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What Are Personal Boundaries?

By Eric Dean JD, MBA, MA, MA, LPC, CADC

If you have been in therapy before, odds are you have talked about boundaries at some point. This post will describe what boundaries are, why we should set them, and the importance of enforcing them. Future posts will review ways to set healthy personal boundaries. 

A personal boundary is a limit or rule that we set for ourself or others. Let’s start off with some examples:

  • John sets a boundary for himself to refrain from checking his work email account after 8pm. 
  • Pat sets a boundary for herself to avoid discussing certain topics with family members on holidays.
  • Jane sets a boundary with her significant other to not get in the car with him if he has been drinking. 
  • Bill sets a boundary with his significant other to not engage with her if she belittles him.

Why should we set boundaries?

Here are three main reasons:

  1. Boundaries protect us. Using the examples above: John sets his boundary to protect his personal time and mental well-being, Pats sets her boundary to avoid unhealthy arguments and therefore protect her emotional health, Jane sets her boundary to protect her physical safety, and Bill sets his boundary to protect himself from disparaging personal attacks. 
  2. Boundaries help us live consistently with our values. For example, if I value family, I may set a boundary to work no later than 6:30pm so I can spend quality time with my kids. If I value physical health, I may set a boundary to go to bed no later than 10:00pm so I can get a good night’s sleep and make the most of my morning workout.
  3. Boundaries help us achieve our goals. If my goal is to lose 10 pounds, I may set a boundary to abstain from eating processed foods. If my goal is to buy a home, I may set a boundary to eat out no more than 3 times per week to save money for a down payment. 

The importance of enforcing your boundaries

You have identified and set a helpful boundary – great work! Now you need to make sure that you enforce the boundary when appropriate. Using the example of Jane, if there comes a time when her significant other has been drinking and attempts to drive, Jane should enforce her boundary by refusing to get in the car. If Jane does get in the car, she has made things worse, because when we fail to enforce our boundaries, we communicate to others that they don’t need to honor them. 

You also want to think about the consequences of a boundary violation. For example, let’s say you set a boundary with your teenage son to call you if he is going to be out past 11:00pm. You clearly communicate to him that if this boundary is not adhered to, then he will not be allowed to play video games for one week. If there comes a time when he stays out past 11 without calling, you need to make sure to enforce that boundary. If he does adhere to the boundary, you can reinforce his behavior by giving him recognition.

How to enforce your boundaries

It may be challenging to enforce your boundaries. If you are having trouble, revisit the reasons that you set the boundary and/or find ways to facilitate behavior consistent with it. For example, the boundary of avoiding processed foods may be difficult to adhere to, especially in the beginning, but remember all the good reasons behind it – improved physical health, feeling better, thinking more clearly, etc. The boundary around not checking your email past 8:00pm may be easier to adhere to by using the “Do Not Disturb” feature on your phone or putting it in another room. If you do not adhere to a boundary, find ways to hold yourself accountable or have someone else do it. 

Wrapping Up

Over time, when you consistently adhere to your boundaries, you build healthy habits while increasing self-confidence and self-efficacy. A Symmetry counselor can help you identify, set, and enforce boundaries that are going to help you reach your goals.

So, let’s get started– call Symmetry Counseling today at 312-578-9990.

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