Strengthening Personal Boundaries — Professionally & at Home
Our relationships are impacted by boundaries — our own and the boundaries of others. Learn to stay safe.
Our ability to effectively manage our relationships may be in direct proportion to the integrity of our boundaries. That is, the balance between strength and permeability — not too rigid and yet strong enough to keep us “safe.”
What are Personal Boundaries?
Feeling in Control
Healthy personal boundaries help protect us from being manipulated, used or even violated by others. When we have boundaries that are intact, we feel in control.
Feeling Not in Control
If we have weak boundaries we often feel that we are not in control and may have difficulty setting limits physically, emotionally, intellectually, as well as sexually.
More about the dynamics of feeling in control in a bit, but let’s first explore the concept of “personal space” — it’s a more commonly known term that’s easier to understand because it’s exclusively about physical space. (It’s been all over the news lately as it’s still part of Joe Biden’s learning curve.)
This diagram illustrates the distance the average person needs from other people for physical comfort.
Here’s the number of feet for each comfort distance in the four zones:
- Intimate Space — within 1.5 feet (reserved for spouses, partners, lovers, pets, certain family members, and close friends)
- Personal Space — 1.5 feet to 4 feet (friends and acquaintances)
- Social Space — 4 to 12 feet (strangers and new acquaintances — typical social interaction)
- Public Space — beyond 12 feet
Obviously, these distance ranges will vary from person to person, they don’t always match precisely as people interact.
We all know people who don’t seem to understand the social requirements of staying within these distance guidelines.
Boundaries are the invisible screen around us that lets us know where we end and others begin. Huh?
Personal boundaries are the physical, emotional, mental, and sexual barriers or limits that we set between ourselves and others. (spiritual boundaries are a thing too but won’t be covered here because they’re rarely an issue at work)
Personal boundaries are important in business and professional settings but can look a bit different than they do in your personal life. Both need to be handled with care, but it can sometimes be harder to “repair” boundary breaches in your work life. (Though it can also be argued that you can change jobs easier than changing family members!) Let’s just agree that boundaries are complicated.
I’ll explain boundaries in general terms and then describe the characteristics of each type of boundary.
As you reflect on the attributes of each type, you can apply the concepts to your personal and business relationships.
If our boundaries are weak, it’s not easy for us:
- to feel safe or stay safe
- to make the distinction between our own emotions and those of others
- to trust our own thoughts
- to feel confident about our own opinions
- to know how much personal information to share and when
- to be able to choose if and when to be sexual
Personal boundaries give us our identity and sense of who we are. Boundary strength is on a continuum and will be different for each person.
Types of Personal Boundaries
Material boundaries are about how freely you lend out possessions or money, your level of comfort with it, and what you do if those items aren’t returned.
Do you freely lend things to family members, friends, co-workers, and business associates? If so you are a generous, trusting person.
Lending is fine. The question is are those items returned? The more important question — are you lending your things to untrustworthy people?
If your items are not returned, what do you do about it?
The key here is noticing and being honest with yourself if you are allowing people to take advantage of you.
Do friends and family ask to borrow money? Do you lend it? Do they pay you back? Do you give money away? If so that can be kind and generous. But if you are unable to say no or you give away money and jeopardize your own financial security, that’s a problem.
This is your personal space; your comfort zone. Each person has their own unique physical boundary — how physically close someone can get while maintaining comfort — yours and theirs.
This is partially defined by culture, as well as by childhood experiences.
If our physical boundary was violated as a child it’s likely we were unable to establish an appropriately strong personal boundary. And if we didn’t, we are more susceptible to abuse in childhood and as an adult.
While not as common or as extreme, if we experienced physical boundary violations as a child we might be prone to violating the physical boundaries of others. There is a continuum — on the lower end of the spectrum, this might simply mean you are not tuned in to the comfort levels of others and may hug them when they don’t want to be hugged. But at the higher end of the spectrum, one might get in people’s space way too much — stand too close, or even be physically abusive (though that behavior usually has a complexity of origins)
This is about how much personal information we share with others and when. It is about how easily we distinguish our feelings from those of others.
With healthy emotional boundaries, we feel comfortable and safe interacting with others (people that are trustworthy). We share appropriate amounts of information based on how well we know a person and how they fit in our life.
We feel confident and secure in our own feelings and opinions.
The boundary continuum shows up most with emotional boundaries.
Some of us easily tune-in to the feelings of others. We might have great empathy and the ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes. That usually makes us a good listener, a good friend, and a good partner. But it can also mean that our emotional boundaries are not fully formed.
And if it’s to a greater degree we can sacrifice ourselves too much and feel a compulsion to always put others first. That usually gets us applause for the “selfless” service work we do, but it’s easy to go overboard and not know how to do self-care.
If extreme it can mean that we “absorb” the energy and feelings of others, which can result in mild discomfort to intense overwhelm. We then feel unsafe and cannot protect ourselves (stay detached enough) from other people’s emotions and problems. When that happens we may not have the ability to keep from getting over-involved and/or we may feel violated or burdened.
Those with weak emotional boundaries are often too trusting. In an effort to be nice and not having the ability to say no we let people in too easily and we have a tendency to trust people who are untrustworthy.
If our emotional boundary was violated as a child we may have difficulty with intimacy due to a tendency to become too closely enmeshed with others.
Or we may feel the need to put up an emotional “wall” as it may be the only way we know to protect ourselves.
With weak emotional boundaries, we don’t know how to move easily from intimacy to autonomy. And that might mean that we operate in one or the other extreme. All or nothing — completely entangled with someone or walled off and shut down.
The Perfect Place to Mention Narcissists
If you have boundaries that are not as strong as they could be, you might be someone who has difficultly recognizing and keeping yourself safe from narcissists — the “untrustworthy” people mentioned a few paragraphs back.
The favorite prey of narcissists are those with the weakest boundaries. That includes all the boundaries — material, emotional, physical, intellectual, and sexual.
Emotional Boundaries and Our Comfort with Feelings
Emotional boundaries are also about how comfortable we are with our full range of feelings.
What’s it like for you when you feel angry? Or do you never feel angry? If you think you don’t it’s likely you are stuffing those feelings…because everyone gets angry.
Codependency expert, John Bradshaw referred to anger as “our dignity energy” — as a signal that we have been wronged, abused, or denied something that is rightfully ours.
Anger is a natural emotion. The only problem with anger is what we do with it — how we express it or how we manage it.
(stay tuned — the Codependency discussion is coming up!)
In my experience as a counselor, life coach, and keen observer of people, I’ve found that those who are codependent (always doing for others and not taking care of themselves) often don’t show their anger, but underneath they are seething with rage. This is not because they are bad people by any means…but because they’ve spent most of their lives being “too good and too nice,” and in order to do that successfully, anger must be squelched.
I’m talking about those who’ve been “nicey nice,” put others first, have gotten entangled with self-centered and often abusive partners who they took care of, cleaned up after and enabled. That means their needs rarely got met. And boy are they pissed!
Anger is a favorite when it comes to emotional repression…at least for women.
For men, vulnerability is certainly near or at the top of the list of feelings to avoid it at all costs.
What feelings do you avoid or stuff down?
Are there emotions you believe you should never have?
What Women Are Up Against
I mentioned that women often repress their anger. And I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the unique dilemma women face when it comes to boundaries.
For women, emotional boundaries can be a particular challenge, because of the training we’ve received. Actually, all the personal boundaries are harder for women because (especially those who are older) we’ve been conditioned to have weaker boundaries…we’ve been taught to put the needs of others first.
When someone is trained to always come second, it’s almost impossible to know one’s own needs and preferences. It’s difficult to be authentic when you always defer to others. It’s a challenge to express your opinion when you aren’t encouraged to have one.
We are taught to be “nice.” We are taught to be kind, and submissive, especially to men.
We are taught that men’s needs are important and maybe even more important than ours. Or we’re taught not to have needs…or certainly not to express them.
That’s why so many women don’t ask. We don’t ask for a raise — in fact, we probably didn’t negotiate our salary when first offered our job. Or maybe we work at a job or in an industry that doesn’t pay well or doesn’t give us respect.
We get praise for pleasing others. We often derive our self-worth from putting the feelings and needs of other people above our own.
Boundary issues can also leave us intellectually vulnerable.
Intellectual boundaries are about how solid we feel about what we think and believe. It’s about being able to distinguish our own thoughts and beliefs from and the thoughts and opinions of others.
If we don’t have intellectual boundaries that are intact, we might not feel confident about our own thoughts. We might not trust our perceptions or we might feel confused about our own opinions.
This is also related to our personal identity and our confidence. Do you find it easy to form opinions? Do you feel your opinions are of value?
With weak intellectual boundaries, we will have difficulty making decisions. We might continually second-guess ourselves or obsess about the possibilities.
If our intellectual boundary was violated as a child we may have difficulty knowing our true beliefs, knowing what we are interested in, or trusting the decisions we make.
And we may be susceptible to mental manipulation from others — also known as “mind games” or “gaslighting.”
This is about the ability to decide with whom we relate sexually, when and how often.
With healthy sexual boundaries, we decide exactly how and when we interact sexually — we say no when we want to or need to. And we say yes when we want to. We don’t operate out of guilt or pressure and we are probably less likely to cheat on our partners (or get involved with partners who cheat).
If our sexual boundary was violated as a child we may have difficulty setting limits sexually, be overly interested in it, or may even behave compulsively with sex.
And like other boundaries, if we experienced extreme sexual violation ourselves, we may suffer from the urge to violate others..in this case, to violate sexually.
A very high percentage of sexual predators were sexually abused as children.
You’ve probably heard the term. It came into use about 25 years ago in self-help circles.
Codependency is a cluster of personality traits that are the result of underdeveloped personal boundaries. They consist of self-defeating behaviors within relationships.
We all have codependent characteristics to some degree — traits that show up now and then, or often. But those whose boundaries are not fully intact will likely struggle with the issues and problem areas described above.
The Issue of Choice
An important aspect of codependency and how well our personal boundaries function, is the issue of choice.
Since codependency is a form of relationship addiction, the greater the codependency, the less choice one has.
In other words, the lack of boundaries and the compulsion to become enmeshed with another person, to cover for them, enable them, take care of them translates into an existence where we are not able to distinguish our interests and feelings separate from theirs. We keep doing their bidding and a range of other things we really don’t want to do…because we are unable to disentangle ourselves from that person, or even a number of people.
We are powerless over the way we get involved, the degree to which we get entangled and the behaviors we engage in.
Are you able to make the choice about how close, or how involved you are in a particular moment or with a particular person?
And most of all — Are you able to say “no” when you need to?
Boundaries Quick Reference:
- must be permeable enough to take in and give out necessary information
- must be impermeable enough to offer protection and separation
- are our “perimeter” that determines acceptable closeness
- help us distinguish between our own feelings and those of others
- help us know what is our responsibility or problem and what is someone else’s
- give us the ability to take in feedback and either accept it, modify it or reject it
- give us the ability to recognize our wants and needs when making decisions
- help us recognize and respect the boundaries of others
- keep us from offending or violating the boundaries of others
- help us take responsibility for our choices and feelings without blaming others
- give us “common sense” in our social judgment- we recognize danger
The list above applies to personal and intimate relationships as well as business relationships.
Professional and Workplace Boundaries
The kind of touching in a professional setting shown in the photograph above could be inappropriate. But, this moment captured by the photographer, the facial expression and body language of the woman being touched seems to indicate that she is fully comfortable with it — it’s her choice to be touched this way and by this person. She’s moving toward the touch with an open stance and a big smile. The person touching her baby bump is a woman.
If the man in the scene was touching her belly that would likely be inappropriate unless he’s her partner. It appears that he is a co-worker like the other two women. He is part of this encounter but is standing at a safe distance and he knows enough to not get closer or to touch her. (he’s got good boundaries…and the good judgment that goes along with good boundaries)
What’s Your Experience with Professional Boundaries & Choice?
Do you have different boundaries with each colleague? Or do you find yourself in the same patterns with all your business relationships? What about your employees or your superiors?
Do you have as much choice as you would like? Or do you get drawn into other people’s needs and workplace dramas more than you would like?
Are you the caretaker in the office? The peacemaker? Do you cover for other's misconduct?
Inequality and Power Differences
Power imbalances in our place of employment can have an impact on our ability to maintain our boundaries.
Power differences are a reality and usually require at least a certain amount of submissive behavior.
Do you cover for your boss? Do you lie for him or her? Do they expect you to? How honest can you be with your supervisor?
It’s almost impossible to not participate in codependent behavior with your superiors. We often need to make concessions that seem codependent, in order to keep our job.
When dealing with someone who has power over you, your behavior might look codependent, and it might be. Or it might look codependent, but you’re making a choice to behave that way. If so, it’s not codependency as much as it is conscious submission. You’re using employee survival skills to navigate your relationship with your boss.
We’ve all had at least one boss from hell. And they come in many forms. It’s for you to decide how far you will go, how much you will do, and to what degree you will go against your own values or integrity in order to keep your job and get through the day.
There is certainly more to say about boundaries in the business world. There are many facets to explore and nuances to consider, but this is more than enough for you to think about for now.
Signs of Healthy Boundaries:
- Improved confidence and self-respect
- More authentic and honest
- More accurate perceptions
- More effective communication
- Healthier relationships
- Feel in control of your life
Now What? How to Develop Healthier Boundaries
Workplace and Professional Life
While it may seem surprising, the most common issue that I work with clients on in my coaching practice is Boundaries.
However, that’s never what clients mention during our initial consultation. It doesn’t even make the list of what they want to work on.
I might work with a client on “customer relationship management” or “developing tactics for higher sales.” Or perhaps assist them with “more effective ways of handling employee performance evaluations” or “how to approach their supervisor about a raise,” but what we are really working on is navigating relationships and the key component of that is boundaries.
And while I also help my clients improve the important relational skills like reflective listening, assertiveness, and emotional self-management, good boundaries are an essential aspect of those skills and therefore, are the foundation.
Resources for Healthier Boundaries
There are many books that can offer help — check out those about boundaries.
Here are some of the best are books on codependency.
From Leading Authors:
Books on boundaries and codependency by Charles Whitfield.
Books on codependency by Melody Beattie.
Books on codependency by Pia Mellody.
If you have difficulty with any of what I’ve described above, you might consider working with a coach who has experience helping people develop healthier boundaries.