An image of a small fence between two people representing a visual boundary. Putting boundaries in place helps to protect yourself. Illustration by Alyson Sutherland.

A boundary is “a line that marks the limits of an area” as defined by the Oxford Language Dictionary. It’s also a word that comes up often in conversations about mental health. The word used in speech as a way to protect yourself from being violated is something that has been around for fewer than 50 years. Fina Sabatini, a senior at Franklin, defines boundaries as a space between yourself and other people, whether that’s mental or physical, to support yourself and your own mental well-being. Setting boundaries is a critical aspect of personal growth and self-care. It involves determining what is acceptable and unacceptable in our interactions with others, as well as defining limits on our own behavior. Humans use the word boundaries quite broadly, but it is most commonly broken down into four types: emotional, physical, sexual, and workplace.

Emotional boundaries highlight the access and influence others have to your mental health. This might mean reducing your contact with someone who is impacting your mental health negatively. This can include avoiding toxic relationships that drain your energy, or setting limits on the emotional demands others can make on you. 

Physical boundaries are things that relate to our bodies and personal space. For example, setting limits on physical touch, requiring privacy when changing clothes, or establishing personal space needs. Physical boundaries help you feel safe and secure in your own body, and they allow you to have control over who has access to your physical space.

Sexual boundaries describe your personal limits within sexual acts. These are most commonly found in romantic connections, but can apply to all sorts of relationships. An example of this boundary would be setting firm expectations of what you are and aren’t comfortable doing with another person. 

Financial and workplace boundaries are slightly different than the others by having a more professional threshold. Examples of this boundary may look like knowing your worth and keeping your peace by not taking on more than you can manage. These boundaries help prevent you from becoming overwhelmed or burnt out.

 There are three different steps to setting healthy boundaries. First, you need to define your personal values and identify what you need from a relationship. It may help to write down the ways you are currently feeling in your relationships. Next, you need to assert your boundaries and firmly explain why they are important to you. This could look like having a private conversation with the person and approaching the topic by saying something along the lines of “I wanted to talk to you about ____ if you are available. This is something I need to put in place for myself and it’s essential that I feel this boundary is respected.” Try to avoid blaming the person you are setting boundaries with in the conversation to prevent defensiveness on their end. Finally, it’s up to you to reinforce those boundaries and use them going forward. If someone refuses to respect your boundaries, it may be a good idea to reevaluate the part they play in your life, as well as if they are worth spending time and energy on. 

Letting others know of your personal boundaries can be a difficult conversation, and often an uncomfortable one. Sabatini comments on her own lack of setting boundaries and her fears of hurting others: “I feel like usually when a boundary is set, someone on the other side of that is getting hurt.” She elaborates on her definition of boundaries saying that, “Boundaries are things that you have a limit, you know your limit, and you don’t want someone to cross that.” 

The presidents of the Mental Health Club at Franklin, Genna Roe (12) and Charlotte Storrs (11) also had some thoughts on boundaries. Roe stated that boundaries are important in all aspects of life, but especially in one’s mental health. “I feel like having boundaries can help you keep in touch with your needs … and allow yourself to … know how you’re feeling.” Storrs echoes a similar sentiment, saying that she has had difficulties with friends crossing a boundary when she didn’t have the mental capacity to help with their problems before. “It can just be super draining and sometimes, like too much for me. So I do have to set that boundary,” says Storrs. 

 Overall, establishing boundaries can have a positive impact on your relationships with others while reducing feelings of stress, anxiety, and burnout. It also helps you maintain your self-esteem and prevents you from being taken advantage of or used by others. By clearly communicating your limits and being assertive about enforcing them, you can have healthier and more fulfilling relationships with others. Taking the time to reflect on what is important to you and what you need in order to feel safe and secure is how you can make a conscious effort to establish strong and healthy boundaries that serve your best interests.

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