You’re not alone if you struggle to know how to identify your boundaries in a relationship.
As a therapist, a common question from my clients is exactly how to know their limits. Knowing your boundaries is especially hard if you feel disconnected from your authentic self. It’s also very hard to know your limits if you identify as a people pleaser or struggle with codependency.
Wherever you are right now though, you can learn to identify your boundaries.
What are boundaries in a relationship
Boundaries are any limit you need to set to feel safe in a relationship.
There are two parts to boundaries. Those limits you need to set with others to feel safe and respected with them. Also, there are limits you may need to set with yourself to be safe for others or yourself.
Limits with others include not being yelled at or being told you’re “too sensitive.” You may need to set limits with yourself also in a relationship. An example of this is not name-calling when you are frustrated with your partner.
You may also need to set limits to be safe for yourself. This includes holding yourself accountable to practice self-care even when you don’t feel like it.
What do boundaries look like in a relationship
Boundaries may take many forms in a relationship. This is because there are many types of boundaries. Boundary types include limits around how your body is spoken about or treated. There are boundaries around sex, including casual sex, and money. Furthermore, you have limits around your time, emotions and intellect.
In a relationship, healthy boundaries look like limits that keep you feeling safe and respected. As such, your boundaries in any relationship are unique and authentic to you.
A friend, for example, may be comfortable with polyamory while you are not.
The most important thing is to radically accept whatever you need to feel safe. Truly, it doesn’t matter if someone else would be ok with something. If something doesn’t make you feel respected or comfortable, then it is important to set boundaries.
Why boundaries matter in a relationship
Without boundaries, relationships suffer.
This breakdown of relationships without boundaries happens for multiple reasons. Sometimes, a lack of boundaries fuels resentment. This resentment can become so toxic that no amount of healing work can salvage the relationship.
Or a lack of boundaries can exacerbate codependency and anxiety. If you and your partner both have poor boundaries, this may reinforce the idea that your identity is dependent upon them. Any healthy separation such as having different hobbies can feel threatening then.
A lack of boundaries also hurts your ability to fully love yourself. At times, this is because of people-pleasing behaviors which make you falsely believe your worth is dependent on making others happy. Other times, self-esteem issues arise because you forget who you are outside of an enmeshed relationship.
Identifying Your Boundaries
The first step to having healthy boundaries is being able to identify your limits.
It can be hard to know what your boundaries are for many reasons. This includes a sense of not knowing who you really are or feeling guilty about having limits.
To support you in being able to dramatically heal your relationships with others – and yourself – you can learn how to identify your limits.
How to Know Your Boundaries in a Relationship Tip #1: Visualize Your Healthy Separateness from Others
Despite messages that you should be “one” with your partner, this isn’t healthy. In truth, in a healthy relationship you must be a whole person separate from your partner. Otherwise, you cannot experience true intimacy.
A friend once told me that intimacy can be considered “into me you see.” Without boundaries, there is no ability to see the separate fullness of your partner. They will also be unable to fully appreciate your authentic self without limits.
Healthy Boundaries Visualization
In my book, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle, I provide a visualization to imagine your boundaries.
The visualization is written as follows:
Close your eyes and imagine you have a marker in any color you like. Begin to draw a circle around yourself with this marker and imagine this circle begins to grow up around you in the form of light. Breathe deeply as you allow this light to form a bubble all the way around you. In this bubble, you decide what is true for you and what is not.
How Visualizing Your Boundaries Helps You Identify Your Limits
When you picture your bubble, try to imagine pushing out other people’s energy or feelings. Try to imagine sitting fully in your own energy at this time. As you interact with your partner, imagine your bubble up. Then allow yourself to imagine that you can hold your feelings and thoughts as separate from your partner’s. This is especially helpful during an argument!
Also, when you visualize your boundaries, you can decide what works for you – or not. For example, if something your mother or partner says bothers you, imagine pushing the statement out of your bubble. If you feel a lot better, you just set an energetic boundary! You may not always need to comment on this either. However, if the issue repeats itself this is when you will want to assert your limit with the other person.
How to Know Your Boundaries in a Relationship Tip #2: Pay Attention to How Your Body Feels
Your body and your intuition are connected. This is important because your boundaries and authentic, intuitive self are interconnected.
Your gut can give your signs as to what you need in a relationship. A favorite activity of mine to help me clarify my limits is to ask my gut “yes” or “no” questions. It may sound odd at first but truly, most people can hear/feel/see a “yes” or a “no” in the core.
You may, for example, ask yourself if you need to stop trying in a relationship. Of course, you may not want to “hear” your answer but it will be there nonetheless.
Building awareness of your somatic truth
In my book, The Codependency Recovery Plan, I explain how to feel your truth in more detail.
When interacting with others, your body will give you clues as to what works for you and what doesn’t.
For example, if your stomach drops or your chest tightens when the person you just started dating says they only want something casual, this is a clear sign the arrangement does not meet your needs. However, if your body stays relaxed and open when others share their expectations, then you will know the situation aligns with what feels good for you too. Building awareness of your own truth is an ongoing practice, and you can use the following exercise to guide you.Krystal Mazzola
How Your Body Will Help You Know Your Boundaries
Next time, you find yourself upset or uncomfortable in a situation, tune into your gut. To start, you may want to ask “yes” or “no” questions to yourself.
You may notice that you don’t like that your sister expects you to contribute a certain amount financially to her wedding. At this point, ask your gut: Is there a boundary I need in this situation?
Often “yes” will feel open in your gut or body. A “no” will feel closed off or tight typically. If you hear “yes,” then you may choose to journal about your need or limit. This may include talking to your sister about the maximum amount of money that you can contribute as a part of her wedding party.
How to Know Your Boundaries in a Relationship Tip #3: Befriend Your Anger
Anger, especially in the age of toxic positivity, has a bad reputation. And if you were raised female, this is especially true.
In her book, Break the Good Girl Myth: How to Dismantle Outdated Rules, Unleash Your Power, and Design a More Purposeful Life by Majo Molfino identifies the “Myth of Harmony.” This myth teaches women that it’s more important to be “nice” than authentic. As a result, women are socialized to hide their anger at all costs.
To heal, and know your boundaries, it’s essential to accept your anger.
Accepting the Gift of Anger
All emotions have a gift. The gift of anger is self-protection. You only feel anger when a need has gone unmet or a limit has been violated. This is true even if you’re not consciously aware of this need or boundary.
Without honoring your anger, you become disempowered, depressed, and anxious.
Accepting the truth of your anger may be intimidating at first but ultimately, it’s very empowering.
The first step to accepting your anger is to simply let yourself feel it in your body. When you’re angry (or annoyed, or frustrated), you probably have physical signs of this. You may feel hot or your muscles may tighten. The next time you are angry just let yourself notice how your body feels. This will awareness will clue you in moving forward that a situation is needing a boundary.
How Accepting Your Anger Reveals Your Boundaries
The next time you notice your physical experience of anger. Take a moment to sit with the anger even if it’s uncomfortable.
Now take a moment to self-reflect or journal on this question: What is my anger trying to teach me right now about my needs or boundaries?
While you may be uncomfortable with the response, try to simply validate the reality of your need or boundary. It’s ok if you’re not ready to discuss this with the other person. It is a success to just identify your boundary!
Knowing Your Boundaries to Help Your Relationships
To know your boundaries in any relationship, try out these three different skills.
You may notice that you have a favorite skill. Or like myself and many of my clients, you may prefer different skills at different times. Let yourself experiment with these skills to identify your boundaries.
Identifying your boundaries is ongoing work. You never “master” this skill because you will have new, and evolving, relationships over time. Instead, the practice is to keep asking yourself what your boundaries are when you feel uncomfortable.
Please practice patience and self-compassion as well during this process. In the beginning, it’s a major success to identify your boundaries. You don’t need to be ready to set them with others yet. In time, the skill of communicating your boundaries will come but the first step is your awareness.
About The Author, Krystal
Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT is a practicing relationship therapist with over a decade of experience. Currently, Krystal sees clients at her private practice, The Healthy Relationship Foundation. She has dedicated her entire career to empowering people to heal from unhealthy relationship processes. She does this by teaching the skills and tools necessary to have a life filled with healthy and loving relationships.
This passion led her to write her best-selling books and create courses. Her books, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle and The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence have helped many people heal.
Her third book, Self-Love Made Possible: The 5-Step Guide to Stop Being Your Own Worst Enemy and Become Your Own Best Friend will be released late 2022. To be notified of its release, please join the waitlist here.
Her course, Confidently Authentic: Stop People Pleasing and Start Being True to Yourself, provides the skills necessary to have a healthy relationship. This course features over a year of relationship skills you would learn in therapy. Students share this course has been “life changing.”
Each week, she answers your relationship questions from a place of expertise and compassion. To submit your relationship questions, please DM her @confidentlyauthentic.com or you may send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to submit your question.