Time to Put Your Boundaries in Place

By S. Alease Ferguson, Ph.D., LPCC

Tammy’s Story

It is imperative that we all learn how to put our boundaries in place. By definition, a boundary is that line of separation between you and others. It is a limit! Boundary management is a major mental health concern for females, members of racial, ethnic, or gender minority groups and people growing up in alcoholic and drug-addicted, or trauma-exposed families.

Tammy Robinson (pseudonym) talks about the time when her emotional boundaries were so fragile that she could not say “No” to anyone! She said, “two years ago, I could never refuse an invitation to lead or play a key part on one committee or another. At first, I felt honored to serve. I was doing the most because it was exhilarating to be the President of the Parent Teacher Organization, Treasurer of my son’s football league, Junior Choir Director, and receptionist at the Assisted Living facility where my dad lives. But before long I started to burnout and lose weight without trying. I also developed frequent colds, migraines, and a serious bout of pneumonia.

Laying in my hospital bed with a collapsed lung, my physician stated, “Tammy you are in stress overload from wearing too many family and community services hats.” Looking back, I realized that my life nearly ended because I could not say ‘No.’ Yet it did not take long for me to learn how to pause, delegate, and ask for help. I also realized that way down deep I never felt worthy, so I over did everything.

Boundaries Defined

Our boundaries do keep us safe and tell us when enough is enough. If we are honest with ourselves, we know when others cross that line physically or emotionally. Boundary assaults typically spark emotional discomfort and a sense of intrusion. Once you become conscious and aware of your own feelings and discomfort, you can stop other’s from pushing at your boundaries by begging, nagging, or giving direct orders. You can also prevent people from catching you off guard or engaging in battles of arm twisting. Overall, your challenge is to stop being so quick to say yes to every demand that comes your way. Growing up my mom used to say, “Give me 48-hours to make a clear-headed decision. That way I am not overloaded, and I won’t fail on my commitment.” Mom was in control of herself!

Understanding Your Personal Boundary System

Learning about your boundary system is the first step to self-knowledge. Our boundaries make up that sacred and defined space around us. Each of these systems need our care and attention:

Ø  Physical boundaries include our personal space, privacy, and body. These boundaries determine if we give handshakes or hugs and to whom and when. It also governs our feelings about profanity, noise, nudity, and locked doors.

Ø  Mental boundaries include your thoughts, opinions, and values. Do you firmly know what you believe in or are you easily swayed? It may also determine how well you manage yourself and keep others at a safe distance.

Ø  Emotional boundaries separate your emotions from that of other people. This system allows us to accept others’ boundaries; and to avoid laying blame. It also lets you accept responsibility for your errors and mistakes. Strong emotional boundaries can also serve as a shield from the insults and slights.

Ø  Sexual boundaries refer to your ability to self-protect and maintain a level of comfort around physical touch, sexual activity, and those you engage with intimately.

Ø  Material boundaries relate to how you share with others. I may loan clothes but not money. Another may share food but not a car.

Ø  Spiritual boundaries represent your belief systems related to God and a higher power, or a lack of belief in spiritual deities.

Note: Boundaries are learned in childhood, and they can be easily impaired by:

1) A lack of well-bounded role models;

2) Parents who act like friends rather than guides and disciplinarians; and

3) Children being rushed and overscheduled with no time to think, rest or play.

Note: A child’s boundaries can also be crushed by the traumatic experiences of sexual violation, shutting down personal expression, and a lack of nurture.

Falling Prey to Boundary Violators

The interesting thing about Boundaries is that they are on a continuum of absent, weak to firm.

Boundary Chart
Boundary Type Characteristics Relationship Examples
Absent Aggressive and reckless disregard for the personal and emotional spaces of others. Boundless and intrusive -I need to take up a lot of space.
-Why do people avoid me?
-I am her mother. I can tell her what to do even if she is 45 years old.
Weak Non-assertive and at risk of intrusive and aggressive assaults from others -Why do my relationships always fail?
-Why can’t I find love or a mate that listens to me and
-why am I too agreeable with everything?
Firm Able to fairly and reasonably navigate and exhibit give and take in relationships -I need a two-way exchange with others where we can negotiate next steps.
-I also like to agree to disagree.

Our boundaries, or lack thereof, get activated when we interact with others. When our boundaries have been injured, we may violate the boundaries of others or become prey to Boundary violators. Violators in or on the periphery of our lives tend to push our buttons, get under our skin by shouting orders or reneging on obligations. Yet once you identify the offenders, it is possible to begin either establishing or firming up your boundaries. Firm and clear healthy boundaries stop violators from taking potshots at you because you are more assertive and self-directed.

Clues that Your Boundaries Have Been Violated 

In the absence of healthy personal boundaries, you are at greater risk for fatigue, scattered energy, emotional drainage, crippling self-doubt, and social isolation. You tend to feel unworthy and constantly seek praise. You also fear making choices.

Jabril is a young marketing professional in his mid-twenties. He has been caring for his younger brother, sister, and dad in poor health. Jabril recalls, “I almost had a nervous breakdown in my senior year of college. The co-parenting, keeping up with Dad’s medical needs, and finishing my marketing degree almost took its toll. The closer I got to graduating, my dad started to sabotage things. He dismantled everything that we had put in place for keeping the household on the right track. So, I was always running at top speed and cleaning up messes. Thankfully, my advisor told me to 1) Value yourself, your time and your goals and believe that you deserve fair treatment; 2) Identify the challenges and say what you mean and mean what you say, and 3) Co-create a WIN-WIN plan for change together. He really helped me to become more assertive and to develop an even better daily living plan for the kids’ balance of study, leisure and recreation, church, chores and built-in rewards, and more private time for me.”

Finally, we owe it to ourselves to strive for solid boundaries and a sense of comfort while living in our own skin. Healthy boundaries give you a leg up on living the life you love. – Be Well!


How to Set Boundaries With Family | Psychology Today. www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/pain-explained/201912/how-set-boundaries-family

Alex Robby, what are Boundaries What are Boundaries? | Center for Growth Therapy (thecenterforgrowth.com)