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The Beginner's Guide to Boundaries: How to Live a Calmer and Happier Life.

I grew up with a very large backyard on the river. Actually, as a little kid I thought I had two backyards. This is because my parents divided the yard in two with a fence. The fence kept the children safe by keeping us close to the house and away from the water while the adults got to enjoy a plot of land with an unobstructed water view closer to the river.

Still, like any good fence there was a gate. The gate offered some flexibility for my parents to decide when it was safe to venture in and out.


I spend a lot of time helping my clients navigate the fences in their lives. In counseling we call these fences boundaries. Boundaries is a word that is often used without much understanding about what they are or how they are practically used.

To add to the confusion, boundaries with others change depending on the relationship. Sometimes they even change over time as the dynamics of the relationship grow and change. For example, as a small child it was appropriate for me to crawl on my dad’s lap and sit but as I grew into adolescence this grew less appropriate. The physical boundaries in the relationship changed. Similarly, as I grew older my responsibilities grew and with them the the gravity of consequences for my actions and choices. It was up to me to start taking responsibility for my feelings and problems. My parents couldn't fix them.

Boundaries might be an issue for you if you feel:

  • Taken advantage of

  • You can’t say no

  • You have to please others

  • Overwhelmed

  • Life is out of control and unmanageable

What are Boundaries?

What do they do?

Your boundaries are your personal property line. They distinguish your body, thoughts, feelings, and emotions from others. They define responsibility and ownership. They let you know where you end and someone else begins, representing your limits and limitations. And vis-versa.

Boundaries are designed for protection —

To keep you safe and To keep others safe from you.

The image of a house surrounded by a fence is a great tool to explain boundaries.

The job of the fence is to keep the family inside safe and sound from the outside. It is a boundary designed for protection. At the same time there is some degree of permeability. The family decides who comes in and out. Additionally, the fence protects the outside world from the family. For example, it keeps the dog within the property line from biting someone on the outside.

Where Problems Arise:

Responsibility and Ownership

Problems with boundaries always stem from confusion over responsibility and ownership. When this happens we often become angry, resentful, anxious, and wrestle with feelings of guilt.

There are several areas where boundaries apply:

Physical boundaries pertain to your personal space and body. Are you able to confidently determine who can touch you, how, and under what circumstances? This has to do with things like hugs, hand shakes, and personal space. Sexual boundaries fall into this area as well. With healthy sexual boundaries sex is not used as currency.

Mental boundaries pertain to your freedom to express thoughts, values, and opinions. Can you listen with an open mind, without rigidity but also hold on to your beliefs and values when faced with adversity? Are you able to receive feedback and carefully evaluate it for validity without personalizing it or allowing it to automatically inform your thoughts? Do you respect other people by asking for permission to share feedback or advice before asserting your opinion?

Emotional boundaries pertain to your ability to separate your emotions and responsibility for them from someone else’s. Are you able to take ownership of your feelings without pointing blame to someone else? Do you accept blame (feel guilty) for someone else’s feelings or problems? Do you tend to take things personally?

Spiritual boundaries pertain to your beliefs and experiences in connection with God.

What areas do you struggle to maintain boundaries?

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