Perhaps the subject of boundaries may be unfamiliar because there were no boundaries
in the family in which you were raised. Or perhaps you’re the kind of person who pushes
yourself to the very edge to produce satisfying results, but then burns out. I hope this article
serves as a friendly reminder to those who continually look to refine the edges of what isn’t
working, and to offer support and encouragement to those in the process of making necessary
positive changes in their lives.
Boundaries of Self: Early Development
Let us start with the definition I like best from mental health counselor, author, and speaker
Anne Katherine. “A boundary is a limit that promotes integrity” (2000, pg. 13). As you move
through life, the integrity of your being is always to be considered-- as does the integrity of your
time, energy, health, sexuality, autonomy, relationships, spirituality, authentic way of being in
the world, preferences, and things you hold dear (ibid). Our personal protective boundaries are
as unique as each one of us. We provide ourselves psychological safety through asserting
these boundaries, for our bodies and minds need to know that we are deserving of safe care,
and can rely on ourselves to speak up and keep us from harm. However, knowledge of how to
do this does not come automatically; it is a learned behavior.
The process of learning of healthy boundaries and why limits exist is a cognitive,
developmental milestone that can only be met through consistent conditioning and
reinforcement of rules. Children are not born with the knowledge to avoid sticking fingers in
electrical outlets or look before crossing a street. It is in their nature to explore. Children learn
what to and what not to do through constant reminders and boundary setting from adults. In a
perfect world, our caregivers taught us that we’re worthwhile beings whose safety and health
are worth preserving by imposing appropriate protective limits--“building blocks to self-esteem”
(Chidekel, 2002, pg. 129). Responsible parents help teach children about boundary setting, but
as adults we don’t have the luxury of having someone to help set those boundaries for us. We
must therefore set limits for ourselves in the interest of self care, putting into place boundaries
which will allow the positive stuff in while keeping the harmful negative stuff out. Boundaries are
not to be confused with defenses, which can keep the good with the bad out.
Limits and boundaries define the line between self and other, safety and danger, having
freedom and taking license. Safety provides the container for freedom and exploration for kids
and adults alike. Only with consistent enforcement of limits and boundaries on behalf of oneself,
or by caregivers educating young people, one understands the capacity of freedom as well as
the consequences of taking license, acting on impulse, and doing things frivolously without
thought (Chidekel, 2002).
Practice of Boundary Setting:
There are specific things we can do to mindfully protect ourselves allowing us the psychological
freedom we need to thrive, but this practice of boundary setting can be difficult, especially if it’s
unfamiliar. A good place to start asserting yourself is by saying “no”—fundamental boundary #1.
Doing so equates your needs with others. It’s developmentally crucial. Getting comfortable with
saying no can assist you in setting boundaries in other ways, such as; limiting exposure to
unkind or careless people, asserting your needs clearly to others, and choosing to surround
yourself with those who nourish you (Katherine, 2000). If we value the integrity of our inner
resources that have limits, such as time, energy, attention, etc., we need to make choices that
protect those from becoming exhausted. Brene Brown concluded boundaries foster
sustainability for the self. I cannot remember which TED talk or interview it was-- she has put so
much good stuff out there. I love her work.
Becoming skilled in setting and honoring our boundaries means knowing how to walk
away before things escalate, refusing to accept any sort of abuse, and managing our emotions
through deep breathing or non-violent communication. We teach others what our limits are, and
how to treat us through consistent action, communication, and boundary enforcement. This
requires being honest with yourself. It requires strength and courage, as well as commitment to
the practice of growing your mindful awareness. Katherine says, “Although boundaries are a
practice, a defined behavior, they also carry us to a wider place within ourselves, a place where
we discover what our lives are really about” (Katherine, 2000, pg. 286). Which brings us to the
crossroad where boundaries, relationships, and intimacy come together.
Balancing Boundaries of Self with Relationship and Intimacy:
One of life’s greatest challenges and rewards is intimacy, within the self and with others
(Katherine, 2000). All too often women’s assertive voice and sense of self become secondary to
the preferences of others for the sake of connection and intimacy (De Azevedo Hanks, 2016). It
makes sense that doing so would foster a breeding ground for little resentments to build. We
cannot expect people to read our minds, nor should we revert to passive aggressive behavior to
convey hidden resentments.
We need to speak up for ourselves-- if we don’t, who will? Intimacy and closeness do not
have to come at the expense of our integrity, or sacrificing our needs and wants. We come from
a place of care for the other and the relationship when we hold people accountable for their
behavior. Intimacy requires two whole people coming together and sharing, not morphing into
the same person found in enmeshment, and not constantly bending over backwards found in
co-dependency. In close relationships, one can expect difficult conversations, saying no,
vulnerability, and accountability (Brown, 2010; Katherine, 2000).
We must persistently strive to operate from the belief that we are lovable and worthwhile
individuals, otherwise we are at risk of violating the integrity of our being time and again. There
are boundary errors out of ignorance, and blatant violations of disregard. In either case, we are
not to make excuses for the other (De Azevedo Hanks, 2016). In all cases, communication must
be clear. Mixed messages cloud boundaries. If something is not okay, it’s not okay.
You can anticipate there will be people who won’t respect your boundaries. Certain
people will only change when met with a consequence, therefore it is important we do not
interfere with their learning by protecting them from the consequences of their disregard.
(Katherine, 2000). Beware the subtle type of abuse that creates disorientation and sabotages
autonomy. We lose self-direction, emotional independence, and autonomy when we don’t put a
stop those who target our automatic processes, our way of thinking, working, or handling life
(ibid). Ultimately we are responsible for managing our resentments, emotions, and what we say
and do. We violate our own boundaries and integrity if we allow people to mistreat us, or if we
neglect to take care of ourselves in ways that nurture and restore us (Katherine, 2000).
When clear assertive communication does not work, it may become necessary to simply
take space. “The longer we stay in a violating situation, the more traumatized we become”
(Katherine, 2000, pg. 83). We make the choice to prioritize moments of discomfort asserting
boundaries over gradual deterioration of positive self image.
Why Boundaries Are Important:
Research suggests the purpose of consistent, reliable boundaries is to foster safety, autonomy,
confidence, and freedom within the Self, as well as acceptance, compassion, and intimacy in
context of relationship (Brown, 2010; Chidekel, 2002; De Azevedo Hanks, 2016; Katherine,
2000). Perhaps there is someone in your life who makes slight remarks or treats you in a way
you do not appreciate, but you don’t say anything for fear of being rejected, made fun of, or that
doing so might upset the other person. The one who suffers is you. Sometimes the only thing
that needs to be said is, “I care about you and our relationship. When you make comments like
that I feel as though my feelings don’t matter to you, and I would appreciate if you would please
stop.” A person who cares about you will hear that and hopefully make modifications in their
behavior towards you.
As we set clear boundaries, we begin to have a clearer sense of our presence in the
world. When we don’t use our autonomy and “act on our own behalf, we will lose spirit,
resourcefulness, energy, health, perspective, and resilience” (Katherine, 2000, pg. 83). In any
situation where a boundary needs to be asserted, there is also an opportunity for an inner-
strengthening to occur when we respect ourselves and ask others to do the same. Our goal is to
differentiate thoughts from feelings, and operate from a place of conscious action versus
reaction (De Azevedo Hanks, 2016).
As one who needed boundary reform in my own life, I can attest that practicing
boundaries, speaking up and expressing my truth has brought a wave of freedom and vitality
back into my life. As Anne Katherine so beautifully states, “When applied in the right places,
with the appropriate amount of firmness and dimension, [boundaries] make way for entire
possibilities that aren’t even dimly formed until you are free” (2000, pg. 288).
Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed
to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing.
Chidekel, D. (2002). Parents In Charge: Setting Healthy, Loving Boundaries for You and
Your Child. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
De Azevedo Hanks, J. (2016). The Assertiveness Guide for Women: How to
Communicate Your Needs and Set Healthy Boundaries & Transform Your
Relationships. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Kantor, M. (Producer), & Hercules, B., Coburn Whack, R. (Directors). (2016). Maya
Angelou: and still I rise. [Motion picture]. United States: NetFlix.
Katherine, A. (2000). Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every
Day. New York, NY: Fireside.
Calais Marine Brown is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist based in Los Angeles and has experience working within a variety of clinical milieu; from streets of skid row for NPO, to beaches at teen residential treatment center, and currently in the governmental sector. Calais enjoys supporting kids, teens, and adult individuals who are curious and motivated toward self-growth and change.