What Are Boundaries?
Boundaries are the physical or implied boundaries that we hold against our surroundings. A physical example of a boundary would be a fence or a wall. This is a physical indication of where it is okay to be and where it is not okay to be without permission.
Boundaries are important because they set limits for us. Often they are generated by our personal sense of self, as well as social mores. What is typical and accepted by one culture may not hold true for another. For example, in some countries when meeting someone for the first time, expectations can range from a handshake, a wave, a hug, a kiss, a bow, or other types of gestures. It is important to be mindful of others' boundaries, particularly when entering a new situation.
What Are Emotional Boundaries?
Emotional boundaries are of a similar idea, in that they are the invisible lines within which we feel comfortable, and which when violated, feel uncomfortable. Emotional boundaries cover everything from how open about yourself you are, to how comfortable you are around emotions.
Emotional boundaries tell us a lot about ourselves. Further, they are deeply personal. It can be difficult to read others' emotional boundaries because they differ from person to person, based upon personality, trauma history, and comfort in social situations.
How Do I Recognize Emotional Boundaries?
Because everyone's boundaries are different, it is not always easy to recognize someone's boundaries. However, here are some things you can look for.
- Taking a step back
- Lack of eye contact
- Turning red
- Changing the subject
- Short or clipped answers
- Long hesitations
- Leaning in
- Extensive answers
- Consistent eye contact
- Easy manner
- Conversational flow
How Do I Know When My Boundaries Have Been Violated?
Boundary violations are tricky. There are two ways your boundaries could be violated. One way is a gross and immediate violation, such as a rape or sexual assault. These violations occur in one fell swoop and are clear.
The other type of boundary violation is more gradual. Often violators such as abusers "groom" an individual, meaning they test out how far they can go, and see what they can get away with.
Read more about child grooming.
By doing so, they step out of line a little bit at a time. It is easy and not uncommon to think that it is a one-off situation, or that it is harmless. For example, someone bumps in to you and you drop something. They move in close and pick it up for you, stroking your hand as they hand it back. This may be a boundary violation for some people, who may not be comfortable with a person being so close to them, and touching their hand extensively.
However, when you get that icky feeling in your gut, it might be time to reset your boundaries.
So what does a boundary violation look or feel like?
- Unsettled feeling
- Fear or panic
- Unusual behavior
- Unusual touching
- Too close/in personal space
- Asking probing questions that feel too personal
- Not listening to "no"
If someone is violating your personal boundaries, it is important to stand your ground and not let the violating behavior continue.
How To Set Boundaries:
Setting boundaries is a process of slowly setting guidelines for a person to adhere to, and then enforcing them. Often abusers push the boundaries further and further to see what they get away with, and what your reaction is. When no consequences are forthcoming, the violation becomes the new standard. This standard gets farther and farther away from your personal comfort zone, until you are in a deep situation.
The following steps will help you reset a boundary.
1. Take some time to consider what your boundaries are -- you can't properly create or enforce boundaries if you don't know what they are. Think about where you are comfortable, how much contact is okay, and what you want people to do when they approach you.
2. Find ways to introduce space -- When you are in a situation in which you want to create boundaries, it is important to find ways of introducing space. You can physically create space by sitting behind a table or desk. You can create space also by stepping back or away.
3. Verbalize your needs -- If someone is too much in your space, tell that person what you need. Because you've already thought about what you want in terms of boundaries, you should be able to then articulate it:
- I'm not comfortable when people are really close to me.
- That is a personal question I'd prefer not to answer.
- Please don't touch me.
4. Make sure there are consequences -- boundary violations occur bit by bit. Someone will make a minor infraction and see what happens. When there are no consequences, he or she will then continue to behave in that manner as the new standard. He or she will then make another minor infraction. If there are no consequences to these infractions, the person will continue to push your limits until the situation is way out of control. Consequences may include discontinuing a conversation, refusal to answer a question, or leaving the area.
5. Evaluate your relationship -- What do you get from this relationship? Do you have to see or be around this person? Can you do without his or her company? If so, perhaps evaluate your relationship and see if there are ways to cut out or decrease the amount of time you spend around this person.
6. STAND YOUR GROUND! -- Standing your ground is ESSENTIAL to creating and maintaining boundaries. In addition to consequences, you must hold tight to your boundaries and not let them slip for an instant. The moment you do, that person can swoop in and make headway in to boundary violations.
Boundaries often come up in the context of giving consent to someone. Whether it is a physical, sexual, or emotional situation, only you know your limits. Peer pressure is often a tactic used by manipulators to impede upon someone's boundaries. You must hold your ground and make sure the other person knows exactly where you are comfortable and where you're not. Verbalize it, and if that doesn't work, leave the situation or ask for help. It's better to be seen as a spoilsport than to get hurt.
Additional Resources On Emotional Boundaries:
PsychCentral - This article gives ten tips for how to set boundaries.
JaneBluestein.com - Dr. Jane Bluestein explains boundaries, how to set boundaries, and provides several other article topics related to boundaries and boundary issues.
PsychologyToday - This article gives ten tips for how to set appropriate boundaries, and how to respond to boundary-related situations.