Everyone falls into one of three camps when it comes to boundaries — and not all of them are healthy. Which one are you?
When I was a graduate student, I found myself struggling with boundaries. What I told myself were habits of someone hard-working, dedicated and focussed on the future were actually the behaviors of a perfectionist who was scared of failure. For example, I avoided conflicts because it seemed like the most effective way of moving forward. I overworked myself by taking on extra responsibilities at my job even though the demands of school were at an all time high. I struggled in my relationship because being vulnerable felt too scary and difficult at the time. And I kept my problems to myself, too worried about inconveniencing others.
Part of my grad work as a therapist involved studying relationships and family structures. I came across the concept of boundaries — and it was eye opening. The more I learned, the more I began to notice the type of boundaries I had established in my own life — which is to say, very few boundaries at all. Suddenly I began to make sense of why my emotional wellbeing was affected in some environments more than others. As someone who has always been considered “sensitive” by others, I knew I had to make changes to protect my energy — especially if I was going to pursue a career in counseling.
What Are Boundaries?
According the work of psychiatrist Salvador Minuchin, whom the New York Times refers to as the “pioneer of family therapy,” boundaries are how we define what is acceptable in our relationships. Boundaries can include what we consider acceptable in relation to our physical bodies, our personal time, our mental and emotional wellbeing, and sexual engagement as well as our material belongings. But the way people use these boundaries can look different, depending on the type of relationship as well as the environment.
In other words: different people do boundaries differently, and even the same person might use boundaries differently in different contexts.
Often, these differences have to do with how hard it is to maintain healthy boundaries. For example, It can be difficult to recognize when one of your boundaries has been violated. And the consequences of this violation can be difficult to process and navigate, especially when first developing what is considered healthy boundaries.
These challenges — and the high emotional price tag attached to them — means not everyone ends up setting boundaries to the same degree or in the same way.
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What Are the 3 Styles of Boundaries?
According to a 2011 study led by developmental scientist Jessica Fish, there are currently three styles of boundaries, which have been simplified from Minuchin’s original theories. The three styles of boundaries are diffused, rigid and healthy:
- “Diffused boundaries” are loose and unclear. Someone with diffused boundaries may struggle with saying “no” to others, maintain a passive (almost submissive) presence in their relationships, or may seem overly trusting of new people. They may frequently overshare or get overly involved in the problems of others. Emotional contagion, or taking on the emotions of others, is much more common with diffused boundaries.
- “Rigid boundaries” are strict and offputting. Someone with more rigid boundaries may struggle with allowing others to get close to them or trusting others in general. They may also be dismissive of the opinions and problems of others. Their boundaries “protect” them to the point of driving others away and isolating them.
- “Healthy boundaries” involve using tools from both of the other styles, but in an appropriate and helpful way. Examples of healthy boundaries include saying “no” when needed, navigating conflict assertively while respecting the values and opinions of the self and others, and being selective about who is allowed to get closer. Overall, healthy boundaries allow individuals to maintain their sense of self while being able to adapt as necessary.
You can think of these styles like the three bears in the Goldilocks story: diffused boundaries are too loose, rigid boundaries are too tight, and healthy boundaries are “just right” — reasonable, firm, but not overly strict.
It is possible to use different boundary styles in different situations. For example, perhaps you have rigid boundaries with your parents, because they have hurt you in the past, but you have healthy boundaries with your partner — or diffused boundaries about work. It can be very helpful to notice how your protective boundaries change in different settings and relationships.
Even so, it’s common for people to fall into one style more often than the others. And, although many highly sensitive people may struggle with diffused boundaries, there are plenty with healthy boundaries and even a fair number who have developed rigid boundaries — often in response to abuse or being ostracized.
How to Tell Which ‘Style’ of Boundaries You Have
You can tell which of styles of boundaries might be your go-to based on which of the following sets of statements you relate to most:
Things Someone with Rigid Boundaries Might Say:
- “I truly trust very few people in my life.”
- “Other people’s problems, including my friends and family, are none of my concern.”
- “Asking for help from others can be difficult and/or intimidating.”
- “I am very protective of my personal belongings and find sharing personal thoughts or emotions difficult or scary.”
- “I often struggle in my romantic relationships due to difficulties with communication.”
Things Someone with Diffused Boundaries Might Say:
- “It’s hard for me to say ‘no’ to others, even when I really want to.”
- “The opinions of others affect me more than I would like them to.”
- “I have allowed abuse or disrespect towards me out of fear of rejection or causing conflict.”
- “I often overshare about myself, even with people who have hurt me in the past.”
- “I will quickly change my behavior to appease others.”
Things Someone with Healthy Boundaries Might Say:
- “I acknowledge my wants and needs and appropriately communicate them to others.”
- “I can simultaneously respect the opinions and experiences of others without compromising my own.”
- “I can provide support to my friends and family when they share their problems without overextending myself.”
- “I accept conflict is a normal part of life.”
- “I recognize when a boundary of mine has been violated and actively work to make sure it does not happen again.”
It’s okay if you identify with statements from more than one style — even if they seem at odds. Ultimately, the goal is to work toward healthy boundaries across all areas of your life. Your time, emotions, sexual wellbeing, physical space and belongings, and thoughts and beliefs are all areas of life where boundaries should be established and maintained.
Remember: It’s possible for anyone to develop healthy boundaries, even if you are more in the “diffused” or “rigid” camps to start with.
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How to Develop Healthy Boundaries
Learning to set healthy boundaries can take time and practice. You are essentially learning to recognize the patterns that led to unhealthy boundaries in the first place, and actively working to break these habits.
The first step is acknowledging when a boundary has been violated. It should be noted that recognizing specific emotions or thoughts that come up when first realizing the boundary violation can help identify similar violations in other aspects of our life. Noticing how we react to violations of our boundaries is another significant piece of breaking the patterns and further development of unhealthy boundaries.
In addition, starting small can also help in developing this skill. Learning to say “no” to simple things can help strengthen one’s confidence in their ability to continue advocating for themselves in more serious or emotionally intense situations.
7 Small, Easy Practices to Build Healthy Boundaries
Some example situations from my own personal experiences with developing boundaries include:
- Saying “no” when asked to take on extra tasks at work, knowing I’m already approaching my max workload and/or burnout.
- Telling my partner when something they have done upsets me rather than allowing the behavior to continue which would inevitably end with built-up resentment and an argument.
- Offering a handshake or polite nod to a family member who frequently attempted to initiate hugs when such physical contact from this person made me uncomfortable.
- Upholding the cancellation/late fees and policies of my practice with clients who frequently arrive late, cancel or reschedule.
- Speaking up when the food I have ordered at a restaurant comes out wrong (this one was incredibly challenging for me, I will admit).
- Asking for help from my peers and colleagues when I previously would have attempted to take on all responsibilities by myself.
- Setting time aside for self-care and decompression after work rather than attempting to be constantly available for others.
Why Boundaries Are Challenging for HSPs (And How to Overcome It)
For those who identify as a highly sensitive person (HSP), engaging in these methods may seem more difficult than for most. Sensitive people are more greatly influenced by the words and moods of others, which can make self-advocating more challenging. Yet maintaining healthy boundaries can actually aid HSPs in protecting their energy and well-being. Those who may have a highly developed sense of empathy are at risk of draining their energy much faster, and it helps to practice selective absorption — a crucial part of healthy boundaries that involves reserving their emotional energy for those who deserve it.
Two of the most common boundary challenges for HSPs include verbalizing the need for time alone — an important boundary for highly sensitive people — or informing others that the current environment is getting overstimulating. Expressing either of these boundaries may involve disapproval or negative feedback from others, yet both are crucial to an HSP’s wellbeing.
While some HSPs may already find these things doable, others may relate to the internal struggle that comes with advocating for yourself. As your wants and needs shift with the changes in your life, being able to recognize the boundaries you struggle with can help you better navigate and manage these changes.
How other people respond to your attempts at maintaining boundaries is out of our control, but frequently enforcing the limitations of what you consider appropriate is something you can do — and it pays off. It’s perhaps the single best way to cultivate an environment that’s a better fit for your sensitive needs. And it’s much more likely to bring individuals into your life who mutually respect your boundaries and enforce healthy boundaries of their own. And isn’t that something you deserve?