How to Establish Healthy Boundaries and Why it Matters

No Boundaries? No Bueno! 

by Mari A. Lee, LMFT, CSAT-S 


"You get what you tolerate.” 

- Henry Cloud

Last night in my men's support recovery support group we talked about boundaries and expressing anger appropriately. This is such a challenging topic for so many human beings, including my clients dealing with sex and love addiction, and the partners and spouses of sex addicts. I thought I would take some time to offer a basic 101 lesson on boundaries, why they matter, and how to deal with boundary busters.

One of the first tools that I teach clients regarding boundaries is to:

1. Know your boundary - You first have to know what your boundaries are.

2. Name your boundary - People can't read your mind, so state your boundary respectfully and clearly using I statements [more on I statements a little later].

3. Maintain your boundary - This is by far the most challenging step as those we love will test a boundary when we begin to state our boundaries.

Boundaries are for you. A boundary is a gift you give yourself, it is not for you to control the other person. In other words, we do not place boundaries on others, we set boundaries for ourselves. Think of it a little bit like building a fence around your own home or property. This is your fence for your "stuff" - you would not build a fence around your neighbors house, just like you would not set a boundary on your partner or friend. Your being, your boundary.

Boundaries are different for everyone. Some people are huggers for example [I am], and some are not. Let's say Bill and Ted are good friends, Bill is a hugger, Ted is not. Whenever Bill and Ted get together, Bill gives Ted a hug. Ted likes hanging out with Bill, but feels uncomfortable with the hug. Bill can't read his mind, so Ted needs to name his known boundary. Ted might say, "Bill, I notice when we get together, you love a good hug, and as much as I like hanging out with you, I've never been a hugger. We didn't hug in my family, and it leaves me feeling uncomfortable man. Can we greet each other a different way?"

Notice that Ted did not ask Bill to stop being a hugger, just asked that he not hug him. Ted is building his boundary fence around his property.

Bill may feel embarrassed, confused, ashamed, or even angry. He may try to test that boundary by giving Ted a hug good bye and jokingly say, "I know you said no hugs, but Ted, I'm a hugger, I'll change you yet, ha ha!" Ted could respond in anger, or quietly resent Bill and finds ways of avoiding him, or he can clearly re-state his boundary, "Bill, I appreciate that you are a hugger, and I know this feels good for you, but again, my boundary is no hugs. I realize that we are different this way, and I appreciate you respecting my boundary." 

Remember, when we set a boundary, this often creates some anxiety for the other person in the relationship. The person will likely test that boundary to see if we are serious. Let's say Bill attempts to hug Ted the following week. Ted once again will need to maintain his boundary. He can do so by stepping back, offering a hand shake, crossing his arms, or putting his arms out in front of him, and clearly stating, "Good to see you Ted, but remember, no hugging please - thanks for respecting my boundary." Ted is only responsible for his delivery, not how Bill receives the boundary. Bill may feel badly about this new request, but that is up to Bill to figure out.

As a therapist, I could offer numerous explanations for why Ted doesn't like to hug, is it healthy or not, and/or why Bill insists on the hug, and explore this ad nauseam, but that is not what this blog article is about. This article is about boundaries.

Boundaries allow for safe relationships. A respectfully stated boundary allows people in your life to know who you are. It contributes to consistency and predictability - the cornerstones for healthy relationships.

Boundaries build trust in others and trust in ourself. As one client shared, "Mari, boundaries are my new best friend! I feel so proud of myself that I have found my voice and can advocate for what feels best for me!" Nicely done is what I say in response! For example, my clients feel safe because they know who I am as a therapist. I would never ask a client to dinner, or accept an expensive gift. I have stated boundaries around this. I list my boundaries in my client forms, and maintain them clearly, kindly and respectfully when they are tested.

My clients share that they like knowing what my professional boundaries and policies are. They understand that if a boundary is crossed I will address this with firm compassion. Let's say our friend "Bill" from my earlier example is my client. Perhaps Bill is a boundary buster by nature and begins to post publicly on my face book business page, and privately message me as well. I have a boundary that I have named about this and it is written in my client forms as well.

If that boundary is tested, then it would be up to me to maintain that boundary clearly and respectfully, "Bill, I like that you feel supported by my face book business page posts, and you are welcome to read and even like them if you do. It makes me happy as your therapist to know that this is a helpful tool for you between our sessions. However, maintaining your confidentiality is paramount to me and is the cornerstone of good therapy, so I'd like you to please refrain from contacting me privately or publicly on face book so that we continue to respect our clinical relationship and boundaries."

By doing maintaing my boundary I am consistent and predictable. I am modeling without shaming. Bill may feel shame or resentment or even anger, and if he does, then we will explore that in a session or two.

Did you notice that my boundaries don't change just because Bill may have uncomfortable feelings about my boundaries? My being, my boundary.

Additionally, Bill may choose to bust over my stated boundary. That is Bill's choice. That is not for me to control. I have control only over my own boundaries. Not Bills. If Bill chooses to cross boundaries, I can allow for a consequence. The consequence may eventually be that I block Bill from Face Book if he refuses to respect my professional boundary, and then discuss his potential feelings of abandonment and anger. But again, my boundary doesn't change. Perhaps Bill, when experiencing this consequence of his choice to boundary bust will decide to respect my professional boundary. By doing so, he builds trust back with me.

Boundaries in relationships matter. They allow people to know who we are, they maintain trust and safety and they help us understand others and manage expectations.

What is one boundary you can know, name and maintain today?

With Kindness & Support,


#healthyboundaries, #healthyrelationships, #healthycommunication

hat do you think about creating boundaries?