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Personal boundaries or the act of setting boundaries is a life skill that has been popularized by self help authors and support groups since the mid-1980s. Personal boundaries are established by changing one's own response to interpersonal situations, rather than expecting other people to change their behaviors to comply with your boundary.[1] For example, if the boundary is to not interact with a particular person, then one sets a boundary by deciding not to see or engage with that person, and one enforces the boundary by politely declining invitations to events that include that person and by politely leaving the room if that person arrives unexpectedly. The boundary is thus respected without requiring the assistance or cooperation of any other people.[1] Setting a boundary is different from issuing an ultimatum; an ultimatum is a demand that other people change their choices so that their behavior aligns with the boundary-setter's own preferences and personal values.[2]

The term "boundary" is a metaphor, with in-bounds meaning acceptable and out-of-bounds meaning unacceptable.[2] The concept of boundaries has been widely adopted by the counseling profession.[3] Universal applicability of the concept has been questioned.[4]

Usage and application

This life skill is particularly applicable in environments with controlling people or people not taking responsibility for their own life.[5]

Co-Dependents Anonymous recommends setting limits on what members will do to and for people and on what members will allow people to do to and for them, as part of their efforts to establish autonomy from being controlled by other people's thoughts, feelings and problems.[6]

The National Alliance on Mental Illness tells its members that establishing and maintaining values and boundaries will improve the sense of security, stability, predictability and order, in a family even when some members of the family resist. NAMI contends that boundaries encourage a more relaxed, nonjudgmental atmosphere and that the presence of boundaries need not conflict with the need for maintaining an understanding atmosphere.[7]


Boundary setting is the practice of openly communicating and asserting personal values as way to preserve and protect against having them compromised or violated.[2] The three critical aspects of managing personal boundaries are:[2]

Defining values: A healthy relationship is an “inter-dependent” relationship of two “independent” people. Healthy individuals should establish values that they honor and defend regardless of the nature of a relationship (core or independent values). Healthy individuals should also have values that they negotiate and adapt in an effort to bond with and collaborate with others (inter-dependent values).[2]
Asserting boundaries: In this model, individuals use verbal and nonverbal communications to assert intentions, preferences and define what is inbounds and out-of-bounds with respect to their core or independent values.[8] When asserting values and boundaries, communications should be present, appropriate, clear, firm, protective, flexible, receptive, and collaborative.[9]
Honoring and defending: Making decisions consistent with the personal values when presented with life choices or confronted or challenged by controlling people or people not taking responsibility for their own life.[2] In a dysfunctional relationship, respecting one's own boundaries by honoring and defending them often provokes unwanted and uncomfortable responses from the people who are crossing the boundary lines.[1] They may respond with disapproval, shame, resentment, pressure not to change the relationship, or other behaviors designed to restore the familiar old behavior patterns.[1]

Having healthy values and boundaries is a lifestyle, not a quick fix to a relationship dispute.[2]

Values are constructed from a mix of conclusions, beliefs, opinions, attitudes, past experiences and social learning.[10][11] Jacques Lacan considers values to be layered in a hierarchy, reflecting “all the successive envelopes of the biological and social status of the person”[12] from the most primitive to the most advanced.

Personal values and boundaries operate in two directions, affecting both the incoming and outgoing interactions between people.[13] These are sometimes referred to as the 'protection' and 'containment' functions.[14]


The three most commonly mentioned categories of values and boundaries are:

Some authors have expanded this list with additional or specialized categories such as spirituality,[15][17] truth,[17] and time/punctuality.[18]

Assertiveness levels

Nina Brown proposed four boundary types:[19]

Unilateral vs collaborative

There are also two main ways that boundaries are constructed:[14]

Setting boundaries does not always require telling anyone what the boundary is or what the consequences are for transgressing it.[14] For example, if a person decides to leave a discussion, that person may give an unrelated excuse, such as claiming that it is time to do something else, rather than saying that the subject must not be mentioned.

Situations that can challenge personal boundaries

Communal influences

Freud described the loss of conscious boundaries that may occur when an individual is in a unified, fast-moving crowd.[20]

Almost a century later, Steven Pinker took up the theme of the loss of personal boundaries in a communal experience, noting that such occurrences could be triggered by intense shared ordeals like hunger, fear or pain, and that such methods were traditionally used to create liminal conditions in initiation rites.[21] Jung had described this as the absorption of identity into the collective unconscious.[22]

Rave culture has also been said to involve a dissolution of personal boundaries, and a merger into a binding sense of communality.[23]

Unequal power relationships

Also unequal relations of political and social power influence the possibilities for marking cultural boundaries and more generally the quality of life of individuals.[24] Unequal power in personal relationships, including abusive relationships, can make it difficult for individuals to mark boundaries.

Dysfunctional families

While a healthy relationship depends on the emotional space provided by personal boundaries,[28] codependent personalities have difficulties in setting such limits, so that defining and protecting boundaries efficiently may be for them a vital part of regaining mental health.[29]
In a codependent relationship, the codependent's sense of purpose is based on making extreme sacrifices to satisfy their partner's needs. Codependent relationships signify a degree of unhealthy clinginess, where one person does not have self-sufficiency or autonomy. One or both parties depend on the other for fulfilment.[30] There is usually an unconscious reason for continuing to put another person's life firstoften the mistaken notion that self-worth comes from other people.
Borderline personality disorder (BPD): There is a tendency for loved ones of people with BPD to slip into caretaker roles, giving priority and focus to problems in the life of the person with BPD rather than to issues in their own lives. Too often in these relationships, the codependent will gain a sense of worth by being "the sane one" or "the responsible one".[35] Often, this shows up prominently in families with strong Asian cultures because of beliefs tied to the cultures.[36]
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD): For those involved with a person with NPD, values and boundaries are often challenged as narcissists have a poor sense of self and often do not recognize that others are fully separate and not extensions of themselves. Those who meet their needs and those who provide gratification may be treated as if they are part of the narcissist and expected to live up to their expectations.[37]


Anger is a normal emotion that involves a strong uncomfortable and emotional response to a perceived provocation. Often, it indicates when one's personal boundaries are violated. Anger may be utilized effectively by setting boundaries or escaping from dangerous situations.[38]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Pearson, Catherine (8 March 2023). "How to Set Boundaries With a Difficult Family Member". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 12 March 2023.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Johnson, R. Skip. "Setting Boundaries and Setting Limits". Retrieved 10 June 2014.
  3. ^ G. B. and J. S. Lundberg, I Don't Have to Make Everything All Better (2000) p. 13. ISBN 978-0-670-88485-8
  4. ^ Scherlis, Lily (14 July 2023). "Boundaries are suddenly everywhere. What does the squishy term actually mean?". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 31 July 2023. ...the basic concept has received shockingly little critical attention
  5. ^ John Townsend; Henry Cloud (1 November 1992). Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life. Nashville: HarperCollins Christian Publishing. p. 245. ISBN 9780310585909.
  6. ^ Setting Boundaries: Meditations for Codependents (Moment to Reflect). Harpercollins. August 1995. ISBN 9780062554017.
  7. ^ Bayes, Kathy. "Setting Boundaries In A Marriage Complicated By Mental Illness". National Alliance on Mental Illness.
  8. ^ Richmond PhD, Raymond Lloyd. "Boundaries". A Guide to Psychology and its Practice. Retrieved 6 May 2015.
  9. ^ Whitfield, Charles L. (2010). Boundaries and Relationships: Knowing, Protecting and Enjoying the Self (2 ed.). HCI Books. p. 121. ISBN 978-1558742598.
  10. ^ Graham, Michael C. (2014). Facts of Life: ten issues of contentment. Outskirts Press. ISBN 978-1-4787-2259-5.
  11. ^ Vanessa Rogers, Working with Young Men (2010) p. 80
  12. ^ Jacques Lacan, Ecrits (1997) p. 16-7
  13. ^ Katherine, Anne Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day 2000
  14. ^ a b c d e Graham, Michael C. (2014). Facts of Life: ten issues of contentment. Outskirts Press. p. 159. ISBN 978-1-4787-2259-5.
  15. ^ a b c Whitfield, Charles L. (2010). Boundaries and Relationships: Knowing, Protecting and Enjoying the Self (2 ed.). HCI Books. ISBN 978-1-55874-259-8.
  16. ^ a b Katherine, Anne (1994). Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin. Hazelden. p. 5. ISBN 978-1-56838-030-8.
  17. ^ a b c d Townsend, John; Cloud, Henry (1 November 1992). Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life. Nashville: HarperCollins Christian Publishing. p. 245. ISBN 978-0-310-58590-9.
  18. ^ Katherine, Anne (2000). Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day. Simon and Schuster. pp. 16–25. ISBN 9780684868066.
  19. ^ Brown, Nina W. (2006). Coping With Infuriating, Mean, Critical People – The Destructive Narcissistic Pattern. Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 978-0-275-98984-2.
  20. ^ Freud, Sigmund. "Le Bon's Description of the Group Mind". Civilization, Society and Religion (PFL 12): 98–109.
  21. ^ Pinker, Steven (2007). The Stuff of Thought. Penguin. p. 403. ISBN 9780670063277.
  22. ^ Jung, Carl Gustav (15 August 1968). Man and His Symbols. Dell. p. 123. ISBN 978-0-440-35183-2.
  23. ^ Jones, Carole (10 September 2009). Disappearing Men: Gender Disorientation in Scottish Fiction 1979–1999 (Scroll: Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature) (Book 12). Rodopi. p. 176. ISBN 978-9042026988.
  24. ^ Baillie, Colin P. T. (2012). "Power Relations and its Influence in the Sphere of Globalization since World War II". Journal of Anthropology. 20 (1). Retrieved 31 March 2016.
  25. ^ Lancer, Darlene (2014). Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You. Minnesota: Hazelden. pp. 63–65. ISBN 978-1-61649-533-6.
  26. ^ Codependents Anonymous: Patterns and Characteristics Archived 2013-08-24 at the Wayback Machine
  27. ^ "Patterns and Characteristics of Codependence". Co-Dependents Anonymous. Retrieved 25 June 2011.
  28. ^ Casement, Patrick (1990). Further Learning from the Patient. London. p. 160.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  29. ^ Weinhold, Barry; Weinhold, Janae (28 January 2008). Breaking Free of the Co-Dependency Trap (Second ed.). Novato: New World Library. pp. 192, 198. ISBN 978-1-57731-614-5.
  30. ^ Wetzler, Scott. "Psychology division chief at Albert Einstein College of Medicine". WebMD. Retrieved 5 December 2014.
  31. ^ Goldberg, Joseph (23 May 2014). "Paranoid Personality Disorder". Retrieved 20 October 2014.
  32. ^ Braiker, Harriet B. (2006). Who's Pulling Your Strings? How to Break The Cycle of Manipulation.
  33. ^ Brown, Nina (1 April 2008). Children of the Self-Absorbed: A Grown-Up's Guide to Getting Over Narcissistic Parents (Second ed.). New Harbinger Publications. p. 35. ISBN 978-1-57224-561-7.
  34. ^ a b Cermak, Timmen L. (1986). "Diagnostic Criteria for Codependency". Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. 18 (1): 15–20. doi:10.1080/02791072.1986.10524475. PMID 3701499.
  35. ^ Danielle, Alicia (7 June 2012). "Codependency and Borderline Personality Disorder: How to Spot It". Clearview Women's Center. Archived from the original on 7 December 2014. Retrieved 5 December 2014.
  36. ^ Hong, Soo Jung (2018). "Gendered Cultural Identities: The Influences of Family and Privacy Boundaries, Subjective Norms, and Stigma Beliefs on Family Health History Communication". Health Communication. 33 (8): 927–938. doi:10.1080/10410236.2017.1322480. ISSN 1041-0236. PMID 28541817. S2CID 26967012.
  37. ^ Hotchkiss, Sandra, LCSW (7 August 2003). Why Is It Always About You? (Chapter 7). New York: Free Press. ISBN 978-0-7432-1428-5.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  38. ^ Videbeck, Sheila L. (2006). Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing (3rd ed.). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. ISBN 9780781760331.

Further reading