Exploring the importance and challenges of setting and respecting boundaries

Exploring the importance and challenges of setting and respecting boundaries

(Fireup February Self Care Sundays – adapted version)

When we have healthy boundaries, they support our needs, wants, goals and habits. They help us maintain a work/life balance and are crucial for self-care and positive relationships at work, rest and play. 

Naturally, boundaries differ from person to person, depending on culture, personality, social context and personal and professional aspirations. 

When our boundaries are clear, they help us establish expectations of ourselves and others. They also clarify what we are and are uncomfortable and happy with in many situations.  

To have supportive boundaries, we need to be self-aware and proactive. This enables us to communicate clearly and assertively by expressing our feelings and needs openly and respectfully.

Four areas to consider 

There are four different areas to consider having supportive boundaries within to be more than okay at work, rest and play:

  1. material 
  2. physical 
  3.  mental 
  4. emotional 


1. Material boundaries are what you are comfortable lending, giving or offering. They include having limits or conditions around your:

  • Time
  • Favours
  • Acts of service
  • Lending 

Having material boundaries is when you can tell somebody that you aren’t lending or doing something for them or that certain conditions exist around these factors.

For example, a friend borrows my car and returns it empty of fuel and dirty. I am annoyed and pissed off, yet two weeks later, they ask to borrow my car again, and I say yes, and once again, it comes back empty of fuel and dirty. 

Once again, I am grumpy and pissed off, but I haven’t taken responsibility for setting a material boundary. Ideally, I would have said, ‘Hey Mary, I’m happy to lend you my car again; however, the last time, you returned it with no fuel and dirty. I felt quite upset about it, and although I understand you were busy, it is not okay. This time, please ensure you return my car fueled up and clean – thank you.’

Money is also a material boundary. When you lend someone $50,  and they have forgotten or, as time goes by, haven’t repaid it. I am guessing we have all been in that predicament. Do you let it go to the keeper or find a way to ask for the $50 back? 

Try this: ‘Mary, a part of me knows you are pretty tight for cash at the moment; however, I need to feel respected and for you to  start paying back that 50 bucks I lent you.’  Saying this is expressing a boundary that could have been set earlier.

Take it back a step – if I lend someone money and express an expectation in the first place, such as  ‘I’m happy to lend you $50, but I do ask that it is reimbursed to me within two weeks’, then I am being transparent and setting a boundary.

These situations can be particularly challenging with family. Money and family… We know it can get quite complicated when family members lend money. So it’s essential to establish what the boundary is or what the expectation is right from the get-go. 

2. Physical boundaries

Physical boundaries are about personal space. How much personal space we like and need, and of course, it’s also about physical touch. It is essential to consider who can touch you, how they can touch you, where they can touch you and when they can touch you. That is preempted by whether you feel it is okay for them to touch you. 

We see this often in the workplace and in family gatherings – you know, if there’s a child and the parent/carer says, ‘Now go and kiss everyone goodnight.’ You can see that a child does not want to go and kiss great grandfather Tommy or whoever it is, but they are made to do so against their will. 

Sometimes when it comes to physical touch boundaries, we can inadvertently put other people in compromising positions, not just ourselves. Think about you and your boundaries regarding physical touch, consider how you influence others, and role model this to younger people.

Depending on my rapport with different people (because I’m a bit of a hugger), I now ask, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ or ‘Would you like a hug?’. Seeking permission helps empower others and allows us not to overstep their boundaries. 

3. Mental boundaries

Mental boundaries are about your thoughts,  opinions and your beliefs. And I’m going to say that these days I feel like this is almost where political correctness has gone a bit crazy. 

People have become a bit gun-shy about sharing their opinions because they are concerned that they will be shot down, taken the wrong way, or offend somebody. Many people have become less capable of having robust or candid conversations where differing opinions are embraced as different perspectives to learn from, consider, and not necessarily agree with – and that’s okay.

Supportive mental boundaries are about us feeling comfortable sharing, and they are also about us accepting that other people will have their views. When we have healthy mental boundaries, it’s okay to say,’ You know what, Mary, I appreciate your opinion about the status quo of xy and z. I understand that you are respectful that I have a completely different idea.’  

Healthy mental boundaries are also about values – if I value wisdom, honesty and acceptance (three of my most significant values). If I’m working with somebody who isn’t being honest, or I’m working in a unit that isn’t operating with integrity. I will have a values violation, manifesting emotional pain or distress. Being able to address these situations and saying, ‘Hey team, I’m not comfortable with this because we have a legal and a moral obligation to xy and z, and I feel like we are violating what we are actually here to do’ is about voicing your boundary and expressing your concern in a respectful, assertive and honest manner.

4. Emotional boundaries – the big one.

A lack of emotional boundaries is common for co-dependent people or in a co-dependent relationship with a spouse, child or friend. When we don’t have emotional or indistinct boundaries, we depend on other people’s thoughts, feelings and moods. However,  when we have clear emotional boundaries, we don’t take responsibility for other people’s feelings or emotions. Nor do we expect others to take responsibility for ours.

We must give ourselves permission to have our feelings and not take on the burden of other people’s feelings – not define ourselves by our relationship with other people, nor by our job, our marital status or our family. These things affect our responsibilities, but we’re not responsible for how other people think we should feel or how we believe they think we should feel.

Healthy emotional boundaries know where you end and someone else begins. 

Imagine two different circles – two different people. It’s about having your own separate identity. You are your own person. And you’re your own person within you. It’s you being aware of your feelings and choices and taking responsibility for your actions, non-actions, outcomes, and non-outcomes. 

Boundary styles

Let’s now explore the four different styles of boundaries:

  1. Soft
  2. Rigid
  3. Spongy
  4. Flexible


1. Soft boundaries tend to merge with other people’s boundaries. They are often the victim of psychological manipulation, potentially feeling used and abused, coerced, and highly influenced to do things the way someone else wants something done or to behave a certain way another person wants them to. Dare I say it – having soft boundaries can lead to being a doormat and people pleaser doormat person pleaser who is just not saying no – at all. 

2. Rigid boundaries are the opposite. They can result in us closing off so nobody can get close to us physically, mentally or emotionally. This is often the case if someone has experienced emotional, psychological or sexual abuse in any way. Rigid boundaries can be selective- about places, instances, time or with particular people – but they can stem from previous bad experiences. 

To lighten this up a bit… it could be about a previous workplace where I often worked overtime; I had very little work/life balance and felt used a lot. As a result, in my next workplace, I might always say no or ‘That is not part of my job description, and I wasn’t employed to do that, so I’m not doing it. 

3. Spongy boundaries are waffly and inconsistent. People with spongy boundaries are often unsure of what to let in and keep out. They are a combination of soft boundaries, where they are being a doormat or rigid boundaries, where they are just saying no, no, no. So one minute, it’s soft (spongy), and the next minute it’s a rigid boundary. 

This can be very challenging in personal relationships, friendships and workplace relationships because if you’ve spongy boundaries, other people don’t know what to expect from you. They won’t be able to respect your boundaries if one day they’re spongy and the next day they’re rigid. 

4. Flexible boundaries are selective and ideal. This is where you have more control in deciding what to let in or keep out. 

Having flexible boundaries allows you to resist emotional contagion. (Emotional contagion is often linked with empathy; it’s just that emotional contagion is when we take on somebody else’s emotion. Somebody is angry about something, and we get angry too. Somebody is distraught about something, and we get distraught, too. Their emotion has become contagious to us.)

When we have healthy and supportive flexible boundaries, we are very respectful of other people and are conscious of not being emotionally contagious. We don’t wipe our emotions all over others and don’t need or expect them to feel our feelings. 

When we have flexible boundaries, we’re difficult to exploit  –  it’s difficult for people to manipulate us psychologically, and it’s difficult for people to use us. Also, when we have flexible boundaries, we know that we can use our assertive communication, such as  ‘Yep, you know what, Mary, the next time you borrow my car, I need you to know that I have some boundaries – please be sure to bring it back clean and full of fuel’. When we express our needs and expectations in that manner, we speak from the heart and in a kind place; other people respect our boundaries. 

In summary

So to finish off, signs of supportive boundaries are when we say no without guilt. When you want to say no, say no with integrity and without feeling guilty. It’s actually taking care of yourself and not putting yourself and your needs last on your priority list. 

Another sign of having healthy boundaries is actually asking for what you want and need. People can’t read your mind, and if we don’t ask what we want and need, how can we expect other people to know? 

So in personal relationships, it might be, ‘Hey Mary, I feel like we haven’t connected much lately, and I need some quality time; how about we align our diaries and set a time for a coffee.’

Having supportive boundaries means saying yes because you want to, not because you feel you should. It’s you feeling supported to pursue your own goals because your goals, aspirations, and needs are important and matter.

Healthy boundaries are about feeling treated equally in your work, rest and play relationships. It is you behaving according to your values and beliefs and taking responsibility for your happiness, and no one else is responsible for your happiness.

You know your worth is what matters most. It’s you being in tune with your feelings and knowing who you are, what’s important to you, what you believe and what you like and want –  because this is your life, and you matter. You matter. Your goals matter, your dreams matter, your experiences matter, your desires matter, and your wants and your needs matter. 

Maintaining flexible and supportive boundaries will help you be more of who you want to be more and more each day. They will help you achieve your goals and potential and allow you to meet your mental, physical and emotional needs.