Create Healthy Boundaries
Here are some things we can do or think about to create healthy boundaries in our lives:
1) Take inventory of your boundaries.
Take an honest look at your boundaries (or, at times, lack thereof) and how you relate to boundaries in general. How clean, clear, and healthy are your boundaries?
2) Avoid Resistance
Maybe you have some resistance to setting boundaries, as I did for a long time (and am still working through). You may think of boundaries in a negative or restrictive way like I did. Or, you might be on the opposite end of the spectrum with lots of specific, fixed, and rigid boundaries, without much flexibility or potential movement.
3) Be Honest With Yourself
Healthy boundaries aren’t fixed and unconscious – they are clear and intentional, but not nailed in place. The more honest you can be with yourself about the health of your boundaries and your overall relationship to boundaries, the more effective you’ll be in making positive changes in your life, your relationships, your teams, and your work.
4) Ask Yourself, “Is This Working For Me?”
It’s important to ask ourselves how things work for us in the most important relationships and situations in our lives. If something isn’t working for us (we feel upset, offended, disappointed, disconnected, confused, irritated, taken advantage of, or misunderstood), it’s likely that our boundaries aren’t clean or healthy in that specific situation or relationship.
We may or may not know what to do or say about it, but identifying what’s not working for us and taking responsibility for it is an essential step in the process of creating positive and sustainable change.
5) Get Clear About Your Boundaries
It’s also essential that we clarify what our boundaries are (i.e., what works for us and what doesn’t), which can sometimes be easy and sometimes difficult, depending on various factors. However, once we’re clear, the more challenging aspect of this often involves communicating this to others.
6) Have the Courage to Communicate Your Boundaries
It takes courage to communicate our boundaries honestly, but it can be so liberating and empowering when we do. It’s important to communicate with humility and vulnerability, which can be scary, especially in specific situations and relationships. One of the most critical things for us to remember is to remove our self-righteousness from our communication. Our boundaries are not Right with a capital “R.” They’re just true for us. And, they may change, which is what often happens with authentic and healthy boundaries as we grow and evolve.
Examples of Boundaries
- Communicating your physical needs
- Physical space
- Handling negative energy
- Having the right to your time
- Accepting help
- Expecting respect
- Expressing how you feel
- Asking for what you want
- Having an identity outside of a role or relationship
- Communicating discomfort
- Standing up for yourself
The cleaner and healthier we are with our boundaries, the more power and freedom we’ll have in our lives, our relationships, our work, and all the things that are most important to us. Share your thoughts, ideas, insights, actions, and more on my blog.
I have written five books about the importance of trust, authenticity, appreciation, and more. In addition, I deliver keynotes and seminars (both in-person and virtually) to empower people, leaders, and teams to grow, connect, and perform their best. As an expert in teamwork, leadership, and emotional intelligence, I teach techniques that allow people and organizations to be more authentic and effective. Find out more about how I can help you and your team achieve your goals today. You can also listen to my podcast here.Contact
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This article was published on September 18, 2013, and has been updated for 2021.