Boundaries – what are they?

After giving some thought to the last post, I thought it would be interesting to take another look at the various facets of personal boundaries.  Sometimes it takes different ways to look at the same issue for different “ah-ha’s” to surface.  If the same topic is said to us in a different way – that may be the moment where we say “Oh geez, it just hit me that…”.  So, what they heck… let’s look at boundaries in another way!

First, a personal boundary is basically what defines you.  When violated, warning signs go off inside with a ‘gut feeling’ or as much as anger and resentment.  Certainly we all dismiss or ignore warning signs, but why we do that is definitely enough material for a completely different post.

Healthy boundaries means a healthy relationship.  Healthy boundaries are also both rigid and flexible, but are so in a sensible way.  It’s not sporadically flexible, which can be confusing to those involved.  For example, if a healthy person’s boundary is crossed, they generally will respond fairly consistently each time.  For an unhealthy person, the response may swing widely – sometimes being a shrug and sometimes a complete rage response.  An unhealthy person may also see something as a completely non-negotiable boundary at one point, and then at another time entirely laugh it off.  This too is confusing to deal with for the person trying to understand the boundaries.

The aspect of “Enforcing Boundaries” will be a different post, because it’s also facsinating.  So, what are some tangible, understandable examples of boundaries?

Who I am

  • There are various aspects which make up who a person is: what they believe in, what they wear for clothing, their religion, what they are interested in, etc.
  • Other personal boundaries are your feelings and thoughts about particular topics.
  • A person’s physical body is included in my grouping of “Who I am”
  • Means of attacking these boundaries are comments about what the person is like or what they stand for.  For example, comments about the clothes that a partner wears are violating the boundary of who they are.  It provokes anger and frustration in the reciever “look!”, they say, “I am who I am and if you don’t like it… just leave”.
  • Violating someone else’s body may be as extreme as physical abuse or sexual abuse.  It may also be something more ‘simple’ (but still important) as when it’s okay to hug the person, how they feel about the need for personal physical space, or public displays of affection.
  • Another example of boundaries which define who we are is our name.  The changing of a woman’s last name when marriage occurs is also somewhat like changing a boundary as it defines that the woman is now married (although I never changed my name).   It changes the definition of who you are in an almost literal sense.

My space and my stuff

  • Our living space – whether it’s just a bedroom in a house or the whole house is a very clear physical boundary (or for those urbanites… the apartment, flat or condo!).   Our ‘stuff’ is also a definition of us.  For comic relief, check out George Carlin’s skit on “stuff”.
  • An example of setting a boundary of personal space in a marriage is the closets.  The couple may share a closet, but often the clothing is separated even within the shared comment.  This is defining each person space to organize as they want.  Another example is when the kids are leaving toys all over my bedroom.  A boundary is defining my room as a toy free haven.
  • When a marriage dissolves, this is a big component of re-defining a person from being a married couple to a single person as personal stuff is redispersed.
  • A good example here of a violation is when a person steals from you.  Of course you feel angry and violated!  It seems natural to do so, but interesting to point out that the anger is really connected to a personal boundary violation.  The same, lesser evil, is when a family member borrows something of your’s without asking you.  In some cases – this may be a known flexible boundary, and in others it may be explicitly stated that the person doesn’t want to share something with others.

My time

  • This is one that I didn’t think about before it was mentioned to me.   Our time is also a boundary.  Ever been around someone who consumes way too much of your time?  It’s frustrating, isn’t it?  Ever noticed people who are good about being sociable but succinct?
  • An example of this is whether you can say “no” to helping a friend or doing things for other people.  This is because it is a boundary of your time – and whether or not you give away all of your time or whether you chose to do what you want with your time for you, in a very conscious manner.
  •  Another great example is how other’s violate our time boundary – my ex is almost always late everywhere and in particular to meetings, even on a personal level.  This is his need to assert that he is in control of what time the event actually begins.
  • Since my time is a boundary, I feel angry or frustrated if a person is late to meet me (mostly when it happens repeatedly, as I have compassion for lateness).  It shows that the person who is meeting you values their time more than your time, and is disrespectful.


  •  All in all, our money is also a part of our “stuff”.  When we marry, this is another area which is often co-mingled.  When we divorce, we work hard to bring it back to an individual level.  It’s something that all of us give great thought to – and when we loan it out it often stays on our mind until it is repaid.  This was clearly on the checklist that I posted the other day.
  • Sometimes our ex’s borrow money – which is most clearly a boundary we can chose to hold strong to or not.   The other way, however, that they can often violate this boundary in a more passive aggressive way is to simply not pay child support, or to be late with it.  When they do that, they are -again- putting back the onus of the expenses in our court to manage.  It is frustrating to continually have to carry another person’s dead weight, and this is often what happens when dealing with a narcissist.

How I am treated and how I treat others

  • This really relates back to “who I am”, what my morals are, and what behavior will I accept from others vs. what I won’t.
  • In dealing with aggression and bullying, calling out behavior that we don’t like is establishing that a boundary is there and not to be violated.  It’s step one in boundary-land.  It’s also empowering!
  • I think I said this before – but I remember the first time I was in marital counseling with my ex, and there was a long list of abusive behavior that I had put up with.  The marriage counselor looked me in the eye and said “the question is… What’s your bottom line?”

3 Responses to “Boundaries – what are they?”

  1. Julie says:

    I really liked this post. I read a book on boundaries a few months ago that really helped “Boundaries when you end and I begin”. It is something that I really working to rebuild and just realizing how very low my boundaries were to allow a Npd into my life. Boundaries were a new idea! Especially the idea of not caring what other people think. What they think is there own and I have a right to my thoughts, space, privacy, and time. Now I try to think of myself as being on an island which is a paradise 🙂

  2. Heather says:

    This is a really useful article. I think one of the hallmark’s of narcissism is their extreme violation of other people’s boundaries in combination with punishing behaviors when you keep boundaries. In fact, my ex was always extremely angry with me when I brought up that I wanted boundaries respected by him and his family. I had to obtain an OP because he was breaking into the house and stealing things and threatening to kidnap our children after I had to kick him out of the house following his leaving our two young daughters in the car. Throughout the next year, he made multiple FB posting about how much of a victim he was. In fact, he and his family are still spreading rumors about me (another boundary violation).

    The lesson I’ve learned is to choose which battles to fight, which ones to “parent,” and which ones to ignore. All of the while I’m looking at myself to change my perspectives on what I’m actually willing to accept into my life (now that I’m back at dating full throttle) in terms of boyfriend behavior. The fact is, there were HUGE warning flags including strong boundary violations on his part early in our courtship. I ignored these and chose to mimize them. I don’t want to make that mistake again. I like this list because it’s helpful for me to identify what my boundaries are and to make them stronger for having a healthier relationship with both my children and my next significant other.

    • Thanks. It seems like such a intangible subject in many ways. That said – I LOVE your way of approaching things: which battles to fight (those that have a safety component, or are significant impact), which ones to parent (sooo true! I hate it, but I deal with a lot of stuff by working on things through my children – like giving them safety rules that I require them to follow regardless of who they are with, and teaching them what to say if their dad says to do otherwise), and which ones to ignore (as much as possible).

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