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Understanding & Setting Boundaries

What are boundaries?

The Oxford dictionary defines a boundary as “a line that marks a limit.” Countries, states and cities all need to have boundaries and so do people. It is important to understand boundaries, as they exert a critical influence on your relationships with family members, friends, partners and colleagues.

Boundaries are the way you define who you are and separate out what you think and feel from the thoughts and feelings of others. Boundaries are the limits that you create to identify reasonable, safe and acceptable ways for others to behave towards you. When you have healthy boundaries, you can tune into your feelings, identify what is appropriate to you and protect yourself from manipulation and violation from others.

How do we develop boundaries?

Boundaries are first developed in childhood and you develop healthy boundaries by being taught that all people have equal rights and can expect their relationships to be respectful and reciprocal, with a healthy level of give and take. When you have healthy boundaries, you are confident expressing your emotions and needs and you are not threatened by other people expressing theirs.

Unfortunately, no one gets to be raised in a perfect world by perfect parents and so it can often be a long and difficult journey towards developing healthy boundaries.

What are indicators of poor boundaries?

When we fail to set boundaries, and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. – Brene Brown

Blurred Boundaries

Whilst growing up, you may have received messages that it was selfish to express your emotions or rude to say no, which may have resulted in you having difficulty communicating your needs and setting clear boundaries with others later in life. You may have developed habits of being extremely accommodating of other people’s emotional needs, at the expense of your own and you may now experience some of the following tendencies:

  • Bottling up your emotions

  • Absorbing other people’s pain

  • Needing to be liked all the time

  • Often feeling used and taken advantage of

  • Feeling as though you are always in the wrong

  • Giving in and agreeing whether you want to or not

  • Taking on responsibility for other people’s problems

  • Believing that it is rude or selfish to say what you want

  • Feeling as though you are never good enough as you are

Enmeshed Relationships

Blurred boundaries can lead to enmeshed relationships, in which your sense of self blurs into another person’s identity. You can be especially vulnerable to forming enmeshed relationships if in childhood you learned to suppress your own needs and focus exclusively on the needs of others. You may now find yourself being overly responsible in relationships and doing too much for others to try and please them and make them happy.

This can lead to an increased sensitivity to changes in other people’s moods and leave you feeling emotionally drained. You may also feel guilty about disappointing others or not living up to their expectations, which may contribute to you pushing on and ignoring your own needs. If you continue to do this, you are vulnerable to being exploited and you are likely to end up feeling depleted, resentful and emotionally exhausted.

People often mistake enmeshed relationships for true intimacy, which they are not. The healthiest kinds of relationships are those in which people recognise their differences and respect each other’s limits. If two people have worked hard on their individual development and boundaries before forming a relationship, they are streets ahead of those who expect to “never have a cross word.” True intimacy takes lots of time, arguments, communication, mistakes, acceptance, forgiveness and support.

Enmeshed Families

When a whole family is enmeshed, every family member is pressured to think and feel the same way the dominant family member thinks and feels. Superficially, such families may appear close, yet often individuals feel very distant from each other and they can get caught up in family dramas, with little sense of themselves in the situation. It can be very difficult to express different views or opinions in an enmeshed family, where conformity is prized above authenticity. If that is you, check out how you feel the next time you are leaving the family BBQ, dinner or holiday.

What is the impact of abuse on boundaries?

The more severe the dysfunction you experienced growing up, the more difficult boundaries are for you. Being able to say no is a necessary ingredient in a healthy lifestyle. Boundaries represent awareness, knowing what the limits are and respecting those limits. - David W Earle

Your boundaries are always being violated if you are in an abusive situation. Abuse can take many forms including physical, sexual and emotional. In an emotionally abusive situation, you absorb someone else’s emotional pain because of threats or criticisms directed at you. The other person may blame you rather than take responsibility for how they are feeling and you may end up feeling guilty for no good reason.

Sometimes, if you have suffered from abuse or neglect, you can become so hungry for affection and affirmation that you may allow yourself to be taken advantage of and abused for the little nurture that you do get in that situation. Sometimes you may give yourself away sexually when what you want is kindness and care.

Rigid Boundaries

Whilst blurred boundaries can lead to enmeshed relationships, rigid boundaries are at the other extreme and can lead to emotional distance in relationships. Often in response to childhood abuse, loss or neglect, people build emotional brick walls which block close connection with others. If this is you, it may feel easier to isolate yourself than to form intimate and trusting relationships with others, in which each person shares their vulnerabilities. You may be fiercely independent in your relationships, preferring to control situations and keep people at arm’s length. You may avoid ever depending on others and even a friendly, kind gesture may be interpreted as intrusive. Rigid boundaries may be associated with the following tendencies:

  • Isolating yourself

  • Limiting social interaction

  • Avoiding emotional intimacy

  • Stonewalling others with silence

  • Dismissing other people’s feelings

  • Pushing people away with criticism

  • Seeing other people as emotionally needy

  • Putting other people off with walls of anger

  • Focusing on work, hobbies, interests etc. to the point of excluding connection with others

Building Healthy Boundaries

Boundaries mark the most beautiful places, between the ocean and the shore, between the mountains and the plains, where the canyon meets the river. - W. Paul Young

Healthy boundaries honour your right:

  • To be yourself

  • To ask for help

  • To have privacy

  • To not be abused

  • To make mistakes

  • To change your mind

  • To trust your instincts

  • To take care of yourself

  • To express your opinions

  • To be treated with respect

  • To have power over your life

  • To comfortably say “yes” and “no”

Building healthy boundaries requires a commitment to building greater self-awareness, as you need to be able to connect with how you are feeling in order to recognise when interactions are blurring or crossing your boundaries. Knowing what you can tolerate and acknowledging what makes you feel stressed and pressured will help you get to know your limits, which you can then communicate to others. It can take time to understand and build healthy boundaries, but it is worth the effort. Healthy boundaries give you freedom to define who you are, be clear about your limits and ultimately develop positive and fulfilling relationships with others.

At Incorporate Psychology we have highly qualified and respected Psychologists that can help you with your boundary issues. Contact us today to make an appointment (07) 3852 2441. Medicare rebates can apply.


Katherine, Anne. (2000) Boundaries – Where You End And I Begin. Parkside Publishing.

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