What are personal boundaries? Personal boundaries are limits you set that allow in whatever enhances your life but don’t permit in whatever detracts from it. That includes people, places, activities, experiences, and internal beliefs.
Personal boundaries safeguard your time and energy so you can focus on your own goals and dreams. They define you and allow you to be you. Clear boundaries also protect you from being controlled, manipulated, harmed, or abused by others and also by yourself.
Why are personal boundaries important? You need clear personal boundaries to:
Make good choices
Stay aligned with your values, goals, and personal mission
Keep out of danger
Avoid unhealthy relationships
Foster honesty, understanding, and respect in all your relationships
Set limits with yourself so you’re not run by false beliefs and unhappy personality patterns
Allocate your money and resources wisely
Take good care of your physical health and stay emotionally balanced
And those are just some of the many ways personal boundaries can enhance your sense of well-being.
Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom. — Henry Cloud
Whether you have weak boundaries across the board or just have trouble setting limits in a few areas, you may not realize just how permeable your boundaries have become. These 11 signs will show you where you need to focus your attention and establish more robust personal boundaries.
1. You always have too much on your plate
You’re the one who always works late and takes on extra assignments for others. You say “yes” almost every time you’re asked to volunteer. You rarely say no to event invitations even though you feel tired and overstretched.
“When you say ‘yes’ to others, make sure you’re not saying ‘no’ to yourself.”-—Paul Coehlo
2. You take care of others without thinking about your own needs
You’re so busy taking care of others, you rarely have time left for yourself and your own self-care. You feel you need to fix everyone’s problems. The world might fall apart if you weren’t there to hold it together.
3. You feel resentful and complain even though you agree to other people’s requests or expectations
You say “yes” to requests, invitations, and expectations but then feel resentful inside. You silently complain about the audacity of others as you go about fulfilling their demands.
Resentment is often a sign you’re not respecting your limits or you’re allowing someone to impose their values, opinions, or expectations on you.
“Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.—Bréne Brown
4. You feel you must be obedient to a parent, spouse, boss, mentor, or spiritual teacher
You don’t know who you are or what your want in life. Instead, you almost always try to comply with the expectations of those in superior positions.
You might have gone to the school chosen by your parents or pursued the career or trade they selected for you. In your love relationship, you often say, “Whatever you want. It really doesn’t matter to me.” You follow a mentor, spiritual teacher, or religious tradition that requires strict obedience, so you rarely think for yourself.
5. You fail to make clear agreements
You often end up feeling disappointed or filling in the gaps because another person didn’t fulfill their end of an agreement. But in reality, you didn’t make a clear agreement, to begin with, one that stated who would do what, the specifics of what they would do, and when they would do it.
6. You find yourself in unhappy relationships again and again
You feel you need to suppress your own wishes and desires in your love relationship. In the extreme, you get involved with people who treat you disrespectfully, take advantage of you, treat you like a servant, or abuse you.
You excuse behaviors like not showing up on time, verbal abuse, or lack of loving attention instead of standing up for yourself. You allow others to manipulate and control you in the name of love.
Let’s be clear. The abuse or disrespect is not your fault. But only you can remove yourself from a relationship in which your partner’s behavior is not acceptable.
7. You often feel distracted from your personal goals or life purpose
You find it difficult to make your own goals a priority. Instead, you’re constantly distracted by social media, pulled into endless socializing, or captivated by unimportant details.
At the end of the month, you look back and wonder how you frittered away so much time. You feel further away from achieving your goals than ever.
8. You give your time away for free
You’re always willing to lend a helping hand, even when it means sharing your professional expertise for free.
Maybe you don’t give all your time away for free but you undercharge your clients or never ask for a raise. If you never ask for proper compensation for your knowledge, skills, and energy, you are, in effect, giving some of your time away.
9. You often criticize yourself
You suffer at the hand of a strong inner critic. You don’t set a limit and refuse to listen to your inner judge. You don’t systematically replace her negative comments with positive ones.
10. You make poor choices about money
You lend money to others even when you know they won’t pay you back. You let your friends talk you into extravagant purchases even though you don’t have the money in the bank.
You’re in credit card debt and you’re not sure if you can pay it off. You never have money left at the end of the month. You haven’t taken the time to set up a personal budget and adhere to it so your spending knows no limits.
11. You think you’re responsible for other people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions
You feel guilty when someone else feels bad. You feel responsible if they had a bad day. You wonder if you said or did the wrong thing. If someone loses their wallet or keys, you feel you need to find it for them.
Now take a moment
Go back through these 11 indicators of weak personal boundaries.
Circle the ones that apply to you. Write them in your journal, planner, or on a sheet of paper; someplace where you can easily go back to them.
Be honest with yourself, but don’t be hard on yourself. That never helps. It might be challenging to face the truth, but self-awareness is the first step toward positive change.
“No is a complete sentence and so often we forget that. When we don’t want to do something we can simply smile and say no. Early on my journey, I found developing the ability to say no expanded my ability to say yes and really mean it.”—Susan Greg
You can learn to set personal boundaries
I know it’s not easy to set personal boundaries. I’ve suffered from weak boundaries most of my life. I could give you a long list of examples of times I consistently failed to set healthy boundaries. Following are just a few.
I worked evenings and weekends, took calls in the middle of the night, and fulfilled two job descriptions instead of one.
When I worked as a freelance writer, I felt I had to give my professional time away for free to friends who asked me to review their manuscripts. I silently complained as I complied with their wishes, all the while stretching myself thin.
I found it extremely difficult to end professional relationships with health care providers like an acupuncturist or massage therapist when I no longer felt in sync with them. I would avoid drawing the line for weeks on end, only prolonging my discomfort each time I saw them again but couldn’t get up the courage to tell my truth.
If you’ve circled any of the 11 signs listed above, clearly you’re not alone. I did the same for years and years! Women in particular struggle with setting personal boundaries because we’ve been conditioned to give selflessly.
Fortunately, setting boundaries is a life skill you can learn. I’ve improved dramatically. I’m sure you can too.
“You best teach others about healthy boundaries by enforcing yours.”—Bryant McGill
While I can’t provide a comprehensive guide to setting clear boundaries in this short piece, here are some steps you can take to get started.
Select just one of the areas you’ve circled in the list above to focus upon and commit to working with it for a while. Then follow these steps in the area you’ve chosen:
Reflect upon or journal about why you find it difficult to set boundaries in this area.
Imagine what it would feel like to successfully set a boundary in this arena. What would you choose and how would it feel once accomplished?
Then set a small goal like refusing one invitation this week or this month — whatever is realistic for you — and work with it until you achieve it.
If it helps, write a simple script for yourself and practice what you will say before the time comes to set the boundary with another person. This is one of my best boundary hacks.
Celebrate your accomplishment and how good it feels to respect yourself by setting a personal boundary, however small it might have been.
Then set a new small goal and work with it, as you did your first goal, until you achieve it.
As you progress, you can move from small goals to more challenging ones. Until finally, your boundaries are clear and you’re able to circumvent more challenging boundary violations with a sense of confidence and ease.
To sum up
Boundaries are a system of “yeses” and “nos” that define who or what you would like to let into your life and who or what you would like to keep out of your life.
Setting healthy boundaries will help you fully own your life, express who you truly are, and actualize your personal potential. In short, clear boundaries lead to more happiness and well-being.