PSA: Setting strong personal boundaries is not a cure-all for your relationship woes (or your lost keys). In fact, they’re more of a side effect of having a healthy self-esteem and generally low levels of neediness with people around you.
Boundaries in relationships work both ways: they create emotional health and are created by people with emotional health. They are something you can start working on today with the people close to you and you’ll begin to notice a difference in your self-esteem, confidence, emotional stability, and so on.
And yes, believe it or not, boundaries are also hot.
Table of Contents
Do You Have Boundary Issues?
First, let’s do the obligatory bullet point list every blog must do for these types of posts. Let’s do the “You Might Have A Boundary Issue If…” list so you know where you stand:
- Do you ever feel like people take advantage of you or use your emotions for their own gain?
- Do you ever feel like you’re constantly having to “save” people close to you and fix their problems all the time?
- Do you find yourself sucked into pointless fighting or debating regularly?
- Do you find yourself faaaaar more invested or attracted to a person than you should be for how long you’ve known them?
- In your relationships, does it feel like things are always either amazing or horrible with no in-between? Or perhaps you even go through the break-up/reunion pattern every few months?
- Do you tell people how much you hate drama but seem to always be stuck in the middle of it?
- Do you spend a lot of time defending yourself for things you believe aren’t your fault?
If you answered “yes” to even a few of the above, then you probably set and maintain poor boundaries in your relationships. If you answered a resounding “yes” to most or all of the items above, you not only have a major boundary problem in your relationships but you also probably have some other personal problems going on in your life.
What Are Personal Boundaries?
Before we go on to fix those boundary issues, let’s talk about what they are first.
Healthy Personal Boundaries = Taking responsibility for your own actions and emotions, while NOT taking responsibility for the actions or emotions of others.
People with poor boundaries typically come in two flavors: those who take too much responsibility for the emotions/actions of others and those who expect others to take too much responsibility for their own emotions/actions.
Interestingly, these two types of people often end up in relationships together.
Some examples of poor boundaries:
- “You can’t go out with your friends without me. You know how jealous I get. You have to stay home with me.”
- “Sorry guys, I can’t go out with you tonight, my girlfriend gets really angry when I go out without her.”
- “My co-workers are idiots and I’m always late to meetings because I have to tell them how to do their jobs.”
- “I’d love to take that job in Milwaukee, but my mother would never forgive me for moving so far away.”
- “I can date you, but can you not tell my friend Cindy? She gets really jealous when I have a boyfriend and she doesn’t.”
In each scenario, the person is either taking responsibility for actions/emotions that are not theirs or they are demanding that someone else take responsibility for their actions/emotions.
Personal Boundaries, Self-Esteem, and Identity
Personal boundaries and self-esteem go hand in hand. Taking responsibility for your own actions and not blaming others are two of the pillars in Nathaniel Branden’s Six Pillars of Self Esteem, arguably the most authoritative work on the topic. People with high self-esteem have strong personal boundaries. And practicing strong personal boundaries is one way to build self-esteem.
Another way is to think of boundaries in terms of identity. When you have these murky areas of responsibility for your emotions and actions—areas where it’s unclear who is responsible for what, who’s at fault, why you’re doing what you’re doing—you never develop a solid identity for yourself.
For instance, if you’re really into Judo, but you’re always blaming your teacher for your lack of progress and feel guilty about going to classes because your wife gets lonely when you’re not around, then you’re not owning that aspect of your identity. Judo is now something you do and not something you are. It becomes inauthentic, another tool in the game of getting social approval, rather than to satisfy your own desire to express yourself. This is neediness. And the dependence on external approval will drive your self-esteem lower and make your behavior less attractive.
Why Boundaries Are Good for You
Not only do personal boundaries boost your self-esteem and bolster your sense of identity, they also make life a hell lot easier.
Imagine a scenario where:
- You don’t let people take advantage of you.
- You never have to fix other people’s problems, unless you truly want to.
- You don’t get sucked into pointless arguments and heated debates.
- Not every little thing your family, partner, friends, colleagues do bothers or worries you.
- You coolly look on while others get caught up in drama. In fact, you barely remember what it feels like to be embroiled in bullshit at all.
Now imagine that scenario playing out, day after day after day. Wouldn’t you like that? Of course you fucking would. Anyone would.
That’s what strong healthy boundaries give you.
Poor Boundaries and Intimate Relationships
I believe boundary issues are the most difficult to deal with at the family level. You can always dump that ass-hat of a boyfriend/girlfriend, a divorce is always but a phone call or twelve away, but you can never dump your parents.
Chances are at some point you’ve been in a relationship that felt like a roller coaster: when things were good, they were great; when things were bad, they were a disaster. And there was an almost-predictable oscillation between the two—two weeks of bliss, followed by one week of hell, followed by a month of bliss, followed by a horrible breakup and then a dramatic reunion. It’s a hallmark of a codependent relationship and usually represents two people incapable of strong personal boundaries.
My first serious relationship was like this. At the time, it felt very passionate, like it was us against the world. In hindsight, it was incredibly unhealthy and I’m much happier not being in it.
Poor Boundaries and Neediness
People lack boundaries because they have a high level of neediness (or in psych terms, codependence). People who are needy or codependent have a desperate need for love and affection from others. To receive this love and affection, they sacrifice their identity and remove their boundaries.
(Ironically, it’s the lack of identity and boundaries that makes them unattractive to most people in the first place.)
People who blame others for their own emotions and actions do so because they believe that if they put the responsibility on those around them, they’ll receive the love they’ve always wanted and needed. If they constantly paint themselves as a victim, eventually someone will come to save them.
People who take the blame for other people’s emotions and actions are always looking to save someone. They believe that if they can “fix” their partner, then they will receive the love and appreciation they’ve always wanted.
Predictably, these two types of people are drawn strongly to one another. Their pathologies match one another perfectly. And often, they’ve grown up with parents who each exhibit one of these traits. So their model for a “happy” relationship is one based on neediness and poor boundaries.
Ironically, they both fail completely in meeting the other’s needs. In fact, they both only serve to perpetuate the neediness and low self-esteem that is keeping them from getting their emotional needs met. The victim creates more and more problems to solve and the saver solves and solves, but the love and appreciation they’ve always needed are never actually transmitted to one another.
Poor Boundaries and Expectations
In Models, when I talk about authenticity, I explain how in relationships, whenever something is given with an ulterior motive, with the expectation of something in return, when something is not given as a “gift,” then it loses its value. If it’s self-serving then it’s empty and worthless.
This is what happens in these codependent relationships. The victim creates problems not because there are real problems, but because they believe it will cause them to feel loved. The saver doesn’t save the victim because they actually care about the problem, but because they believe if they fix the problem they will feel loved. In both cases, the intentions are needy and therefore unattractive and self-sabotaging.
If the saver really wanted to save the victim, the saver would say, “Look, you’re blaming others for your own problems, deal with it yourself.” That would be actually loving the victim.
The victim, if they really loved the saver, would say, “Look, this is my problem, you don’t have to fix it for me.” That would be actually loving the saver.
But that’s not exactly what usually happens…
The Vicious Cycle of Poor Boundaries
Victims and savers both get kind of an emotional high off one another. It’s like an addiction they fulfill in one another, and when presented with emotionally healthy people to date, they usually feel bored or a lack of “chemistry.” They’ll pass on healthy, secure individuals because the secure partner’s solid boundaries will not excite the loose emotional boundaries of the needy person.
From an Attachment Theory perspective, victims tend to be anxious-attachment types, and savers tend to be avoidant-attachment types. Or as I like to call them: crazy people and assholes. Both often push away secure-attachment types.
For the victim, the hardest thing to do in the world is to hold themselves accountable for their feelings and their life rather than others. They’ve spent their whole existence believing they must blame others in order to feel any intimacy or love, so letting that go is terrifying.
For the saver, the hardest thing to do in the world is to stop fixing other people’s problems and trying to force them to be happy and satisfied. For them, they’ve spent their whole lives only feeling valued and loved when they were fixing a problem or providing a use to someone, so letting go of this need is terrifying to them as well.
It is only when both start the process of building self-esteem that they can begin to eliminate needy behavior and make themselves more attractive. Later in this article, I will show you how to break out of this vicious cycle. Read on.
(Side note: I state in my book that needy behavior makes you unattractive to most people by limiting you to people of a similar level of neediness, i.e., the adage that you are everyone you end up dating. If you end up only attracting low self-esteem slobs, then you are likely a low self-esteem slob yourself. If you only attract high maintenance drama queens, then you are likely a high maintenance drama queen yourself. Oh, you queen, you.)
What Healthy Boundaries Look Like
Countless people have come to me over the years with, “Yeah, boundaries are nice, but what do they look like?”
Let me show you a few examples from the major domains of our life. Because while personal boundaries are particularly crucial in intimate relationships, they also highly influence our friendships, family relationships, and even professional ones.
“Jon, we’ve been working together for five years. I can’t believe you’d fuck me over like that in front of our boss.”
“But you got the datasheet incorrect. It was important that the correct numbers were submitted.”
“Yeah, but you’re supposed to back me up. You made me look like an asshole. You don’t have to disagree with me in front of everybody like that.”
“Look, I like you. You’re my friend. But I’m not going to do your job for you. And that’s that. End of discussion.”
“I am doing my job!”
“Good, then it shouldn’t matter what I say then.”
Some friends are maybe a little bit too close for comfort. This situation comes up in various forms in everybody’s life: long-time friend screws up, but instead of taking personal responsibility, expects you to shoulder some of the responsibility with them because “that’s what friends do.”
Accepting this leads to codependent and unhealthy friendships. Yes, even friendships can be needy and unattractive. Ever met two friends who are constantly complaining about one another or saying things behind each other’s backs, but when they’re together everything seems great? Chances are they have some serious boundary issues like the one above.
Friendships like this are never-ending drama factories. Steer clear.
“I get so sad when you and your sister don’t come to see me. I get very lonely, you know.”
“Why don’t you go out more, mom? Make some friends.”
“Oh, I’ve tried. Nobody likes an old lady like me. You two are my children. You’re supposed to take care of me.”
“No, you don’t. I spend so much time alone. You have no idea how hard it can be sometimes.”
“Mom, I love you and will always be here when you need me. But you are still responsible for your own loneliness. Jennifer and I are not the only solution to all of your problems.”
The old family guilt situation. I used to be fond of saying “Guilt is a useless emotion.” I actually don’t believe that anymore. Guilt is important when it’s legitimate and self-imposed.
Where guilt is useless and harmful is when it is used as a tool to manipulate those close to you. Guilt can be incredibly painful when used this way, not only because it demands responsibility from you for emotions which are not yours, but it also implies that you’re faulty or a bad person in some way for not doing it.
(All of my Jewish readers are nodding their heads right now.)
Nothing sets me off these days like a person trying to guilt-trip me. I immediately call them out on it and if I don’t know them well, I will sometimes end the relationship right then and there.
“Hey, I was thinking about that new job you’re looking for. I redid your resume and I’ve started sending it out to some people in my HR department.”
“Um, thanks, but you didn’t have to do that.”
“I wanted to do it. I want you to be successful. I was also thinking again about us moving in together, I went and looked at apartments today—”
“I told you, I’m not ready for that yet.”
“I know! But it only makes sense. And we’re not getting younger. I think we should just try it.”
“Last month you replaced half my wardrobe with clothes you want me to wear. Then you wanted me to live with you. Now you want me to work with you too?”
“But I love you, I want to take care of you.”
“I love you too, but you have to let me do things my own way. This is not healthy, you taking control of my life decisions without consulting me first.”
“I can’t believe how selfish you are! I do EVERYTHING for you and now you’re blaming me for it!”
“If you really care about me, then you need to stop trying to control my life and let me live it on my own.”
This is an example of a codependent relationship from the other side—the side of a partner who gets smothered and pampered too much. It may seem really nice on the surface. You may even think, “Damn, I wish my boyfriend/girlfriend did that for me.” But the truth is that it’s just as unhealthy and will eventually lead to just as many problems.
How to Set Healthy Boundaries
Poor boundaries are almost always a reflection of low self-esteem (and vice versa), and something needs to be done to address the one for the other to improve. Let’s start with self-esteem.
To build self-esteem, you need to first understand that it’s simply the by-product of being a competent, well-adjusted human being. Self-esteem is not something that you pursue for its own sake. Doing that isn’t only unhelpful—it’s toxic.
Self-esteem is how you think you’re doing in your life, relative to how everyone else is doing. If you have low self-esteem, most likely you’re not doing well by some metric or other. And the most important thing you can do is to practice compassion for yourself.
Everyone lacks something or fails in some ways. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Accept your flaws and learn to be comfortable with them, then work on becoming better.
It’s by accepting yourself as you are, and then working on yourself that you can build self-esteem. This is hard work, and it takes time. But you’ll end up in a far nicer place than you are in now.
As you come to feel higher esteem for yourself, healthy boundaries will slowly emerge in your life. You will instinctively know what you will or will not tolerate from others, you will draw the line and enforce it, and remove yourself from toxic relationships.
But if this doesn’t happen for you naturally, or if you’re not quite there yet with the self-esteem, here are steps you can take on the boundaries front:
- Set your boundaries, literally. This is easier said than done. But you will get nowhere unless you define what your personal boundaries are. What will you tolerate or not tolerate in your life? What behaviors will you accept or not accept? From your family, your partner, your friends, your colleagues, your mailman, the guy upstairs, your Tinder date.
- Decide what the consequences are if someone breaks one of your rules. This is bound to happen, and often. And it will be difficult to think of what the consequences should be once it does. You’ll be biased by the person, the context, and a myriad other factors. So decide from the get-go.
- Communicate the above clearly. Make your boundaries known. This is particularly important for the people closest to you. It’s probably okay for the mailman to not know all your boundaries (save for the basic ones like not breaking down your door to deliver mail), but it’s absolutely not alright for your partner to not know when they’d be crossing the line.
- Follow through. If someone crosses your boundaries, do what you said you would. Be compassionate, but be firm.
Boundaries and Sacrifice
Before we go (I realize this is getting long, and I still haven’t found my keys), I want to make a final note about sacrifice and how it relates to boundaries.
The biggest counter-argument to implementing strict personal boundaries—or rationalization, depending on your perspective—is that sometimes you have to make sacrifices for the people you love.
This is true. If your girlfriend/boyfriend has an unreasonable need for you to call them every day, even if it’s just to talk for three minutes, then it may be reasonable to make a small sacrifice to make them happy.
But here’s the catch:
If you make a sacrifice for someone you care about, it needs to be because you want to, not because you feel obligated or because you fear the consequences of not doing it.
It comes back to the point that acts of affection and interest are only valid if they’re performed without expectations.
So if you call your girlfriend/boyfriend every day but hate it and feel like they’re impeding on your independence and you resent them and you’re terrified of how angry they’ll be if you don’t, then you have a boundary problem. If you do it because you love them and don’t mind, then do it.
It can be difficult for people to recognize whether they’re doing something out of perceived obligation or out of voluntary sacrifice. Here’s the litmus test: ask yourself, “If I stopped doing this, how would the relationship change?” If you’re really afraid of the changes, that’s a bad sign. If the consequences are unpleasant but you feel like you could stop performing the action without feeling much different yourself, then that’s a good sign.
The reason is that if there’s a boundary issue then you will fear the loss of that cross-responsibility for one another. If there’s not a boundary issue, i.e., you’re doing it as a gift without expectations, then you’re OK with the repercussions of not doing it. A person with strong boundaries is not afraid of a temper tantrum, an argument, or getting hurt. A person with weak boundaries is terrified of it.
A person with strong boundaries understands that it’s unreasonable to expect two people to accommodate each other 100% and fulfill every need the other has. A person with strong boundaries understands that they may hurt someone’s feelings sometimes, but ultimately they can’t determine how other people feel. A person with strong boundaries understands that a healthy relationship is not controlling one another’s emotions, but rather each partner supporting each other in their growth and path to self-actualization.
Update: I found my keys.