What are Boundaries?

Boundaries are definitely the most common challenge that I see in my therapy sessions with clients, doesn’t matter if they’re facing anxiety, life transitions, addiction, etc.

But what are boundaries?

Boundaries are expectations that we set in interpersonal relationships to optimize our quality of life.

What are the types of boundaries?

Harper (2020) describes boundaries in seven categories:

  • Physical boundaries– These are limits we place between ourselves and others; for example, we close the door when we use the restroom.
  • Property boundaries– This is similar to physical boundaries except it’s specific to the stuff we own; for example, if my wife borrows my car, she knows that she needs to move my seat all the way back before exiting the car; after all, I’m 6’5″ and hate getting in my car and feeling like it shrunk, haha!
  • Sexual boundaries– These are super important given the prevalence of rape culture. These are boundaries we place within our sex lives; for example, requiring your boyfriend to use a condom each time you have sex.
  • Emotional/ relational boundaries– These boundaries have to do with our feelings and social connections; for example, I’m more likely to discuss my challenging childhood with a close friend or my therapist than I am to share about it on Instagram.
  • Intellectual boundaries– These are safeguards for our ideas and creations; for example, I reference Harper’s (2020) book, Unf*ck your Boundaries, throughout this article to give her credit for ideas I gleaned from her book.
  • Spiritual boundaries– These are boundaries we set around spiritual/faith/worldview matters; for example, an Atheist might politely decline a pamphlet being offered by a Christian evangelist standing in front of their favorite coffee shop.
  • Time boundaries– This one is huge, especially in this age of remote working and learning. These are the boundaries we place on our most valuable resource: TIME! For example, when a counseling session is nearing the last five minutes, I remind my clients that time is running out and make notes for things they want to continue discussing at their next session.

Each boundary that we set also exists on a continuum from strict to flaky. See below for my sophisticated diagram:

A strict boundary is one that doesn’t budge; for example, the universal sexual boundary that, “No means no!” A flaky/non-existent boundary is a nominal boundary with little to no enforcement. My example of how I wind down my therapy sessions could apply here; more specifically, it would be a flaky boundary if I let my client keep talking well past the appointment time, which could have the consequence of making me late to the next appointment. Finally, a flexible boundary is a happy medium; in other words, it’s not too strict and not too flaky. For example, I prefer that that our bed be made daily; however, it’s not essential on the weekend. Each boundary warrants a different intensity to achieve the goal you have in setting the boundary.

Why do I need boundaries?

“If we don’t have boundaries, we are as malleable as Play-Doh. If we are malleable, we are controllable” (Harper, 2020).

As I said in the beginning, boundaries (or lack of boundaries) contribute significantly to most of life’s challenges. When others violate our boundaries, it can impact our emotions, sense of safety, and relationships.

It is important to note that boundaries should be set with the intention of protecting our bodies, property, emotions, relationships, and time, NOT to punish or manipulate others. We must be diligent in communicating our rationale for boundaries and make sure that we don’t violate the boundaries of others in the process.

In conclusion, communicating establishing and enforcing boundaries can be easier said than done; however, they can be a great tool to help us to safely thrive in our various environments.

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Harper, F. G. (2020). Unf*ck your Boundaries. Portland: Microcosm Publishing.


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