Establishing and maintaining your boundaries

Dr. Karine Côté, C.Psych.

The importance of asserting boundaries to promote healthy and sustainable relationships with others is more and more talked about in the media. Whether it is with your significant other, parent, sibling, friend or co-worker, being able to identify and assert your boundaries can be a significant skill to build. 

Boundaries are defined as limits and rules we set for ourselves within our relationships. They can be psychological, emotional or physical in nature, and require being mindful of your needs and limits within various situations (, 2024). Boundaries can help you meet your interpersonal needs, promote closeness, limit over enmeshment, and increase your sense of self-efficacy. 

Here are a few key ingredients to keep in mind to help you establish and maintain your boundaries with others.

Identify: Your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations represent a guide to your internal needs and limits. Being attuned to them and building your ability to understand their underlying meaning and function can help you identify your needs and limits. 

Assert: Your boundaries will have a much better chance to be respected if they are clearly expressed to others. Speaking in I statements and communicating when you and the other are emotionally regulated will also give you the best chance to be heard.

Clarify: Sometimes, the intention or the meaning behind our boundaries can be misunderstood by others. Taking the space to clarify them as needed will also increase your chance of being heard and respected in your boundaries.

Reinforce: When the other has modified their behaviors or reactions to respect your boundaries, giving them acknowledgment and showing your appreciation can help confirm they are on the right track in meeting your needs – and therefore reinforce these positive changes.

Repeat: In some cases, asserting a boundary once may not be enough for it to be consistently respected by the other. After all, we are all creatures of habit! Repeating the boundary can also help sustain the needed changes in your interpersonal relationships.

Asserting boundaries and engaging in satisfying, respectful and sustainable relationships can present with challenges at times. Clinicians at CFIR-CPRI are here to support should you need help in navigating complex interpersonal dynamics.

Reference (2024). Interpersonal Boundaries.

Dr. Karine Côté, D.Psy., C.Psych. is a psychologist at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR). Dr. Côté provides psychological services to individual adults and couples experiencing a wide range of psychological and relationship difficulties related to mood and anxiety disorders, trauma, eating disorders, sleep disruptions, and interpersonal betrayal. She works from a humanistic approach and integrates therapeutic techniques from gestalt and object relations psychotherapies, emotion-focused therapy (EFT), and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

Defining Self-Boundaries – Types of Boundaries (Part 3)

This final post of the 3-part series on boundaries will provide you with definitions for different types of boundaries. It is important to know these differences; doing so allows you to self-appraise how you maintain your sense of self with others. Research mostly focuses on three general types of boundaries: rigid, diffuse, and flexible. 

Let’s imagine boundaries as a wall you build up to protect yourself. They can be defined by the following:

Rigid – Walls are very high up, thick, and do not come down

Diffuse – Walls are very low, foggy, and confusing

Flexible: Walls are clear, go down and go up (to different levels) as needed.  

Rigid Boundaries: We might feel protected (especially if we have been through any type of trauma) when we set a rigid boundary without sharing more intimately about our feelings and needs. However, we are closed off to the other when we set a fixed limit — meaning that it’s difficult or nearly impossible for us to connect to others and to have others get close to us (emotionally, physically, etc.). This type of boundary makes it hard for others to understand our feelings and needs as little of ourselves is shared. We also may not be flexible enough to respond to the demands of others. 

Diffuse Boundaries: When we have diffuse boundaries, we might have difficulties communicating and/or understanding our boundaries (maybe from how you were raised, difficult experiences with limits). With diffuse boundaries, our borders are foggy, unclear, and are not defined. This particular boundary is difficult in relationships because you most likely tend to internalize other people’s emotions or let intrusive arrows (see the second blog in this 3-part series) right into your inner world. It often leads to feelings of resentment, frustration, shame, or sadness (etc.). 

Flexible Boundaries: When we have flexible boundaries, we can easily adapt to different situations in our relationships with others. Our boundaries are clear, healthy, and reflect our needs, desires, emotions, and values. We also maintain some openness to the other’s reality, thoughts, feelings, and needs. This creates a space in our relationships where it’s safe to discuss our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and desires and listen to the other and make adjustments to fulfill both parties. It also creates respect within your relationship and brings you closer together. Lastly, flexible boundaries prevent you from feeling overwhelmed or building up resentment, all while letting other people in, creating a secure attachment, and fulfilling your needs. 

We must establish a boundary to get to know who we are and what we need in our relationships to maintain a sense of safety and security and a sense of value and worth. Flexible boundaries might be ideal in relationships.

Mélodie Brown, B.A., is a therapist and completing a clinical psychology doctorate (D.Psy). At Centre for Interpersonal Relationships, she provides psychological services to adults and couples under the supervision of Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych. In the last year of her clinical psychology doctorate, Mélodie has completed all of her clinical training. She is in the process of finishing her thesis before receiving her licence as a clinical psychologist. 

Defining Self-Boundaries – When Is It Okay to Assert My Boundary?

After reading Part 1 and getting familiarized with boundaries and the difficulties we often face while setting them, you are probably wondering when or in what situations is it okay to set a limit in your interpersonal relationships?

The answer is: A boundary is set in our relationships with others to establish a felt sense of internal safety and security or maintain our sense of self-value and worth. We assert a boundary with another person to ensure we do not experience excessively high levels of negative emotional distress based on what others say, do, or express to us.

The model below has been devised to help you think about when it might be okay to set boundaries for yourself in everyday life. See model down below:

When you, your partner, or children receive an intrusive arrow (something that makes you feel bad—can be threats, insults, shaming, pressure, etc.) from anyone in circles 2, 3 & 4, it’s absolutely okay and healthy to put up a boundary to protect yourself, your partner or your child.

It’s also important to remember that in circle 1, each person is also a separate individual with their respective thoughts, opinions, feelings, emotions, wants, needs, values, and desires. Every individual can benefit from knowing this information as it’s the basis for setting a boundary. In terms of the diagram below, an individual has to establish a boundary with each member of their family and those relationships in the outer circle.

Remember that boundaries set with respect & authenticity are a way to protect yourself and your mental health. When you don’t set boundaries, you can be overwhelmed with stress and negative emotions that can lead to difficulties in your relationships. We become overwhelmed when we don’t listen to our feelings and bodies and set boundaries to protect ourselves from going into a space that is too much for us physically or psychologically. By setting boundaries, you also help yourself & the relationships around you grow. You and others learn more about who you are and how to relate to each other, and you are capable of being more invested and present for your romantic partners and other relationships.

Stay tuned for Part 3: Types of Boundaries.

Mélodie Brown, B.A., is a therapist and completing a clinical psychology doctorate (D.Psy). At Centre for Interpersonal Relationships, she provides psychological services to adults and couples under the supervision of Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych.. In the last year of her clinical psychology doctorate, Mélodie has completed all of her clinical training. She is in the process of finishing her thesis before receiving her license as a clinical psychologist.

Defining Self-Boundaries – What are Boundaries? (Part 1)

Boundaries are essential for interpersonal relationships. In my clinical practice, I often encounter individuals struggling to define their self-boundary, maintain a ‘couple’ boundary, or manage the complexities of different dyadic boundaries in a family system. In this 3-part series of blogs, I will be sharing with you a definition of what boundaries are (Part I), how to consider boundaries within the context of your life (Part II), and the different types of boundaries (Part III).

In this first part, let’s talk about what boundaries are, and the difficulties individuals often face when setting them. The act of setting a boundary can be defined by putting clear, healthy & respectful limits with others to ensure that your feelings, needs, emotions, and self is expressed and understood by others. You probably think that this sounds like a healthy thing to do to maintain good mental health, right? Interestingly enough, boundaries seem to have gained a negative connotation over the years. Many individuals feel guilty, ashamed, selfish, or anxious when trying to set a boundary or are preoccupied with being seen as controlling or uncaring when choosing to set a boundary—even if done in a respectful and wholesome way. For this reason, a lot of people don’t set limits and find themselves overwhelmed and flooded with difficulties in their relationships and with their mental health.

As a result of a lack of clarity about boundaries, many individuals I see in my private practice struggle to create greater clarity about what it is that their true ‘self’ thinks, feels, wants, needs, values, and desires. They also struggle to resolve doubts about the appropriateness of the boundaries they have set. You might want to consider the following questions to ascertain whether you are having difficulties identifying your boundaries and limits and setting appropriate boundaries for yourself.

Have you ever found yourself asking:
• Is it okay to put a boundary up with my partner, my friends, or family?
• Is my partner controlling if he or she puts up a boundary with me?
• Do I set a boundary if my sister said something hurtful to my partner?
• Is it acceptable to set a boundary with my parents?
• Am I a bad partner or friend for setting boundaries?
• Am I a bad friend or partner for saying no to something that doesn’t make me feel good?
• Etc.

In the second blog in this 3-part series on boundaries, I will provide you with a framework to consider in resolving struggles you may be having with boundaries in your life.

Mélodie Brown, B.A., is a therapist and completing a clinical psychology doctorate (D.Psy). At Centre for Interpersonal Relationships, she provides psychological services to adults and couples under the supervision of Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych.. In the last year of her clinical psychology doctorate, Mélodie has completed all of her clinical training. She is in the process of finishing her thesis before receiving her license as a clinical psychologist.

How to Set Boundaries While Self-distancing

For most of us, the social distancing process has been accompanied by many questions, concerns, and uncertainty, leaving us feeling overwhelmed, confused, and anxious. These feelings are common, as we are trying to navigate an unprecedented situation that left us needing to adapt rapidly to a new reality.

There are many useful ways to help us adapt during this time, such as setting boundaries. Boundaries are an integral part of self-care and will be essential to feel psychologically well.

Boundaries with yourself related to pandemic can look like the following:

  • Limit your media or information intake
  • Rely only on two or three trusted resources
  • Maintain good sleep hygiene practices
  • Check-in regularly with yourself to increase self-awareness of internal experiences
  • Eat regular meals (even though anxiety can make it hard to feel hunger cues)
  • Limit your caffeine intake as this can induce anxiety symptoms
  • Say no to hanging out with friends, even if it is at home
  • Find safe ways to breathe in some fresh air and move your body every day

Boundaries while working from home can look like the following:

  • Set the alarm in the morning
  • Get dressed
  • Schedule breaks
  • Set your phone aside or use mobile applications to block distractions (e.g., self-control)
  • Create a designated, comfortable workspace
  • Schedule specific times for social interactions
  • Check emails during the workday only
  • Focus on one task at a time

Remember that you are not alone in what you are experiencing. It is ok to feel all your feelings. If you had mental health difficulties before the pandemic, this might be a more triggering time for you. Again, you are not alone. I hope that you take good care of yourself by honoring your mind and your body. I also hope you stay connected to your community and your loved ones by reaching out via video chat, texts, and teletherapy. We are all in this together.

Mathilde Theriault, B.A. Hons., is a clinical psychology resident at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR) in Toronto and a candidate in the Doctor of Psychology program (Psy.D.) at the Universite de Moncton in New Brunswick. She provides psychological treatment and assessment services to individual adults and couples in the areas of depression, anxiety and stress, trauma, personality disorders, and relationship difficulties.