On Boundaries: Defining Boundaries

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Let’s Start By Defining Boundaries: 

Prentis Hemphill defines boundaries like this: “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.”  Of all the definitions of interpersonal boundaries I’ve seen, I love this one best.  Wikipedia provides an expanded definition that covers much what I’m covering here. “Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits”. I will add that boundaries work both ways. If we are defining boundaries that others must respect, we should respect theirs. 

Most sources list three types of boundaries: physical, emotional, and mental. However, I add “material” to those. Others add “spiritual” (which I put in mental). Also, some add time/punctuality. which is part of material boundaries. Briefly:

  • Physical boundaries include boundaries around physical space and touch. 
  • Material boundaries set limits on the time and resources you give and receive from others. 
  • Mental boundaries protect thoughts and opinions.
  • Emotional boundaries define your feelings and those of others. 

And Then Define Boundaries:

Some of you may have noticed that “defining boundaries” has two meanings. Usually, we think of “the definition of boundaries”. But “defining boundaries” can also mean ‘putting effective boundaries between two people”. It’s this second definition that most of this video, audio, and article deal with. 

As we play with the idea of boundaries, it’s important to remember that good boundaries are a dance.  One the one hand, some people are too rigid in their boundaries, never giving or taking. On the other, some give and take too much. I am trying here to help you find that middle ground, so we will look at each boundary two ways. First, we will look at setting your own boundaries. After that, we’ll work with how to accept boundaries with each type of boundary. 

Microfiction: Enthusiastic Consent

Defining Physical Boundaries:

Physical boundaries seem pretty easy to understand. And yet, others cross our physical boundaries, and we cross others, all the time.

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 Some examples of physical boundaries:
  • Your house, apartment, or room
  • The desk or office or cubicle you work in
  • Your personal “bubble” or personal space
  • Who can touch you
  • How they can touch you
  • When they can touch you
  • Whether or not that touch can be sexual

Seems pretty basic, right? And yet, we struggle with these basic things. 

Four By Four: Protecting Your Physical Boundaries

common physical
  • Walking into your work or home space without knocking or waiting to be invited
  • Standing too close to you when there is plenty of space
  • Taking up extra space in crowded situations 
  • Touching your hair without permission
  • Putting their hand on your shoulder without permission
  • Demanding physical affection (a kiss or hug)
  • Starting a “cuddle” and turning it sexual when you have said (or your body says) “I don’t want it”
  • Deliberately or “accidentally” brushing up against your breasts or buttocks or crotch in a crowded situation
  • Having sex with you (oral, vaginal, or anal) when you can’t or haven’t consented to it

A note on defining boundaries with strangers: Physical boundary crossings are often power plays to demonstrate dominance. They tend to run along hierarchies. For example, men cross women’s boundaries or adults cross children’s boundaries. Also, white people cross Black people’s and other people of color’s boundaries. Be aware of power dynamics when you set your boundaries. Safety (real and perceived) always comes first. 

when someone crosses Your physical boundaries:

Here are some ideas for how to define your boundaries: 

  • “I expect you to knock and wait for an answer before coming in my (house, office, room)”. We can talk after you’ve done that. 
  • “Please take a step or two back. You are standing too close.”
  • “Can you please move your bag (“move over”) so I can sit, too?”
  • “Please don’t touch my hair (shoulder, etc.” or “Please don’t touch me.” “Don’t tickle me” 
  • “I’ve already said no once. Please don’t ask again.” (This one has lots of uses. See: No Is A Complete Sentence for more.)
  • “I was enjoying cuddling while we watch TV. Let’s not do this right now.” “Maybe later, after the show” is okay to add if it is a true feeling.
  • “Get your hands off me!” 
  • “That wasn’t sex, it was rape! I didn’t/couldn’t consent!” (and take appropriate medical, legal actions as you see fit). 
On children and defining boundaries: 

Parents often get confused with regard to their children and boundaries. We should be teaching our children that their bodies are their own from before they can talk. We need to defend our children’s boundaries when they can’t. 

  • “Aunt Sally, Alex said they didn’t want a kiss. Please respect that.”
  • “Alex, do you need some private time in your room to calm down? I’ll knock before coming in, okay?”
Protecting Your physical boundaries:

The best defense is prevention. Start building your “shark cage”.  When someone approaches you in public, make eye contact if you can, look as confident as possible, and claim your space without projecting into other peoples’ spaces. Again, defining boundaries is a dance. You may not get it perfect, but try to learn the steps. When someone crosses your boundaries in a scary way in a public setting, object loudly, if you think that others are likely to step in and help. If that is not the case, do your best to remove yourself from the situation and get help. 

If you are in a relationship and your partner continually disrespects your physical boundaries, even when reminded, pay attention. It is possible, even likely, that this relationship is, or will become, abusive. Put your safety first, and do what you need to do to protect yourself as you decide whether to stay or go. Remember that you deserve a relationship where your boundaries are protected and encouraged. 

if you find yourself crossing peoples’ physical boundaries:

It happens. We all do it now and then. But if people (plural) keep telling you that you’ve crossed a line, the problem is you, not them. Like above, the best defense is prevention. Become an “asker”. That means that you consciously slow down in your physical interactions with people and ask at every step for permission to enter, stay, or move forward. And respect every single no. “No” is not a debate opening. 

  • knocks. “May I come in?”
  • Be aware of body presence in crowds, especially if you are large or intimidating looking. If you are forced to stand or sit very close to someone, do not stand or sit face to face. Adjust your body so your shoulder faces their face. Both of you will notice an almost immediate reduction in tension, usually
  • Don’t ask to touch a Black person’s hair. Just don’t. It’s an absolute. 
  • If the situation is professional or not a dating situation in general, don’t touch, and don’t ask to touch. 
  • If a friend wants to cuddle, it’s probably just an invitation to cuddle. When you’re not sure, and you can’t figure out the signals, ask. 
  • When you and someone who has shown interest in you are negotiating sex,
    • Make sure they’re sober and *adult* enough to consent
    • Ask at every step. Go ahead and make it sexy. Consent is sexy as hell. 
    • Encourage them to do the same. 
    • Stop when asked or told to. Even if you don’t want to. Yes, even then. 
  • Respect your children’s’ physical boundaries. Knock on their doors. Don’t tickle or cuddle or pat their heads without permission (often a smile and open arms are permission). 

Defining Material Boundaries: 

Remember those resources I went over in part 2 of Four Ways to Handle Any Problem?  These are the things that material boundaries cover:

  • Money (or things that cost money): Whether or not to buy things for people
  • Time: Whether or not to use your time for someone
  • Influence/reputation: Using your good name and relationships to help someone
  • Power: Using an ability you have or a role you have to help someone. 
some examples of material boundaries:
  • Lending or giving money to a person or a cause (money)
  • Bailing someone out of jail (money, influence/reputation)
  • Buying groceries, gas, diapers, etc. for someone (money/time)
  • Mowing a lawn, cleaning a house, running errands for someone. (Time, sometimes money)
  • Asking someone you know for a favor for a someone (Influence/reputation)
  • Giving a personal or professional reference (influence/reputation, sometimes power)
  • Hiring someone, accepting them as a renter or roommate, admitting them to a program or school (power)
  • Using a skill you have for their benefit, for a free or reduced cost. This includes crafting, fixing a car or something electronic, etc. (money, time, power)
Examples of common material boundary crossings:
  • Asking for gifts/money frequently (weekly/monthly) because the person is living above their means
  • “Borrowing” money when they already owe money to you and haven’t paid it back
  • Counting on you to get them out of trouble due to your relationship with them
  • Expecting you to do household or workplace chores that are outside of your job or relationship.
  • Being expected to participate in work activities that cost money and time after work hours more than you’re comfortable with.
  • Asking for a reference, job, or inclusion in a program based on the relationship when they have demonstrated they aren’t qualified or reliable.
  • Expecting someone to “knit you up something”, fix their car or computer or heater, etc. without compensation. Especially repeatedly. 
when someone crosses your material boundaries:

Most of the time, these boundary crossings come from relationships that already exist. Often these relationships include close friends and family. This makes it very tricky (and extra important) to say “no” if you value the relationship. Often, these sorts of boundary crossings are the sorts that end relationships. This, in turn, will often free up your time for healthier relationships. Keep this in mind as you set material boundaries. 

  • “Sorry, friend. I can’t give this week. I have bills to pay.”
  • “When you’ve paid what you already owe me we can talk about another loan”
  • “Bro, this is the fourth time this year you’ve woken me up at midnight to bail you out. No.”
  • (at work) “I think we need to set up a departmental responsibility chart for the break room. I won’t be doing it by myself any more.”
  • (at home) “We will be eating on paper plates until someone other than me empties the dishwasher”
  • “I won’t be meeting you guys at the bar after work. I have things to do at home.”
  • “I’m sorry, I can’t give you a reference. When you worked here you were often late and I had to double check everything you did.”
  • (Gives a long explanation of the time, money, and knowledge involved). “If a professional you didn’t know were doing it, they’d charge X. I’ll charge (percent of X)” or “I don’t have time to do the thing. But I know someone who does.”
  • (and this one always works). “No.”
On children and material boundaries:

We should always be sure that we provide the children we care for with food, clothing, shelter, etc. without question. When it comes to “wants” vs. “needs”, children are often a bottomless pit of demands. A good way to deal with this is to set a small allowance (based on how much you can afford) that is not tied to chores and good behavior, that they have the option to spend how they choose. When that money runs out, they get no more treats (wants) until the next time they get paid. This helps teach children money management. You can also give children bonuses based on chores and behavior if you choose. Research shows, however, that taking away allowances doesn’t work. The child doesn’t learn the lesson you wanted them to learn. 

protecting your material boundaries:

Start with the premise that your money, time, reputation and influence, and power are valuable commodities. Chose how you’re going to share those with people based on:

  • How much you trust and appreciate the other person
  • Whether or not they are likely to do the same or similar things for you
  • Do you have the time, money, power, or influence they need?
  • Would this be better handled as an opportunity for them to gain some independence? (If so, do you have time, knowledge and the desire to teach them how?)

Abusive work situations often cross material boundaries. If you have a boss constantly asking you to do things outside the scope of your work and you aren’t being compensated for them, start job hunting. Include those new skills you weren’t getting paid for in your new resume and move up. 

If you find yourself crossing material boundaries:

If you’re asking people on a regular basis for more of their resources than they are able or willing to provide, one of two things is happening. First, you maybe don’t respect them as people separate from yourself and able to spend their resources on themselves. Or perhaps you are struggling so much with your own resources, without having enough money, time, influence or power that you feel like your need for those resources is worth the boundary crossing. It is beyond the scope of this article to fix the injustices of the world that make it so that too many people don’t have enough money, time, influence and power to meet their needs, so we’ll concentrate on the first possibility. 

Boundary crossings of that variety often happen in family relationships and very old friendships where the people have become very closely entangled. Parents will bail their children out with money, time, influence, and power, again and again, to avoid having their children face consequences. This sometimes works in reverse too, and other relationships follow a similar pattern. If you are needing to be rescued again and again because of behavior that costs you time, money, power, or influence, you need to change that behavior. Do you have a substance addiction? Is your mental health issue untreated and interfering with your life? Do you need to learn new skills and habits? This is where you need to start delving.

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Defining Mental Boundaries:

Warning: The Mental Boundaries section delves into politics

Here’s where it starts getting trickier. It’s much easier to see when someone is jumping over physical and material boundaries. Mental and emotional boundaries are the home of emotional abuse, which is difficult to define even for experts. Defining boundaries in this area is in some ways even more important to your mental health than defining physical and material boundaries. The abusive tactic of “gaslighting” lives primarily in mental and emotional boundaries. That all human beings are inherently important and should be granted compassion and humanity even if we must protect ourselves from them due to the damage they cause is fundamental to mental boundaries.

Some examples of mental boundaries:
  • Telling the truth.
  • Respecting it when someone is engaged in thought, work, or conversation, and not interrupting without cause.
  • Accepting another person’s thoughts and opinions on minor things without argument or debate.
  • Treating another person’s religious or spiritual beliefs or lack thereof as valid and important even when you disagree.
  • Discussing disagreements in “good faith” from facts, without personal insults. 
  • The right to not know a person more than you want to know them. 
  • Assuming a right to privacy of thought, belief, or opinion if you/they choose not to share.
  • Accepting that people like who they like and love who they love and that you can’t pick their friends, and they can’t pick yours. 
  • Understanding that there is a difference between facts and opinions. People can have their own opinions, but it is important to uphold facts. 
  • Realizing that there is a limit to acceptance of opinions based on intolerance. This is because intolerance is fundamentally harmful to a just society. 
some common mental boundary crossings
  • Lying
  • Interrupting someone reading, writing, or working to flirt with them, ask them out, or talk about last week’s sports scores or TV shows.
  • Getting into heated debates or being “disgusted” over peoples’ food choices (pineapple on pizza, ketchup on hot dogs, etc.).
  • Putting down other peoples’ favorite activities because you don’t share their interests (sports, science fiction, fashion, 
  • Proselytizing people toward your religion (or atheism) after they have asked you to stop.
  • Sharing your religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs out of context (for instance, when you are working on a project together, eating dinner, etc.)
  • Sharing too much information about yourself too soon. 
  • Pretending a thought is an emotion and treating it as it is, therefore, less important.
  • Turning a disagreement on facts and opinions into a criticism of a person when not warranted. 
  • Making fun of a person for things they can’t change in order to discredit them.
  • Pretending that someone is objecting to your religious/spiritual beliefs when they are objecting to your beliefs about dehumanizing other human beings.
  • Attempting to equate criticism for dehumanizing people with actually dehumanizing people. 
when someone crosses your mental boundaries:

As you’ll notice, mental boundaries dive into the political. It’s part of why I talk politics on a mental health site. It’s often why “we can’t eat Thanksgiving dinner at Uncle Joe’s any more”. If Uncle Joe believes that because Gwen and Greg are gay, or because Tammy is transgender, or Betty is Black, or Wanda is a woman or Alex is an atheist, he is fundamentally better than they are, he has already stepped beyond mental boundaries. When we set a boundary against him treating others as though he is more important as a person and he (and perhaps other friends and family members) insists that “he has a right to his opinion”, we need to point out that his opinion fundamentally makes Gwen and Greg and Tammy and Betty and Wanda and Alex unsafe. 

Some handy scripts for mental boundary crossings include:
  • “That’s a lie.” Followed by “The truth is…” or “I’m not sure what’s true, but I know that you have your facts wrong.”
  • “I’m reading. Go away.” 
  • “I don’t want to hear arguments over what people watch, eat, or play. They are important to me/them and that’s all that matters.”
  • “Please don’t talk about your religion during our business meeting. It’s not relevant to what we’re doing.”
  • “I know you feel like we know each other well enough for you to tell me about [very intimate thing] but I’m not comfortable hearing about that yet.  Let’s get to know each other better first” (the last sentence is optional.
  • “I’m not, nor will I ever be, a member of your religion/philosophy. Please stop asking..”
  • “I prefer not to talk about my opinion/belief/thoughts on that subject.” “It’s none of your business>’
  • “Don’t ever read over my shoulder as I’m writing/look at my journal/drawings/work.”
  • “So-and-so is my friend/the person I love. If you ask me to choose between me and them, you will lose.”
  • “This isn’t about whether I am or am not angry. It’s about whether or not [thing] is unjust/unkind/evil.”
  • “I’m not disgusted because of your religion. I’m disgusted because you’re using your religion as an excuse to advocate for discrimination against people.”
  • “So-and-so is a good person. I disagree with them over how to best improve the economy, but please don’t insult them.
  • “Yes, so-and-so is fat. And they may or may not be wrong about the issue. But using their weight to insult them isn’t okay.”
  • “So-and-so believes (and has said so) that Black people and LGBTQ people and women don’t deserve human rights. It isn’t dehumanizing to call her views evil. Her beliefs and the positions she supports are fundamentally evil.”
On children and mental boundaries:

We invade children’s’ privacy all the time. We often do it with the excuse of “safety” when there are better ways to keep children safe. Too often we say “you’re a child, what do you know?” when a child points out an inconvenient fact. If we want to do better, we need to remember that children are fundamentally worthy as well. Our job as parents and guardians and educators and counselors and mentors of children is to raise adults. Which means we should be as much as possible giving children the opportunity to be treated with respect and dignity so that they will do the same when they grow up. 

protecting your mental boundaries:

Our world is absolutely flooded with examples of mental boundary crossings. As I write this, on Memorial Day of 2019, the US has leaders who are using mental boundary crossings multiple times every day. While mental boundary crossings are fairly common in politics, in my fifty plus years on earth it has never been remotely this bad in the United States. As bad as watching the news (or reading it on social media) can be for mental boundaries, it can also be good practice for the scripts above. This will prepare you for when friends and family and partners attempt to cross mental boundaries. Decide for yourself whether to ignore, confront, or cut off those people and situations in your life that cross mental boundaries Our lives are complicated and no one solution will work for everyone. Sometimes, the only solution is to kill the relationship, and that’s okay. 

if you find yourself crossing mental boundaries:

If you believe that human beings belong in a hierarchy based on gender, race, sexual orientation, etc., I’m not able to do much for you other than to tell you (not so gently) that you are absolutely wrong and we have no common ground. However, if you sometimes make mistakes because you were raised to believe in that hierarchy, join the crowd, and start working on those spots where you keep getting into trouble because you are privilege-blind. Privilege-blindness is when you have privilege over others in one or more areas of your life and don’t know what you don’t know because your privilege meant that you never had to think about the thing. Think of privilege as “being poor or X is tough” but being (LGBTQ, female, immigrant, disabled, Black, brown, immigrant, etc.) and poor or X is even tougher. 

In other mental boundary crossings, you might want to examine your habits. Does your anxiety make you feel you have to know everything about everyone? Work on that. If you blurt out your whole life story to strangers when you first meet, set a goal of not talking about anything but what’s in front of you and maybe the weather for a bit in a new relationship, perhaps. If you snoop into your partner’s phone or your child’s room, deal with the underlying trust issues. Watch yourself for insults that have nothing to do with what you’re talking about. Remember that there are a time and a place for proselytizing. Work is not that place. With people who have told you to knock it off isn’t that time. 

On Boundaries: 13 Ways Gaslighting Crosses Boundaries

Defining Emotional Boundaries:

In some ways, this is both the simplest and most difficult of all the boundaries to define. The basis is simple: No one can tell you what you do, can, or should feel. Period. And the same goes in the other direction. 

some examples of emotional boundaries: 
  • You love who and what you love. You like who and what you like. 
  • It is not necessary for you to like and love the same activities and things as the people close to you. 
  • In relationships, know where the other person’s emotions end and yours begin. Don’t confuse the two.
  • Own your choices that are based on your emotions. 
  • No one else is responsible for your feelings.
  • You are not responsible for anyone else’s feelings. 
common emotional boundary crossings:

Defining boundaries in emotions is difficult because so many of the boundary crossings are quick and casual and “ordinary”. Pay attention to the way people talk about emotions. 

  • “You shouldn’t feel that way.”
  • “Smile!”
  • “You should be happy that…”
  • “What have you got to be upset about?”
  • “No one else is upset. Why are you?”
  • “Feelings aren’t important. Only thoughts and actions are important.”
responses to emotional boundary crossings:
  • “It’s not about should. I do/don’t feel the way I feel.”
  • “I don’t feel like smiling.”
  • “The fact is I don’t feel happy/excited/sad, etc.”
  • I’m upset because I am.” or “I’m upset because (deeper reason).”
  • “I’m not everyone else.”
  • “Feelings are the root of who we are as people. And my feelings absolutely are important to how I think and act.”
on children and emotional boundaries:

Children are bundles of emotions. Their first communication language is emotion. They are angry when hungry, sad when their parent is away, and content when full. The first bars in your shark cage are formed in infancy when we honor these basic emotions. As children get older we need to help them distinguish between emotions and thoughts, and emotions and actions. However, we should never tell them their emotions aren’t real. Honor them, and still insist on the behavior. For example, “I know you’re upset that it’s raining and we can’t go to the park. It’s not okay to hit your sister even when you’re upset.” “I know how excited you are that Nana is coming over, and you still need to finish cleaning your room.” Remember to use the “and” connector vs. the “but” teeter-totter so that both sides are real.

protecting your emotional boundaries:

When people are draining to be around, that emotion is telling you something. Anger almost always points to something that isn’t (or doesn’t feel) fair. Joy often points you toward things that improve your life. If you learn to listen to your emotions and distinguish them from wishful thinking and other peoples’ emotions, you will go far toward protecting your emotional boundaries. If you and people you love have different fear styles, learn to “dance” with their fear style and work on trying to fit yours better to theirs. Most importantly, don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t feel. Thoughts and actions are negotiable. Feelings are not. 

Crossing other peoples’ emotional boundaries is no big deal, right?

Wrong. In over a decade of providing therapy, the number one reason family systems shatter and break is that someone (usually a parent) is denying someone else’s (usually a child’s) emotions. Denying a person’s emotions is the core of gaslighting. Gaslighting is a pernicious system of behavior designed to make a person question everything they feel, believe, and think, in order to control them. 

When you have denied someone else’s feelings, the most important thing you can do is backtrack, own what you did, apologize for it, and correct it. “I said/acted like your feelings aren’t important. I’m sorry I did that. I’m working on it. Could you please help me catch myself if I do it in the future?” When you have insisted that a person must feel a certain way, the process is similar. “I assumed you would be happy when I gave you a puppy. I should have asked and not assumed, and I should have not taken my frustration out on you when you didn’t feel the way I wanted you to. I’m sorry. Now what do we do about the puppy, and how can we fix this?”

Defining Boundaries as a Dance:

If you get good at defining your boundaries and respecting those of other people, it’ll feel like a dance. Sometimes you’re stepping forward, and sometimes back. Sometimes you’re figuring out which way to move based on what your partner is doing, and sometimes you’re leading. If you find yourself backing up too much, read the sections on holding your boundaries. If you find yourself knocking over your dance partner pretty often, read the parts about what to do when you cross boundaries. Finally, if someone keeps tripping you over and over again, whether it’s deliberate or accidental, don’t dance with them. 

Of course, this won’t work in all situations. Of course, we all end up in situations where we have to tolerate boundary crossings until we can get out of the situation. Regardless, knowing, and practicing, good boundaries will improve your life a great deal over time. 

An opportunity to participate and support my work:

My writing is funded by Patreon. I have created my membership tiers to make it possible to pay little to nothing and get benefit from my work. However, if you want more individualized choices such as helping to choose topics, participating in discussions about the writing, or group or individual life coaching, there are membership tiers for that! Please head over to my Patreon and figure out which membership tier works for you. And all readers, Patrons or not, are invited to join the Out of My Mind Facebook Group, which is a moderated space where people can deal with the challenges they face in ways consistent with what I’m teaching here. 

If you’re broke and can’t become a Patreon member, you can still help. I very much appreciate those folk who like, share, comment, and subscribe to my work including on my YouTube page and Facebook pages, at Soundcloud, and on the website here. 

Thank you. 

I am sincerely grateful for the support of my family, friends, therapy participants, and Patrons. Let me know how this article has helped, and feel free to share your own stories in the comments. Thank you. (Remember, stay after the credits for the audio file and a couple of shareable memes). 

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