The Importance of Boundaries for Mental Health

  • Hadia Zainab Doctor of Physical Therapy, DPT, Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, Pakistan
  • Jasmine Abdy Bachelor of Science - BSc, Medical Microbiology with a Year in Industry, University of Bristol

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Overview

Boundaries are what define our limits. Or to be more appropriate, boundaries save us from someone crossing our physical or psychological limits. Setting boundaries is like creating a protective barrier for your thoughts and feelings. If it's too strong, like a stone wall, you might shut others out. If it's too weak, like thin paper, you become vulnerable to others' emotions. An effective boundary is like a gate in a stone wall - not too rigid or loose. It provides protection, keeps you connected, offers structure, limits your energy, and gives you choices. You're the gatekeeper, deciding who gets in or stays out.

Feeling anxious or stressed often happens when you try to control how others feel or act. Many anxieties stem from not having clear boundaries. Maintaining healthy boundaries is, therefore, essential to nurture your mind and overall health. 

Good mental health means being in a state of well-being that helps people handle life's challenges and function effectively. However, research on promoting good mental health in young people, both with and without mental disorders, is limited. Interventions for enhancing mental health in youth are not well established, partly because defining and operationalizing good mental health is challenging. 

The European College of Neuropsychopharmacology Thematic Working Group on the Prevention of Mental Disorders and Mental Health Promotion (ECNP TWG PMD-MHP) reveals that different interventions, like learning about mental health and having positive attitudes, can enhance mental well-being. Key areas defining good mental health include understanding mental health, attitudes toward mental disorders, self-perceptions, cognitive skills, academic/occupational performance, emotions, behaviours, self-management strategies, social skills, family and relationships, physical health, sexual health, meaning of life, and overall quality of life. Exploring these areas can guide further research for better mental health outcomes.1

Types of boundaries

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, boundaries can be seen as;

  • Avoiding talks about things that make you uneasy,
  • Declining hugs when you're not comfortable,
  • Sharing personal details only with people you trust,
  • Having a scheduled bedtime or personal time, and setting aside time for self-care,
  • Holding hands only with friends and loved ones.

Maintaining healthy boundaries in our lives helps us prioritise our health and well-being. This guide will explore various types of boundaries, how to establish them, and methods to communicate what you accept or don't tolerate to safeguard yourself and assert control over your life.

Personal boundaries

Personal boundaries protect your space and body, ensuring your right to privacy and control over physical contact. For instance, when someone sits too close, you may politely request more personal space. 

  • Emotional Boundaries: These protect your right to your feelings and thoughts without criticism. They allow you to set limits on discussing certain topics and avoid taking responsibility for others' emotions. For example, expressing discomfort with a particular subject or addressing how specific actions make you feel.
  • Mental Boundaries: These relate to your thought process, allowing you to have your own opinions and beliefs. You might say, "I don't agree with that," or "I have a different perspective."
  • Financial and Material Boundaries: These protect your financial resources and possessions. You have the right to spend your money as you see fit and decline requests for loans. Examples include stating that you can't afford a particular expense or insisting on being paid on time by your employer.

Interpersonal boundaries

Building relationships with others can be challenging because people hold diverse perspectives and opinions. Interpersonal boundaries offer a way for each person to preserve their identity and personal space in both work and personal connections. Essentially, boundaries are the rules individuals set for themselves, outlining how they wish to be treated and the kinds of interactions they are comfortable accepting from others.

  • Boundaries individuals establish are often shaped by their upbringing, culture, and various factors,
  • Those raised without healthy boundary-setting examples may struggle with this skill,
  • Cultures vary, with individualistic ones valuing personal space and liberties,
  • Collectivist cultures may not emphasise personal boundaries as strongly.2

Professional relationships

In order to positively transform work teams, organisations, and societies, it is essential to enhance individuals' awareness of their values, motivations, and goals to implement professional boundaries

While research shows that leaders' mindfulness interventions can improve leadership capabilities, there is a need for a more nuanced discussion on leadership and leadership development concepts. Despite the traditional focus on employee well-being, recent studies highlight the connection between mindfulness and leader development.3

Studies also indicate that leaders who focus on positive relationships with their team do better. Company culture matters more for employee happiness than pay and benefits. Making work a happy place is about having positive relationships.4

Here are five key things for good relationships, both at work and in personal life: 

  • being open and real,
  • feeling inspired,
  • understanding emotions,
  • taking care of yourself,
  • sticking to your values.

Personal relationships

Having good connections and social support can make you healthier and live longer, according to Harvard Health.

The quality of relationships can impact health by affecting emotions, motivation, and coping skills. Friends and family can influence health-related habits like eating and exercise, leading to long-term effects on physical and mental well-being. The way our family treats us affects how we feel and function. If our family is supportive and caring, it can be good for us. But if there are arguments or too many demands, it can be stressful. Stress can be bad for mental health, but having support from family can help protect us.5

Childhood relationships, especially supportive ones, play a crucial role. Research suggests that children with caring relationships tend to have better health throughout their lives, even into adulthood. For instance, a study found that students with supportive parents had a lower risk of heart disease and other chronic conditions later in life.6

Being happily married or in a stable relationship has a positive impact on mental health, according to the Mental Health Foundation in the UK. Research shows that high-quality marriages are linked to lower stress and less depression. 

The impact of healthy boundaries on mental health

Good mental health is a basic human right and is necessary for personal, community, and socio-economic development. Mental health isn't just about the absence of disorders; it varies among individuals and influences how we navigate life.

Recent studies from Ireland and the USA reveal that negative social interactions, particularly with partners or spouses, raise the risk of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts, while positive interactions decrease these risks.7

Healthy boundaries are important for good mental health. Here's why:

  • Self-perseverance: Boundaries help keep your feelings safe and prevent too much stress, so you don't feel overwhelmed or tired.
  • Emotional Stability: Good boundaries let you control your feelings, so you don't have to worry too much about other people's problems.
  • Respect and self-respect: When you set clear boundaries, you tell others that you deserve respect. It also shows that you respect yourself by taking care of your needs.
  • Better Relationships: Boundaries make relationships better because they show what you're comfortable with. This can lead to less fighting and more understanding.
  • Growing and Feeling Strong: Setting boundaries helps you grow and feel powerful. You get to decide what's important to you and make choices that make you feel good.

So, healthy boundaries keep you safe, help you feel balanced, show respect, make relationships better, and let you grow strong and confident.

Signs of poor boundaries

According to Harley Therapy UK, signs of poor boundaries involve:

  • Difficult or dramatic relationships: Lack of healthy boundaries can attract controlling individuals or lead to codependent dynamics.
  • Difficulty in decision-making: Spending so much time meeting others' needs may result in a loss of self-awareness and uncertainty about personal desires.
  • Fear of letting others down: People-pleasing tendencies often stem from a lack of personal limits, making it challenging to say no.
  • Guilt and anxiety: Saying yes can trigger ongoing feelings of guilt and anxiety, even for minor matters.
  • Persistent fatigue: Constantly prioritising others over personal needs can be physically and emotionally draining.
  • Oversharing or intimacy issues: Boundary issues may lead to oversharing with acquaintances while struggling with vulnerability in close relationships.
  • Victim mentality: Feeling constantly taken advantage of or overlooked, leading to a sense of being a victim in various situations.
  • Frequent annoyance: A constant feeling of being taken advantage of can result in consistent annoyance.
  • Lack of perceived respect: Without clear boundaries, others may not know how to treat you, leaving you feeling disrespected.
  • Passive-aggressive behaviour: Allowing others to take advantage and then resorting to indirect means to regain control or express frustration.
  • Identity crisis: Uncertainty about purpose, goals, or self-identity may arise from a lack of clear personal boundaries.
  • Fear of rejection or abandonment: Rooted in childhood experiences, the fear of rejection or abandonment may persist into adulthood.

Lacking healthy boundaries often traces back to a childhood lacking unconditional love and acceptance, where conforming to others' wishes was necessary to avoid rejection or abandonment.

Establishing and communicating boundaries

Characteristics of effective boundaries involve:

  • Clear and decisive limits that are also reasonable,
  • Value placed on your needs and others' needs,
  • Focus on authenticity, not on pleasing others or playing the victim,
  • Not driven by guilt, worry, fear, or shame,
  • Help channel anger and frustration constructively,
  • Based on reality, not on personal desires or others' wishes.

Now that you understand effective boundaries, let's explore the key elements to develop or enhance them.

Steps to establish effective boundaries:

  • Allow yourself the freedom to set personal limits without fearing the disapproval of others. Setting boundaries is not selfish but a way to maintain well-being.
  • Recognise your limits and take responsibility for them. If you don't set them, others may set them for you, leading to potential violations.
  • Be discerning about when, where, how, why, and with whom you share information, considering the nature of your relationship with each person.
  • Clearly communicate your needs to ensure they are understood and met, avoiding assumptions that others can anticipate every need.
  • Setting and enforcing boundaries not only benefits you but also reduces the likelihood of violating others' boundaries, fostering positive and genuine relationships.

Establishing effective boundaries empowers you with choices, reduces stress, and enhances overall engagement in your relationships.8

Protecting good mental health

The World Health Organization (WHO) has released new advice promoting mental health care that respects human rights and focuses on recovery. The guidance suggests that mental health services should be community-based, providing support for daily living, including access to housing, education, and employment services. Currently, governments spend less than two per cent of their health budgets on mental health, mainly directed towards psychiatric hospitals where rights abuses and coercive practices persist. The new recommendations cover mental health law, service delivery, financing, and workforce development to align mental health services with disability rights. Unfortunately, severe human rights abuses, like forced admission and treatment, still occur globally.

FAQs

Why are boundaries essential for mental health?

Setting boundaries is crucial for mental health because they help maintain emotional well-being, prevent burnout, and foster healthy relationships.

How do boundaries contribute to emotional stability?

Clear boundaries enable individuals to manage their emotions effectively by distinguishing between their feelings and others, reducing the risk of emotional overwhelm.

Can setting boundaries enhance relationships?

Yes, setting boundaries contributes to healthier relationships by establishing mutual respect, improving communication, and reducing conflicts.

What role do boundaries play in self-respect?

Boundaries communicate one's worth and value, demonstrating self-respect by asserting needs and not compromising well-being for others' expectations.

How do boundaries support personal growth?

Establishing boundaries leads to personal growth by promoting self-awareness, self-reflection, and assertiveness, leading to a more empowered and confident life.

Is there a connection between boundaries and avoiding passive-aggressive behaviour?

Yes, effective boundaries help prevent passive-aggressive behaviour by promoting open communication and reducing the likelihood of feeling taken advantage of.

Can a lack of boundaries lead to constant fatigue?

Yes, always prioritising others' needs over personal ones can result in fatigue, as individuals are left with limited time and energy for their own pursuits.

Why is oversharing a potential issue without proper boundaries?

Oversharing without boundaries may lead to vulnerability, hurt, and manipulation, impacting personal relationships and intimacy.

How can boundaries prevent feelings of victimisation?

Setting boundaries reduces the likelihood of feeling victimised by preventing others from taking advantage, fostering a sense of empowerment and control.

Are there long-term effects of not having boundaries?

Lacking healthy boundaries can lead to identity crises, difficulty in goal-setting, and a constant fear of rejection or abandonment, often rooted in childhood experiences.

Can boundaries positively impact decision-making?

Yes, having clear boundaries allows individuals to prioritise their needs and values, making decision-making more straightforward and aligned with personal goals.

How can one develop and enforce healthy boundaries?

Developing healthy boundaries involves permitting yourself to set limits, identifying personal limits, being selective about information sharing, and communicating needs openly.

Conclusion

In summary, setting and respecting boundaries is essential for good mental health. It means understanding what makes us comfortable, choosing who we share personal information with, and making time for self-care. These boundaries help create a supportive environment for our well-being. Balancing openness with self-protection empowers us to handle challenges, build positive relationships, and prioritise our mental health. Recognising the importance of boundaries is essential for personal growth and creating a resilient and mentally healthy community.

References

  1. Fusar-Poli P, Salazar de Pablo G, De Micheli A, Nieman DH, Correll CU, Kessing LV, et al. What is good mental health? A scoping review. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2020 Feb;31:33–46.
  2. GoodTherapy.org Therapy Blog [Internet]. [cited 2024 Feb 5]. Boundaries. Available from: https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/boundaries/
  3. Urrila LI. From personal wellbeing to relationships: A systematic review on the impact of mindfulness interventions and practices on leaders. Human Resource Management Review [Internet]. 2022 Sep 1 [cited 2024 Feb 5];32(3):100837. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053482221000164
  4. Seppälä E, McNichols NK. The power of healthy relationships at work. Harvard Business Review [Internet]. 2022 June 21 [cited 2024 Feb 5]; Available from: https://hbr.org/2022/06/the-power-of-healthy-relationships-at-work
  5. Thomas PA, Liu H, Umberson D. Family relationships and well-being. Innov Aging [Internet]. 2017 Nov 11 [cited 2024 Feb 5];1(3):igx025. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5954612/
  6. https://www.apa.org [Internet]. [cited 2024 Feb 5]. Life-saving relationships. Available from: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2018/03/life-saving-relationships
  7. Relationships and community: statistics [Internet]. [cited 2024 Feb 5]. Available from: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/explore-mental-health/statistics/relationships-community-statistics

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Hadia Zainab

Doctor of Physical Therapy, DPT, Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, Pakistan

Hadia is a freelance medical and health writer who creates empathetic and informative content for patients and healthcare professionals. She firmly believes in the importance of kindness, empathy and clear communication to strengthen the bond between patients and providers.

my.klarity.health presents all health information in line with our terms and conditions. It is essential to understand that the medical information available on our platform is not intended to substitute the relationship between a patient and their physician or doctor, as well as any medical guidance they offer. Always consult with a healthcare professional before making any decisions based on the information found on our website.
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