Ilona L. Tobin, Ed.D.

Licensed Psychologist

Boundaries, those invisible lines of protection you draw around yourself, let people know your limits on what they can say or do around you.

When personal boundaries are too weak, too soft, you’ll allow others’ actions to harm you. When they’re too solid, you’ll build walls. But boundaries that are just right make for good relationships.

The problem is, it’s not always clear where our boundaries are or need to be. It’s helpful to start by learning to recognize the signs of ignored or ineffective boundaries, as these “symptoms” give clues to the needed boundary. See if any of the following ring true for you.

Aloofness and distance. When you are fearful of opening your space to others, or when you build walls to insure that others don’t invade your emotional or physical space, this may be a defense against cruel behavior, abuse or neglect that you allowed to happen. A person with healthy boundaries draws a line over which they will not allow anyone to cross because of the negative impact of its being crossed. They recognize their right to say, “No!”

Chip on the shoulder. This kind of attitude declares, “I dare you to come too close!” and is often the result of anger over a past disregard of your physical or emotional space by others. Healthy boundaries mean you are able to speak up when your space has been violated, leaving you free to trust that you can assertively protect yourself to ensure you are not hurt.

Over-enmeshment. In this game, the rule is that everyone must do everything together, and must think, feel and act in the same way, without deviation from group norms. Healthy boundaries acknowledge that you have the right to explore your own interests, hobbies and outlets.

Invisibility. The goal here is not to be seen or heard so that your boundaries are not violated. Healthy boundaries are in effect when you stand up for yourself. Others can learn to respect your rights, needs and personal space.

Disassociation. If you “blank out” during stressful emotional events, it results in you being out of touch with your feelings and unable to assert your limits. Healthy boundaries allow you to assertively protect yourself from further hurt and to choose to end relationships with those who will not respect them. With healthy boundaries, you can begin to feel your feelings again.

Smothering and lack of privacy. When another is overly concerned about your needs and interests, or when nothing you think, feel or do is your own business, it can be intrusive into your emotional and physical space, leaving you feeling overwhelmed or like you are being strangled. Healthy boundaries ask that others respect your uniqueness, your choices, your autonomy.

Here are some strategies for applying limits when your boundaries are intruded upon:

  • Calm yourself and take deep breaths.
  • Remember your right to set limits.
  • In a firm and composed manner, tell the other person how you feel.
  • Communicate clearly what your limits are, especially when you are extending a new boundary.
  • Ask the other person to respect your boundaries.
  • Make decisions about the relationship according to how the other person responds to your requests