Boundary Setting: What Are Boundaries?

February 20, 2021

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I'm Carly - an MD Psychotherapist specializing in women's mental health. I help women feel like themselves again.

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Does the thought of boundary setting make you sweat and feel anxious?

If so, chances are you need them more than you know.

Boundaries are one of my favourite topics and something most of my clients struggle with in some way.

The concept of boundaries gets a lot of attention in the personal development space.

Many women also have misconceptions about what boundaries actually are, and this leads them to feel guilty about setting any.

In this post, I will define boundaries and review the various different types of boundaries. I will also review why boundary setting is important and a few key mindset shifts that you need to start setting healthy boundaries.

Ready? Let’s dive in!

What are boundaries?

There are many different definitions of what boundaries are, but for the purposes of this post (and podcast episode), I  will define boundaries as I see them in relation to your mental health and well-being.
Healthy boundaries come from a place of understanding that you (and you alone) are in full control of your life.

Boundary setting comes from a place of agency.

Setting healthy boundaries requires that you understand that you are an active agent participating in your life and responsible for it. Rather than feeling like life is “happening to you.”
Boundaries are cognitive “rules” or “constraints.” Rules that define what you allow in your life, and are guidelines for your behaviour and emotions. They’re the basic rules that will define how you treat yourself and how you will allow others to treat you.

Part of boundary setting is being able to identify that something in your life is bothering you, realizing that you are in control of that reaction and setting limits or rules in your life to limit your exposure to that situation/person.

Boundaries are cognitive constructs. They’re not physical barriers but imaginary barriers. These barriers allow you to limit or control what comes into your space, your mind and your heart.

I really believe that boundaries are one of the most fundamental mental health strategies I teach. It is also one of the most important strategies to keep your relationship healthy.

What different types of boundaries are there?

When I teach my clients about boundaries, I often share that there are two main types (or categories) of boundaries: internal boundaries and external boundaries.

These categories are then broken down into specific types of boundaries that can guide your behaviour in your life.

I’ll review my framework for understanding boundaries below.


Internal Boundary Setting

Internal boundaries are how you regulate your own behaviour and your relationship with yourself.

For example, how do you regulate your self-talk, manage your own behaviour, manage your time, and engage in self-discipline?


I also refer to internal boundaries as constraints.

Constraints are internal “rules” you use to guide your own behaviour, in the pursuit of a healthy or well-balanced life.

An example of a constraint might be: “I only drink one cup of coffee otherwise I’ll have the jitters and be anxious all day” or “I move my body at least once each day for 30 minutes.” 

These self-imposed “rules” help you regulate your own behaviour to keep yourself feeling well and happy.

Constraints help us set internal guidelines or benchmarks that we can create to help us support healthy behaviours.


External Boundary Setting

External boundaries are what most people think of when they hear the word “boundaries.”

External boundaries are also commonly referred to as interpersonal boundaries.

These boundaries define how you behave and allow yourself to

These are also the messiest form of boundaries. Setting external boundaries can cause a lot of anxiety!


When External Boundary Setting Causes Anxiety

This is a side note, that I believe is important: it’s not a bad thing if your relationship impacts your mood.

Desiring a community or relationship that loves and accepts you and feeling emotional about it is a primitive part of being humanAs women, we are inherently social creatures and our mental health is often impacted by the relationships in our lives. This is not a bad thing.

There was a time when if you weren’t part of a community you were more likely to die. Being a part of a community meant survival.

The emotions around wanting to feel accepted and loved are very instinctual and normal, as are the emotions that come up when you think about setting boundaries (fear, panic.)

So if you are someone who finds yourself sweating over the thought of setting boundaries in challenging relationships, know you are not not alone.

The truth is that any behaviour that has the chance to make us feel ostracized or disliked is very threatening to our primitive brain. The feelings of anxiety and stress around boundary setting have evolved to motivate you to maintain relationships for survival.

The issue with our primitive conditioning is that many times it is not working for us, but against us. 

This primitive conditioning often motivates us to avoid any conflict and therefore we default to becoming chronically passive people-pleasers with no boundaries (all in the name of survival.)


I have worked with enough women to know that lacking personal boundaries is one of the biggest causes of uncontrolled anxiety. 

The point is: Don’t be hard on yourself if you struggle to set boundaries. This is hard and challenges some of our deepest survival instincts.

However, without healthy boundaries, we can’t have healthy relationships. Without healthy relationships, our mental health will struggle.

We need to have the courage to overcome the emotions that hold us back from boundary setting so we can truly live mentally healthy lives.

Types of boundaries:

Within these two categories there are even more ways to define boundaries.

Informational boundaries:

Boundaries that define who knows what about you and your life. Who has access to what information about you.
In case you didn’t know – you don’t have to tell everyone everything.  Just becomes someone asks you a question, doesn’t mean you need to answer it. 

Physical boundaries:

These relate to your physical space and body. Who do you allow into your space? How do you allow yourself to be touched? It also refers to your sexual boundaries – who do you have sex with? How often?

Material boundaries:

What do you do with your things and your money? Who do you lend money to? How do you share your possessions?
An example of a material boundary would be not lending money to family members.

Mental boundaries:

What do you allow yourself to worry about? To take up your brain space?
Are you able to catch yourself into bad thinking patterns and manage those thoughts? Or do you let yourself ruminate for hours?

Energetic boundaries:

What you do with your energy? It’s is ultimately up to you and how you manage that energy determines what you can get done. What do you allow to penetrate your energy and what do you put energy into?
Do you let others derail your energy? Do you put other’s priorities ahead of your own or are you able to manage your energy and put it in the place you want?

Emotional boundaries:

These boundaries are messy and can be sneaky. These boundaries refer to whether you allow other’s emotions to become your own, or if you take on other people’s emotional baggage.
Leaky emotional boundaries are often a big problem with people in caretaking or parenting roles. When we take on responsibility for the emotions of others, we leave ourselves feeling helpless and drained.
Remember that you can have empathy for others and what they’re experiences without taking on their emotions. This is very tricky skill to master, but very important.

Interpersonal Boundary Setting Is Important! 

Most of the women I work with have a very hard time with interpersonal boundaries or have none. If you are uncomfortable with boundary setting or feel like you don’t know much about them at all, that’s ok! Having healthy boundaries is a learned behaviour and something that many of us have not been taught.

Many of us have been brought up or raised to have very poor personal boundaries. Most of us (women) have actually been conditioned to give or be everything for others.

This chronic people-pleasing and self-sacrifice is conditioned behaviour. As children, we are told to “keep the peace,” “be nice” and “not ruffle feathers.” As girls, we are rewarded for making others happy rather than “being selfish.” We are also conditioned to believe that by advocating for ourselves that we are going to jeopardize a relationship or make someone angry.
Boundaries are so important because they make sure you don’t end up feeling like crap in a relationship.
It is important to keep in mind that boundaries are not “anti-relationship.” In fact, boundaries are relationship preserving! By setting healthy boundaries and sticking to them, you’re saying: “I want to be in a relationship with you, but I am worthy of respectful treatment. I want a relationship with you, but not like this.”

Boundary setting is choosing to honour yourself in a way that is healthier and it is relationship preserving.


Mindset Shifts You Need to Set Boundaries

Many of us have been raised to disappoint or sacrifice ourselves rather than risk disappointing someone else. We believe that the happiness or satisfaction of others is more important than our own.

At the root of this, we have been conditioned to believe we are not as worthy as others.


This is a fundamental mindset shift that you need to make to set healthy boundaries.

Ask yourself: Am I really not as worthy of happiness as others in my life?
Am I really not “good enough” to deserve respectful treatment?

When we don’t believe we are worthy of good treatment, we allow ourselves to be treated badly in relationships. We believe that we exist to serve others, be everyone’s emotional dumping ground and keep everyone else happy (while sacrificing ourselves.)

By carrying this belief, we will continue to allow ourselves to be in relationships that are not healthy – in other words, these relationships may be abusive or disrespectful.

Setting healthy boundaries means that you know and believe that you are as worthy of happiness as everyone else, even if it upsets or disappoints someone.


You Are As Worthy As Everyone Else


If you struggle with feeling worthy, here are a few exercises you can do to strengthen your self-worth muscle:

  • Spend time each evening writing down 3 things you love about yourself. Celebrate small wins and see how incredible you are.
  • Be mindful of negative self-talk. Many of us have a ruthless internal critic that tells us we are not worthy. Recognize that that voice is actually not yours, and those thoughts are not real.
  • Reflect on how your unhealthy boundaries are impacting your mental health. Ask yourself if how you are feeling is worth the relationship you’re struggling with.




  • What are boundaries?
  • What are the different types of boundaries?
  • Why are boundaries so challenging to set in our relationships?
  • A critical mindset shift you need to make in order to set healthy boundaries in your life.

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