What are Boundaries? | Counseling | Therapy

What are Boundaries?

Alex Robboy , CAS, MSW, ACSW, LCSW — Founder & executive director


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What are Boundaries? image

One of the most challenging, emotional, and stressful tasks within relationships is setting and maintaining appropriate boundaries. However, most people don’t realize this until their boundaries have been crossed and a friendship or romantic relationship is on the line. Boundaries are a natural part of each of us and everyone has their own internal gauge for when they have been crossed. When someone crosses our boundaries, it can create strong feelings of anger, hurt, frustration, sadness, anxiety, or fear. Therefore it is necessary to understand what boundaries are and how they help keep us safe. This tip will be the first in a series addressing what boundaries are, why they are important, how to identify you boundaries, how to set appropriate boundaries, and how to maintain then after it gets crossed.


The dictionary definition of boundaries states that they are: guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify for him- or herself what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around him or her and how he or she will respond when someone steps outside those limits.” To put that in basic terms, boundaries represent physical and emotional limits that you don’t want other people to cross. They help define your sense of self by separating your needs, desires, thoughts, and feelings from those of others’. Boundaries are the dividing lines between you and everyone else and they help make you an individual from the group. Knowing that you don’t like to talk about family problems at work is your boundary, even though your co-workers feel ok doing that.

Boundaries also help you know your limits about how much “baggage” you can take on from other people. When you set strong and appropriate boundaries, you will help other people know how to treat you. You will essentially be teaching them what is ok and what is not ok to do and say around you. Boundaries also give measure to the amount of time, money, emotional resources, or energy you can afford to give. Certain activities, relationships, and groups may call for stricter boundaries, such as planning dinner parties for work. However, in some relationships, you may feel like you have more flexible boundaries, like with your best friend. This is where and how setting boundaries becomes tricky.

You might notice that what works well in one relationship, is not going to be effective in another. That’s because boundaries are dependent upon multiple factors. First and foremost, boundaries are developed based on your internal gauge of your limit to give and take. Naturally, depending on the situation you are in, your limit will change according to social norms and values. Maybe its ok for a your sister to ask advice about a dating situation, but not a new addition to your social group. You’ll probably naturally feel comfortable and confident to talk to your sister about dating advice. This is a situation that is already safe and you don’t need to add extra protection with a boundary. However, you might not know your new friend’s stand on what to share about dating. In this instance your reaction may be to guard yourself and “mind manners.” Therefore, setting a boundary not to discuss dating situations will protect you from negative recourse until you feel comfortable enough sharing your personal values with a new friend. Understanding and setting good boundaries will help prevent and protect you and those around you from confusion, frustration, and anxiety. Let’s discuss further why boundaries are important.


Boundaries are important because they protect us, help us feel safe in relationships, and teach others in our world how to interact with us. Each of us experiences reality in four different ways. Our body is one way we give meaning to the world through what we look like and what happens to us physically. Our thinking is how we identify with incoming data from other people and life experiences. Feelings are our emotional response to people and situations. Lastly, our behavior is what we do or don’t do in reaction to those around us and our experiences. Setting and maintaining appropriate boundaries is really important because boundaries will give protection to your body, thinking, feelings and behaviors as you evaluate and assess the words and actions of other people in your life. As you experience the world and people around you, you are filtering what comes at you via your body, thinking, feeling, and behaviors.

Boundaries will help you determine what information you will choose to accept and integrate into your reality, and what you will choose to reject or block out when it becomes unacceptable or hurtful. For example a co-worker of the same sex stating that you look attractive may be an accepted compliment and increase your self esteem because it fits nicely into the boundary you have created to protect your body from unwanted advances. Where as a co-worker of the opposite sex saying you look attractive may come as an attack to your body, feelings, and thoughts about what is appropriate at work. Because of this you may feel hurt, question your behaviors, and want to confront him or her. Setting a boundary with your co-workers can prevent unpleasant feelings in the future. Boundaries help us maneuver tricky situations by letting us know if everything feels right and we can simply move on, or if we need to take action. When a boundary gets crossed, it is our warning system that our bodies, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors have been treated in an inappropriate manner.

Setting boundaries will make others feel safe around you and allow you to feel safe in your environment. It is a way to exhibit self-respect, thereby increasing the respect shown to you by others. Intact boundaries give measured protection to your body, thinking, feelings and behaviors as you evaluate and assess the words and actions of other people in your life. You filter your experiences through your cognitive mind and your feelings. Through the use of your boundaries you determine which words and actions you will accept and which you will block when they are unacceptable.

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