Having healthy boundaries is essential for our overall well-being. It also lays the groundwork for healthy relationships. Here are tips on how to create them.

Healthy boundaries create a virtuous cycle of positive self-esteem and personal responsibility. Unhealthy boundaries, on the other hand, leave us feeling resentful, angry, and at risk of burnout. Interested in setting healthy boundaries and need more information? Read on.

What are healthy boundaries?

Personal boundaries are rules we establish for how others treat us. Healthy boundaries tend to go hand-in-hand with good self-esteem and peaceful relationships. Unhealthy ones lead to chaos.

Consider this: We are constantly teaching others how to be in relationship with us. That means that if you don’t like how others are treating you, it’s time to set new rules! Sounds scary? It’s actually pretty simple, once you understand the lay of the land.

What do healthy and unhealthy boundaries look like?

There are real differences between healthy and unhealthy boundaries. These differences can be learned, or unlearned. Here are some of the most noticeable traits:

Signs of healthy boundaries

  • High self-esteem
  • Assertive; can say “yes” or”no” truthfully, and accept another’s “no”
  • Take personal responsibility for their own happiness
  • Recognize that they are not responsible for others’ happiness
  • Empowered, high sense of self-efficacy
  • Able to speak their truth clearly and directly
  • States their needs or makes requests simply and clearly

Signs of unhealthy boundaries

  • Low self-esteem; self-esteem depends on how others treat them
  • Hard time saying no; say yes when wanting to say no; expects others to just say “yes”
  • Do not understand that they create their own happiness
  • Believe they are responsible for others’ happiness
  • Disempowered; tend to blame others
  • Have a hard time speaking their truth; become shut down or explode, or both
  • Over-explain; apologize

Setting healthy boundaries

When you need to set a boundary, be clear and calm, and use respectful language. You do not need to explain yourself. There is no need to apologize. There is no reason to get angry or upset. You are simply setting a boundary, letting the other party understand what you will and won’t accept. You may even be their role model!

If this is a new skill, remember that it takes practice, and you are not the only one learning ― so are the people you are trying to establish the boundaries with.

Expect some resistance and discomfort at first, and don’t back down. You teach your boundary through your words and actions. Unlike a “no trespassing” sign, people don’t necessarily know where your boundary is without bumping into it.

What to do when someone has violated a boundary

“When are you going to get married?” “Your husband is at it again!” “Can you believe so-and-so did such-and-such?” “You are too pretty to be working so hard.” The questions and comments can come unexpectedly. When we are caught off guard, it is hard to know how to handle it. A giggle, a blush, a reluctant joining do not effectively give the signal that our boundary has been crossed.

So how do you react when someone has violated a boundary? Give a simple, clear response like:

  • That kind of question is uncomfortable for me
  • Those are things I am not going to discuss
  • I’m not comfortable with that kind of comment
  • Please don’t make comments about my appearance

Establishing healthy boundaries in existing relationships

What if the person habitually makes comments, and they have for a long time? Again, simply and clearly state your case.

You might choose to begin by addressing the fact that you are making a change. Say something like “I know that in the past you/we have said/done XYZ. But I’m not comfortable with that. So―

  • I’d rather not discuss whether or when I’m going to get married.
  • Let’s not discuss my husband/wife/partner.
  • I’d rather not talk about him/her/them/that.
  • Please don’t make comments about my appearance.

Why can it be so hard to set healthy boundaries?

Sometimes people have a hard time setting healthy boundaries. They may feel guilty or undeserving, or the whole thing might feel unnatural. This is common when

  • You we were brought up being taught that it was selfish to take care of yourself
  • Your parents or caregivers did not model healthy boundaries
  • You fear abandonment or rejection
  • You don’t feel good about yourself

When people don’t like your new healthy boundaries

Your responsibility is to set your boundaries. How the listener responds is their responsibility.

If they become defensive or embarrassed, keep your cool. Remember to be respectful and compassionate. If they become angry and abusive, give them time to calm down.  Perhaps you have collected people who are toxic and seek to manipulate and control you. If they won’t respect your healthy boundaries, then you have the right to let them go.

If things feel awkward, don’t backslide. Remember, the listener is responsible for their reaction or response, not you. As long as you are sure that you’ve done your best to speak respectfully and clearly, you have done your part. It might feel awkward and it might have come out a little clumsily; that’s part of the learning process and it is OK!

Having healthy boundaries is a two-way street

Make sure that you return the healthy boundaries in kind: avoid gossip and refrain from making inappropriate comments yourself. 

Setting healthy boundaries creates a virtuous cycle of positive self-esteem and feeling that you are running your own show. You have aright to self-care and to respectful treatment. The people in your life benefit by seeing a happy empowered you. Hopefully, they will learn through your example.