Personal Boundaries For Dummies
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There’s a lot to know about personal boundaries. But that doesn’t mean you need to wait until you understand all there is to know before you get started.

The following are simple, actionable tips to help you start setting boundaries, along with specific actions you can put into practice immediately for some quick, powerful wins that instantly improve your boundaries. And if you’re wondering whether boundaries are even necessary, you can find the answer here too.

Five Tips for Getting Started with Personal Boundaries

If you’re ready to get started with personal boundaries, here are five simple (but not necessarily easy) tips that will help you begin now. Read over the list and see if there’s one (or more) that seems to have your name written on it. If the tip includes a recommendation to do something that’s new or different for you, give it a try!

  • Pay attention to your strong negative emotions about a situation or another person’s behavior. One of the most common indicators that you need to set a boundary (with yourself or with another person) is when you experience strong uncomfortable emotions. Don’t ignore, rationalize, or minimize your emotions about a situation, relationship, or interaction with another person. Your emotions give you valuable information that something isn’t working for you.
  • Avoid jumping into action immediately when you think you need to set a boundary. Your boundary work will be more successful if you slow down and take time to explore what happened. Getting clear about the facts (or data) of the situation, your thoughts about what happened, and your emotions is foundational to all effective boundary work.
  • Consider what’s in your circle of control when you’re thinking about setting a boundary. One of the biggest mistakes people make when setting boundaries is not understanding what’s in their circle of control. If you can’t see that you have the power to change a situation, you can miss the opportunity to create the outcome you want. On the other hand, if you believe you have the power to change something that’s outside your control, you can waste time and potentially create painful emotions or unnecessary conflict.
  • Understand the difference between making a demand and creating an agreement. Many people (wrongly) believe that if they want something important from another person to help them feel safer, calmer, loved, or more trusting, all they need to do is tell the other person what to do. No one wants to be told what to do, and no one has a right to tell another adult what to do.

    When you want anything from another person (in adult relationships), the only way you can get it is through creating an agreement with them. You can’t create an agreement by telling another person what they will or won’t do. You can create an agreement only by making a request of another person and receiving a yes from them.

  • Accept that boundaries, like everything else in life, don’t always work perfectly. Be open to the fact that when a boundary doesn’t work the way you intended, you may need to take it to the next level. Taking a boundary to the next level can mean many things, but it usually means increasing your self-protection or self-care. When a boundary isn’t successful the first time, you may need to renegotiate an agreement that was broken, or completely start over with the boundary-setting process based on the new situation or circumstances.

Ten Quick Ways to Instantly Improve Your Personal Boundaries

Most people feel lost, confused, or even clueless when it comes to personal boundaries. If you put just one of these quick tips into practice, you immediately establish yourself as someone who knows a thing or two (or more) about how boundaries work.

  • Ask permission before touching another person. Unless you know someone well or you’re engaged in a common cultural ritual (like shaking hands as a greeting or introduction), don’t touch anyone without first asking them if you can touch them. If they say no, respect their answer.
  • Refrain from telling another adult what to do. If you want an adult to do anything, you must ask.
  • Accept another person’s no. When someone says no to you, don’t pretend that you didn’t hear them or attempt to persuade, argue, negotiate, or manipulate them into changing their answer to a maybe or a yes.
  • Avoid interrupting other people when they’re speaking. Frequent or chronic interrupting is disrespectful and boundaryless.
  • Knock (and get permission) before entering a room with a closed door. Closed doors signal that the person on the other side of the door wants privacy or solitude. Unless you believe the person on the other side is in imminent mortal danger, knock (and get permission) before entering.
  • Practice safe sex. Practicing safe sex protects you from sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy. You can’t make a sexual partner wear a condom or use birth control, but you can say no to unprotected sex.
  • Avoid telling other people what they think or why they act the way they do. Even if you believe you know what another person thinks or why they do what they do, telling them is disrespectful, unnecessary, and disconnecting.
  • Don’t say, “You made me. . . .” Adults are responsible for their thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Your emotions are largely determined by your thoughts, not by external events. No one can make you do, think, or feel anything.
  • Don’t touch other people’s belongings without their permission. If you want to touch another person’s belongings, ask them. If they say no, respect their answer.
  • Don’t agree to anything you’re uncomfortable with. When you make agreements you’re not comfortable with, you’re ignoring your wants, needs, preferences, and maybe even your values. You’re also highly likely to break agreements that you’re not fully committed to. Broken agreements are boundary violations, and they’re harmful to relationships of all kinds.

Understanding Why Boundaries Aren’t Optional

Believe it or not, some people think boundaries aren’t necessary. Some even say boundaries are mean or cruel. But the truth is, boundaries (also known as limits or parameters) are ubiquitous, meaning they’re everywhere! Boundaries aren’t optional, and ultimately they’re inescapable.

You can think of boundaries as varying levels of personal power — beginning with levels you have control or power over, and moving to higher levels over which you have very little or no power to control.

Here’s a look at the relationship between personal power and boundaries you encounter in your life, starting with the limits you have the power to place on yourself to universal laws, like gravity. This progression from self-boundaries to universal laws makes the case that boundaries aren’t optional.

Creating personal limits or boundaries

You determine, through exercising personal boundaries, what you actually have the power to control, including what you eat, how much you move your body, where you live, what you choose to consume with your eyes and ears, or how you speak to other people. You can set limits for yourself or allow yourself to engage in boundaryless behavior.

Personal boundaries are highly optional. You’re in complete control over the limits you place on yourself. Of course, you may face both positive and negative consequences for your choices. But ultimately, on this level you’re free to make decisions about anything that involves your personal behavior.

Defining boundaries you create in relationships

You have the power to determine how you interact with and relate to others. These limits include choices like how much time you spend with someone or whether you close a door to have privacy or to not be interrupted. Or, if someone breaks an agreement with you or violates your boundaries, you may choose to limit your contact with them for a while, or permanently.

Just like personal boundaries, you have the power to create boundaries for how you interact with or relate to others, which don’t require an agreement or approval from anyone.

Figuring out boundaries you create through agreement

You have the power to create agreements with other people but only if they say yes to a request you make. For example, if your partner has exceeded the spending limit of your joint credit card for the past six months, one of the options you have for changing the situation is to create an agreement with your partner. You can request that they spend less than a certain dollar amount on the credit card each month. Your partner has the right to reply yes or no, or to negotiate an alternative agreement with you.

If your partner agrees to your request or the two of you say yes to an alternative solution, you have an agreement and a boundary. Remember that you have the power to request an agreement, but that doesn’t guarantee you’ll receive a yes to the agreement.

Understanding institutional rules, regulations, and guidelines

If you choose to be part of a community or organization, you either implicitly or explicitly agree that the institution’s rules and regulations limit your personal power. To be fair, you may not always observe the guidelines or rules, or you may consider them optional. However, you may experience consequences if you break them. Consequences can range from a reprimand or warning, to losing your job or being expelled from a university, for example.

Knowing local, national, and international laws

The limits of your personal power are determined by the laws that govern the place where you live. The consequences of not accepting or honoring limits at this level become more serious and severe.

If you’ve been unsuccessful with creating or honoring boundaries for yourself or your personal and professional relationships, you may have difficulty abiding by legal boundaries. In other words, if you’re unwilling or unable to set limits on your behavior or you’re not able to work cooperatively within communities or in traditional organizational structures, you may begin to experience legal consequences.

Persistent antisocial or criminal behavior, addiction, or severe untreated mental health conditions are all examples of situations where a person’s inability or unwillingness to set self-boundaries creates the conditions for having legal limits placed on them.

Considering universal laws

Universal laws include natural laws and other natural events that eventually impact everyone. Think of things like the law of gravity, the law of cause and effect, and natural occurrences like pandemics, weather-related events, illness, and death.

Universal laws are phenomena or events that are inescapable and out of your control — you’re powerless over them. Even if you manage to escape the consequences of unsuccessful or broken personal, relationship, or legal boundaries, you’re still subject to universal laws.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Victoria Priya, LCSW, SEP  (formerly Vicki Tidwell Palmer) is the founder of The Radiant Threefold Path, the host of The Boundaries Queen, Radiant Threefold Path, and the highly popular Beyond Bitchy: Mastering the Art of Boundaries (2018–2021) podcasts, and best-selling author of Moving Beyond Betrayal. She is a master coach who works with clients from all walks of life — from entrepreneurs to homeschooling Moms. Her clients call her the Boundaries Queen.

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