Personal boundaries are the limits you decide work for you on how people can treat you, how they can behave around you, and what they can expect from you.
They are drawn from the framework of your core beliefs, your perspective, opinions, and your values. And these things in turn are created from your life experience and the social environments you have lived in.
If you find the concept of healthy boundaries difficult to understand, think of other sorts of boundaries. Property lines, fences, lines in the sand, bottom lines, buoys marking off the deep end…. do you have any such markers, limits, or ‘stop signs’ in your personal life?
Why do I need boundaries?
If you don’t set healthy boundaries, you are likely to constantly be at the mercies of others. This means you allow others to tell you how to think, act, and feel. It also means you tend to spend your time and energy doing what others want you to do over what you deep down want to do. In the long term this can lead to frustration and depression because you will feel unfulfilled or lost.
At its worse, not setting boundaries allow others to do things to you that are upsetting or even harmful. Read our article about the psychological effects of never saying no to learn more on why boundaries matter.
12 Signs that you lack boundaries
1. Your relationships tend to be difficult or dramatic.
The less boundaries you set, the more you give others a signal that you don’t know how to take care of yourself. This leaves you open to attracting will people who want to control you. At some point, you might get so frustrated this table turns and you secretly begin to control the other person. In other words, you are constantly in codependent relationships and friendships that lack an equal exchange of give and take.
The worst case scenario for not setting boundaries within relationships is ending up on the receiving end of mental, emotional, physical or sexual abuse.
Without healthy boundaries you can end up spending so much of your life doing what others want that you lose a sense of self. This means you often don’t know what you do or don’t want. Faced with a decision, you blank.
3. You really, really hate to let other people down.
People without boundaries tend to go along with other people’s plans, or worry about letting other people down to the extent they just say yes. Perhaps you’ve been called a ‘people pleaser’. (Read our article on how to say no if this sounds like you).
4. Two words – guilt and anxiety.
If you lack boundaries, and ever dare say yes? You suffer from ongoing guilt and fear. You probably feel responsible if others aren’t happy. Many people with boundary issues feel guilty for the smallest things, too, like taking the last piece of cake or asking someone to move along a bench so you, too, can sit.
5. You are often tired for no apparent reason.
Always doing what others want means you are left to cram your own life in the time leftover, which is exhausting. But never identifying and pursuing your own dreams in life can also cause a sense of fatigue, as it can cause mild depression. Setting boundaries, on the other hand, tends to be energising.
6. Your radar is off when it comes to sharing.
Lacking personal boundaries can lead to over sharing private details of your life with people you just met, leaving you open to hurt and manipulation. Conversely, it can lead to not sharing enough with those who are trying to get close to you because you don’t know how to share your needs and wants and might suffer intimacy issues.
7. You are constantly the victim of situations.
If you have no boundaries you might tend to feel hard done by because others will take advantage of you in both obvious and subtle ways. You might always feel overlooked or blamed at work, in your family, and in your social circles. You might even be the sort of person that things always seem to go wrong for.
If you often feel slightly annoyed with people, edgy, or a bit ‘off’, it can be because you are going against your own values and desires non stop.
This feeling can be supported by always feeling worried what others think and feeling guilty for the things you secretly want.
9. You secretly feel that others don’t show you respect.
Boundaries give others a manual on how you expect to be treated and what behaviour you will allow to be part of your life. If you don’t set boundaries, people won’t know how to act around you, and you will be left feeling disrespected.
The other side of this coin is that without your own boundaries you are less likely to recognise those of others, and might unwittingly be disrespecting them.
10. You might just be passive aggressive.
If you always say no when you secretly want to say yes you will find that you later feel upset and disempowered. And this often leads to trying to manipulate back the energy and power you lost by nagging the other person or complaining, or even punishing them in little ways. In other words, a bad case of passive aggression.
You might also blame others all the time, which is a way of not facing up to the fact that really, you didn’t set a boundary, and that you are the one who is responsible for your life.
11. You often wonder who you really are.
Even if you don’t realise it, you are probably often doing what others want instead of what you want, and basing your opinion of yourself on what others think of you. After many years of this (and if it is a behaviour you learned from a parent, it could even be a lifetime) it’s not uncommon to have a limited or too fluid sense of self.
Lacking boundaries can often be traced back to a childhood where you took on the message that to not do what others want you to do results in being rejected or abandoned.
As a child, attention and love are necessary to your personal growth, so back then it might have worked to not set boundaries and do what you were told in order to get what love you could.
Of course as an adult this can mean you have a backward belief in your unconscious that to be boundary-less will lead to love. Instead, it tends to lead to difficult relationships and loneliness.
What boundaries are not
Boundaries are not something that makes you unhappy. So many of us are scared to set boundaries, worried we won’t be liked and our life will then be miserable. The reverse tends to be true. If you set boundaries, you then attract people who are willing to respect you and want good things for you.
Boundaries are not to limit your joy, but to protect your joy. Your relationships get better, and you actually enjoy the things you choose to do because they match your values.
Boundaries are not set in stone. As you learn more of who you are and experience personal lessons in life, you will change. So,too, will your boundaries.
Boundaries are not about right or wrong. Your personal healthy boundaries are based on your own value system and perspective, and might be totally different than someone else’s. This also means that you don’t have to explain or defend your boundaries. You just need to set them. If someone doesn’t want to abide by them or refuses to accept them, then question if you really need that person in your life anymore.
Not sure you do or don’t set healthy boundaries?
How do you know what your boundaries are? Not everyone does. If you are codependent, you might not even have many boundaries, or confuse what your real boundaries are with what others expect of you.
If you are not sure you are good at setting boundaries or indeed have any at all, ask yourself these questions.
How often do I worry about what other people think?
Do I feel guilty for wanting to do things by myself?
When did I last say no to someone?
When did I last say yes to something I secretly didn’t want to do?
Do I feel like I deserve respect or I have to earn it by being ‘nice’?
What are the five rules to being my friend? Do I know them quickly and easily?
What are the 10 things I most like to do with my time? Can I quickly come up with them?
What are the 10 things I hate doing? Do I even have strong feelings about things?
When I think about saying no to someone, do I feel afraid? Or calm inside?
Help! I need to set healthy boundaries. What do I do?
Most people who struggle with boundaries struggle with knowing who they are and what they want. Which can leave them feeling frustrated, wanting to set personal limits but not knowing which ones to set.
So the first step can be learning more about yourself, and giving yourself the time and space to do so (in other words, watch the self judgement and recognise this will be a process, not a quick destination). A great start can be journalling and reading self-help books (also called ‘bibliotherapy‘) about core beliefs, values, and identity. Mindfulness is also a good tool, helping you to become more aware of how you actually feel from moment to moment.
It can be tempting to turn to other people you know and ask for their advice on what boundaries you should have. But be wary of this. If you are the type to lack boundaries, there is a good chance many of your relationships are codependent, which means your friends, family members, and/or partner invested in you taking care of their happiness. They might not be able to be truthful with you, no matter how well-intentioned they are.
Instead, try someone who can help you without personal investment, such as a coach or counsellor, both of whom will be trained at helping you identify your values and perspective.
If you have a hunch that your inability to set boundaries goes back to childhood patterning, a psychotherapist might be very useful at helping you explore how you became the adult you are and become the person you want to be.
Do you have a tip about setting great personal boundaries you’d like to share? Do so below. We love hearing from you.