“Boundaries” is a buzz word that is oft thrown around, but what does it really mean? What is a boundary, and how does one effectively set boundaries? A boundary, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “a real or imagined line that marks the edge or limit of something.” The American Psychological Association dictionary defines a boundary as “a psychological demarcation that protects the integrity of an individual or group that helps [them] set realistic limits on participation in a relationship or activity.” Boundaries, then, help us to determine our actions and reactions, rather than placing limits on other people. We may set boundaries on a variety of aspects of our relationships, including physical, relational, emotional, intellectual, time, material, sexual, and spiritual needs. Each boundary we set has a shape, whether it is rigid (i.e., not moveable), flexible, or completely permeable.

There are four steps to follow when one considers the development and enactment of a boundary. When someone begins to consider their boundaries, first, they must determine their values. Values are concepts that inform the choices that one makes in the world and help to explain how one treats oneself and others. Concepts such as community, organization, faith, and honesty may be considered values. The second step, after determining values, is to decide what is okay and what is not based on the actual practice of our values. Sometimes it can be helpful to make a list of actions that would support a core value, as well as a list of actions that would not support that same value. For example, if one values honesty, sharing one’s thoughts and feelings with others may align with that core value, but deliberately concealing the truth would not align with the core value of honesty. It may also be helpful to select a core value and ascertain 3 things: what you will allow, what you will allow but do not like, and what you will not allow. Once this is established, the third step is to determine the consequences if a boundary is crossed. This creates accountability not only for ourselves, but for others as well. The final step is to express these boundaries. Figuring out how to share our boundaries with others in a clear and concise way can be scary, but it can also be incredibly fulfilling, as we allow our needs to be communicated to others in a direct and efficient way.

Eleanor Harrison, M.S.