9 Frequently Asked Questions About Personal Boundaries
Boundaries can seem vague and difficult to understand, but are very necessary.
Posted March 21, 2023 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- Strong, flexible personal boundaries protect us from others emotionally but also prevent us from hurting others.
- It's important to understand how our boundaries work and to know if our boundaries are failing us.
- A visualization exercise can help us build and use our boundaries.
Even though the concept of personal boundaries is an incredibly useful one, it’s also rather complicated to understand exactly what personal boundaries are. In fact, it’s one of the most common questions I’m asked by clients and readers.
So, for every person who finds the concept useful, there are many more who find them too confusing to benefit from them.
So, let’s start with some boundary FAQs.
Frequently Asked Questions About Boundaries
1. What is a personal boundary?
It’s an imaginary line that encircles you. It’s a protective barrier that filters and blocks negativity, pressure, or hurt from reaching and harming you.
2. How many boundaries do you need?
You need exactly two. Picture two concentric circles surrounding you, one inside the other. Your inner circle filters what you put out to others and prevents you from emotionally harming them. The outer boundary filters and blocks the potential harm that other people send your way.
3. How are boundaries helpful?
They make you less vulnerable to other people’s feelings, impulses, bad tempers, or harmful acts. They give you confidence that you are strong and safe and that you will be OK. They also prevent you from striking out at other people unnecessarily when you are angry or hurt.
4. What are the characteristics of a healthy boundary?
A healthy boundary is not static. It’s changeable and adaptable to the situation at hand. It can be opened or closed, firm in some situations, impenetrable in others, or soft and porous as needed. A healthy boundary is under your control.
5. How can boundaries go wrong?
They may be nonexistent or too weak or too rigid. Overly weak boundaries do not filter out enough, leaving you too vulnerable. Overly rigid boundaries filter out too much that’s coming in and too much that’s going out, isolating you from other people.
6. What are some signs that one's boundaries aren’t working?
- Your feelings are hurt too often or too easily, sometimes by people who do not know you.
- You hold back from standing up for yourself because you’re afraid you might hurt someone.
- You have had multiple toxic people in your life.
- You find it much easier to give than to receive.
- In friendships and relationships, you find it hard to talk about yourself.
7. What causes inadequate boundaries?
Emotion skills are the building blocks that boundaries are made of. When you grow up in a family that has good emotion skills, you learn how to accept, understand, and manage your own feelings and other people’s feelings, too. This gives you the skills you need to manage your feelings and formulate words to express them in a way that others can take in. These remarkable skills allow your boundaries to work and become responsive and under your control.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. If your family ignored your feelings or treated your feelings as inconvenient or burdensome (childhood emotional neglect), you likely walled off your emotions. So, you not only didn’t get to learn the emotion skills that your boundaries should be built upon in your childhood but your walled-off feelings also made it hard to naturally learn them through the course of your adult life.
8. How can a person improve their boundaries now?
You can start by making a conscious effort to notice, accept, and value your feelings, regarding them as the enriching resource that they are. Once you start doing this, you have stepped onto the path of healing your childhood emotional neglect.
Along this path, you will begin to encounter more and more of your blocked-off feelings. You will find yourself experiencing subtle feelings that were lost on you before—feelings that will warn you, direct you, motivate you, or enliven you. Learning to understand and manage those feelings will follow, and these feeling skills will become your protection and empowerment: your boundaries.
9. Is there an exercise or technique to build boundaries?
Yes. For many people, visualizing healthy boundaries will help build them. I do this visualization technique with many of my clients. Let’s do it now.
First, close your eyes.
Now visualize yourself in the center surrounded by two circles, one inside the other.
Visualize what you’d like your boundaries to be made of. It can be anything you like.
Here are some examples of what some of my clients have chosen:
- Musical notes
- Ocean waves
Visualize your inner and outer boundaries in detail. How high is each boundary? How thick? What color are they?
Make sure they feel friendly and helpful as you picture them.
Imagine making each one very, very strong and impenetrable.
Now imagine making them flexible.
Now open each boundary up, and then close it back again. Stay inside your closed boundaries for a bit, experiencing for a time the safety, protection, and strength you have when you are within them.
Once you have a clear picture of yourself, comfortable, inside your boundaries, with full control over them, you have formed your boundaries. Now, you're ready to use them.
Exercising Your Boundaries
Going forward, continue to honor your feelings, noticing and accepting them every single day, walking down that path of healing whatever emotional neglect you may have experienced in childhood.
Visualize your boundaries as often as you can. When harm comes your way, you will know that they are there to help you. Picture or imagine them surrounding and protecting you in your moment of need.
Powered by your feelings and standing strong on your new emotion skills, you will go about your life knowing that you are more protected, connected, and safe.
© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.
To determine if you might be living with the effects of childhood emotional neglect, you can take the free Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. You'll find the link in my Bio.