What Are Personal Boundaries?

Updated on August 23, 2017
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I became a news reporter for the Marine Corps in the early 70s. I'm now retired and write on a wide variety of subjects in my spare time.

  • Boundaries are guidelines we set for ourselves. They also show others how they should behave appropriately. They come from opinions and past personal histories.
  • Boundaries set physical, mental, and spiritual guidelines. They involve beliefs, emotions, and self-esteem. They operate in incoming as well as outgoing interactions.
  • Their purpose is to protect and care for ourselves. We must inform others when they're out of line. It's important to voice these feelings strongly because we're responsible for how we allow others to treat us.


Steve does nothing when his friend John flirts with his wife, although she has repeatedly demanded he discuss it with him. Steve replies with “He doesn't mean any harm, and I don't want to offend him.” Steve has failed to establish clear, boundary lines.

Karen, recently divorced, discovered her husband had been having an extra marital affair. Instead of confining the issue only to those with a need to know, she intentionally "leaks" the information to many who have nothing to do with the issue. But compounding the matter, she speaks freely about it in front of her 10-year-old daughter, who isn't mature enough to handle such information. She needs to consult a therapist or join a support group where she can discuss her feelings. She hasn't maintained boundaries of discreetness.

Hank makes jokes about his wife in front of others and divulges her most confidential secrets. He criticizes his children with sarcasm, which destroys their self-esteem. Hank has destroyed protective bounds existing in a normal family.

Boundaries Are Guideposts

Personal boundaries are important for spiritual and emotional welfare. They alert us to when we are being exploited, or abused. Unfortunately, some have damaged boundaries stemming from childhood violations, which allows others to constantly victimize them. For example, over-protection, verbal or sexual abuse, and neglect.

Types of boundaries

There are different types:

  • Physical. These define personal safety zones. Someone with healthy physical boundaries can easily state things such as, “Don't touch me like that. I won't tolerate any physical abuse.”

    One of the best ways of protecting children from sexual abuse is teaching them they have certain boundaries not to be be crossed by anyone. A person with healthy boundaries feels anxiety or anger when these boundaries are violated. A person with damaged physical boundaries will blame themselves.

  • Emotional. Emotional boundaries place a safety zone around a persons' self-esteem and relationships. They deflect negative thoughts and behavior, such as insults, criticism, and abuse. A person with unhealthy emotional boundaries will allow criticism by others.

    Tragically, many have a damaged sense of spiritual boundaries. In many cases, they were raised in religiously abusive environments where God was pictured as an unforgiving, critical judge. Perhaps their parents used this image as a means of manipulation and control. Maybe they had physically or sexually abusive parents who threatened God would punish them by using God's commandment to honor their father and mother.

In the same vein, many have spiritual boundaries violated later by religious leaders who claim God speaks to them. Passing on this message, they inform their victims God has instructed them to follow their guidance. A person with healthy spiritual boundaries will be suspicious of these authorities claiming to speak for God.

Steps to Healthy Boundaries:

  1. Be honest with yourself and others. People with twisted physical, emotional boundaries tend to be out of touch with their feelings. When they ignore warnings their body is sending, they leave themselves open for mistreatment.
  2. Are you uncomfortable when someone touches or speaks to you in a certain way? Then admit those feelings, and in no uncertain terms demand they stay out of your personal space. If they refuse, simply leave and avoid further contact.
  3. Think about your needs. If you have a busy schedule, perhaps you need assistance with household chores. If experiencing undue stress, you may need some alone time. If feeling alone, you may need to communicate more with your spouse and friends. Get in touch with your needs and allow others to know your boundaries.
  4. When boundaries are constantly violated, plan a strategy. If it's a severely abusive relationship, involving ongoing sexual or physical abuse get out immediately. Find a shelter, talk to a pastor, counselor, or stay with a friend where an abuser can't cause any harm. You and your children's safety takes precedence. If the violation is simply aggravating, but not necessarily dangerous, talk honestly with the abuser and establish new, unchangeable boundaries.


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