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 | By Cathie McDaniel


Good or Bad?

Dear Cathie, 

People talk about having boundaries, and I don’t understand what they mean. In my opinion, having boundaries makes the person appear cold and uncaring. What are your thoughts?

Boundaries are guidelines, rules, or limits a person creates to identify what they consider reasonable and safe when interacting with others. They are essential if we want to be both physically and emotionally healthy. A lack of boundaries can lead to emotional pain, increased stress, and even physical danger, while boundaries that are too rigid can lead to isolation and loneliness. Boundaries are personal and different for everyone. In a relationship, it is important to share the expectation of having standards regarding what you will or will not tolerate in another person’s behavior. A lack of boundaries is like leaving the door to your home unlocked: anyone, including unwelcome guests, can enter at will.  

Here is an easy way to think about boundaries: They are like a NO TRESPASSING sign that sends a clear message not to cross a certain point. This is easy to envision because there is a visual prompt telling you to stop. However, personal boundaries are more difficult to set up and involve physical, emotional, and verbal space. An example of a physical boundary violation could be a person who stands too close when they are speaking to you. The immediate reaction is to take a step back in order to reset your physical boundary. When you do this, it sends a nonverbal message that you feel crowded. Hopefully, the person you are having a conversation with will pick up on the cue. Another personal boundary violation example may be cursing. If you are in a “colorful” conversation and cursing is not something you tolerate, you need to kindly ask the person to refrain from using certain words when they are with you. When you begin to identify your personal boundaries, you may feel selfish or guilty, but remind yourself that you have a right to self-care. Setting boundaries takes practice and determination, so don’t let fear or anxiety prevent you from establishing your boundaries.

What boundaries feel like

When you set boundaries, you are telling yourself …

• It is OK if others get angry.

• It is OK to say no.

• It is not your job to make others happy, taking responsibility for others.

• It is your job to make you happy.

• Nobody has to agree with you.

• You have a right to your own feelings.

• You are enough.

When you identify the need to set a boundary, do so clearly and respectfully. Boundaries are not meant to cause anger; rather, they can create time and space for positive, healthy interactions.

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Cathie McDaniel is the director of Catholic Family Services in Huntsville. She has a master’s degree in clinical counseling from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, and is a licensed professional counselor in the state of Alabama.