What are Personal Boundaries?

People have different views and expectations of boundaries. That’s because family, culture, and society exercise a collective influence on individual views, values, and identity. For instance, individual rights and expectations are usually unquestioned in most Western cultures. In some other cultures, the collective views, expectations, needs, or identity of family, community, or culture tend to prevail over those of the individual. In any case, we all need a basic sense of assertiveness, safety, and privacy to function well in life. Personal boundaries help us to achieve that.


Flowers entangled in an iron fence


Personal boundaries are the limits that help us to both establish our identity and needs and protect our privacy and intimacy when interacting with others. Boundaries also can help us to set and pursue personal goals when dealing with ourselves. The fundamental issue in understanding boundaries is that those limits are ours. We set limits and rules with ourselves, not with someone else. It’s our needs and expectations that must be told in a certain way so that someone or others will respect them. It’s our privacy and intimacy what is at stake, not someone else’s. Establishing personal boundaries is one’s responsibility.



Types of Boundaries


Most people can set boundaries. But only some people have the natural ability to set healthy boundaries. Attachment theory plays a critical role in determining this ability. Those who have a secure attachment style because they received consistent and loving care from parents or primary caregivers have this ability, even when they’re not aware of it. People with this attachment style have a stronger sense of self, trust, and safety. Those who have an insecure attachment style because their nurturing experiences were disrupted by inconsistent attention to their needs or significant parental absence lack the ability to set healthy boundaries, and so they need to learn it.


Personal boundaries can be healthy, rigid, or inconsistent. People with a secure attachment style of functioning in life exercise personal boundaries as they:

  • Honor their beliefs, values, and opinions

  • Assert who and what they are

  • Communicate well their needs and expectations

  • Self-disclose when appropriate with safe others

  • Understand and accept others’ NO

People with an avoidant attachment adaptation tend to have rigid boundaries as they:

  • Neglect relationships

  • Avoid vulnerability and close relationships

  • Keep emotional distance to prevent rejection

  • Decline self-disclosure

  • Prove to be self-sufficient and so dismissive of others

People with an anxious attachment adaptation tend to have enmeshed or inconsistent boundaries as they:

  • Fear rejection and abandonment

  • Have a strong need to belong

  • Depend on others’ opinions

  • Struggle with saying NO to others’ requests

  • Have codependency traits

  • Overshare in self-disclosure

No one is completely fixed in a particular type of boundaries, however. Settings, circumstances, and type of relationships sometimes determine the type of boundaries one observes. One can have healthy professional boundaries at work but have poor or inconsistent boundaries in intimate relationships. People with insecure attachment adaptations tend to have a mix of boundary types.



Application


One can set boundaries in every aspect of life on which one exerts some control. For example:

  • Relational boundaries at work, including personal space and appropriate touching.

  • Intellectual boundaries, respect for thoughts, ideas, opinions, and positions.

  • Sexual boundaries, respect for the physical, emotional, and preference aspects of one’s sexuality.

  • Relational boundaries at home, respect for individuality, personal possessions, and contribution.

  • Identity boundaries, including culture, religion, race, ethnic group, color, class, language.

There are also some aspects of our self where healthy boundaries can contribute to our inner peace and self-actualization. We can set a healthy boundary with how we spend our free time and the time we assign to our close relationships, for example. Or the type of food we consume. Or how much money we spend on certain activities.


Emotional boundaries are what people seek the most to improve in therapy. A high degree of relational failures and abuse can be attributed to the lack of healthy emotional boundaries.



The next article will explain how to set personal boundaries in intimate relationships to stop or prevent abuse.