Updated 25 March 2013

Personal boundaries: the invisible fence

Healthy personal boundaries make for healthy relationships and healthy relationships enhance mental wellness.


Healthy personal boundaries make for healthy relationships and healthy relationships enhance mental wellness. However, before we can set healthy boundaries, we need to understand what personal boundaries are. What are personal boundaries ?

In the literal sense of the word, a boundary is a dividing line that separates one area from another. Unless a boundary is clearly marked by a fence or a road, we can never be entirely certain where one area ends and the other begins.

In a similar way boundaries can describe limits and rules in relationships. We own our lives and should be responsible for and protective of them, keeping the good in and the bad out.

A boundary is a “personal property” line that marks those things for which we are responsible. In other words, boundaries define who we are and who we are not, what is ours and what is not ours.

Boundaries impact all areas of our lives and include the following:

1. Physical Boundaries

These help us determine who we allow to touch us and under what circumstances they may do so. In the general sense, physical boundaries also include the clothes we wear and who we allow onto our property and into our private physical space.

2. Mental and Emotional Boundaries

These give us the freedom to have our own thoughts and opinions. Emotional boundaries help us deal with our own emotions and disengage from the harmful, manipulative emotions of others.

3. Spiritual & Religious Boundaries

These help us to establish our own personal experiences and values as well as the relationship we may share with a Higher Power or God.

Healthy Boundaries

Healthy boundaries make it possible for us to separate our own thoughts and feelings from those of others and to take responsibility for what we think, feel and do. This means that we can set limits in our relationships and indicate how far we are willing to go within our own level of comfort. Essentially, healthy boundaries help us take care of ourselves.

Healthy boundaries are also flexible. In trying to protect ourselves, we may keep very rigid boundaries, trusting no one and not allowing anyone to get close to us emotionally. On the other hand, in our search for love and acceptance, we may leave ourselves too vulnerable, becoming too trusting and letting people hurt us too easily.

 Flexible boundaries mean we accept people and actions that are positive, helpful and needed, but protect ourselves from people and actions that are harmful or that interfere with our lives.

Flexible boundaries give us the choice of who we trust and how much we trust those people, enabling us to have positive relationships, while protecting us from abuse. They pave the way to true intimacy.

Also, if we have healthy boundaries, we are able to set appropriate limits on what we do and say to others, respecting their rights as well as our own.

Unhealthy Boundaries

Unhealthy boundaries often emerge from dysfunctional family backgrounds. The needs of parents, or other adults in a family, are sometimes so overwhelming that the task of raising children is demoted to a secondary role and dysfunction is the likely result.

Consider the role of the mother who, as a way of dealing with her own anger, screams at her children or becomes physically abusive. Her needs come first and the needs of her children – for safety, security, respect and comfort – come second. In this situation, the children are likely to learn that boundaries do not matter.

As these children grow up, they lack the support they need to form a healthy sense of their own identities. They may learn that if they want to get their way, they need to intrude on the boundaries of other people, just as their mother did. They are likely to grow up with fluid boundaries which may lead to problematic relationships later on in life.

On the other hand, these children may learn that rigid and inflexible boundaries are the way to handle their relationships with other people. To protect themselves, they may wall

Themselves off from other people and as a consequence, find it difficult to form close bonds with others in adulthood.

You are likely to have problems with boundaries, if you answer yes to any of these questions:

  • Do you feel guilty or afraid when trying to set boundaries with others? Is it hard to say no?
  • Do you feel mean or unloving when you attempt to set boundaries with others?
  • Do you have difficulty deciding how much time, love or money to give away?
  • Do you feel that setting boundaries is really just being selfish?

(Nurain Tisaker, Social Worker for Thrive magazine)

This article was first published in the launch issue of Thrive Magazine – Your Guide to Mental Wellness. Thrive is available for free from Pick n Pay Pharmacy or view online at   


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