Setting personal boundaries is one of the most beneficial things we can do to maintain our overall wellbeing. Boundaries that help to support work-life integration are important in the post-pandemic world of work, where the distinction between our work and home lives may have become blurred. Clearly communicating our boundaries with our family, friends and colleagues is essential in ensuring we get what we need and want to flourish. It is up to each of us to teach others what is permissible.

Three types of boundaries

Boundaries define our limits within our relationships, providing parameters to what we are willing to allow in our lives. There are three main types of boundaries in personal or work relationships: physical, intellectual, and emotional.

  • Physical boundaries: typically relate to how people interact with you, your personal space and belongings. They include the need for personal time, your comfortableness with being touched and basic physical needs, like needing to rest, eat and hydrate. Personal boundaries can be overstepped when an individual invades your personal space or steals your time. For example, someone may help themselves to a pen from your desk without your consent or expect you to carry on working during your lunchtime. Setting healthy physical boundaries is a necessary component in good self-care. Taking care of ourselves includes having the time to focus on our personal relationships as well as ourselves, to recharge and flourish. Examples of physical boundaries include:
    • communicating that you prefer to shake someone’s hand rather than hugging them,
    • putting a “Do not disturb” message on your WhatsApp when you are facing a deadline,
    • specifying that colleagues may not use your desktop when you are not in the office.


  • Emotional boundaries: The simplest way to think of an emotional boundary is that is it a clear line that marks what is, and what is not, your “stuff” to deal withEmotional boundaries help you separate your feelings from how someone else may feel, while still leaving space for feeling empathy for them. Emotional boundaries are violated when someone criticises, belittles, or undermines another person’s feelings. Setting yourself healthy emotional boundaries serves to protect your emotional wellbeing. And it will provide helpful limitations on when, and when not, to share your own personal information. Examples of emotional boundaries include:
    • talking to your team leader about how you prefer to receive feedback,
    • not joining in compounding another person’s negative sentiment,
    • speaking up when you feel uncomfortable about a particular situation.


  • Mental boundaries: Most of our emotional struggles arise as a direct result of not having good boundaries with ourselves. Our mental boundaries are generally associated with our opinions, thoughts and values. Sticking to our mental boundaries supports mental energy and focus – especially when working to complete a task or reach a goal. Violating our own mental boundaries can lead to:
    • stress-eating as a way to alleviate anxiety,
    • spiralling into chronic worrywhen you are feeling anxious,
    • second-guessing yourself or dwelling on past mistakes when you are feeling down or facing a hurdle,
    • procrastination when you have work to do but are tempted to do things like browsing social media or cleaning your office.

Examples of mental boundaries include:

  • establishing and sticking to your formal work hours,
  • not allowing time to run away when chatting with colleagues at work,
  • setting a message on instant messaging to inform others that you are out of circulation.

Setting boundaries is not straightforward

Some people find it a challenge to create strong boundaries. For them, setting boundaries is a source of great stress and leaves them feeling overwhelmed. Here are five reasons for their struggle:

  1. They are unsure how to set a healthy boundary

The primary reason some people struggle with the concept of boundary setting is they simply don’t know how to go about setting a clear boundary. They may not be in touch with their feelings, making it tough to understand what a reasonable personal limit would be. Doing some introspective mental work is required, as it entails a fair amount of self-knowledge and understanding to set boundaries. Or, they may lack an understanding of how to communicate their personal boundaries to others.

  1. They are too accommodating

Agreeableness is a personality trait, one of the five traits that make up the Big Five personality model. It describes a person’s ability to put others needs before their own. Agreeableness is the inclination to be kind, cooperative and thoughtful. While being agreeable is usually considered to be a good thing, it can lead to its own unique issues. People who are highly agreeable may find it very difficult to say “No”, particularly if they feel uncomfortable standing up to others or not meeting their expectations.

  1. They have low self-esteem

People who have a low sense of self-worth may feel that they do not deserve to enforce their personal boundaries on others. Consider that people with low self-esteem typically seek approval from others to bolster their sense of self. This can lead to habitual people-pleasing behaviours that are at odds with enforcing to healthy boundaries. In turn, this can lead to feelings of inadequacy that, if not dealt with, can develop into depression.

  1. Their boundaries have been previously disrespected

If someone has had an emotional or physical boundary ignored or disrespected in the past, they may struggle to see any benefit in setting boundaries. They figure, “Why bother?” as they have set boundaries in the past, but it made no difference.

  1. They don’t respect others’ boundaries

Some people choose not to set healthy boundaries because they simply do not see the value in them. These tend to be the kinds of people who ignore the boundaries of others.

Setting boundaries is a skill that takes practice

If setting boundaries makes you uncomfortable or anxious, start small. It may help to answer these questions:

  • Who are the people I have the hardest time setting boundaries with?
  • How would setting boundaries with them make a difference in my life?
  • What is a small way by which I can begin to set boundaries with them?
  • How can I show them kindness as I enforce my boundaries?

When maintaining boundaries, it is important to persevere. When you have chosen what you will accept and not accept, stand firm. Do remember that boundaries are not cast in stone – they will evolve with you over time, especially as you get to understand and connect with yourself better.  Then setting limitations on what you want and need will become second nature.

Over to you for sharing your comments and experiences.

What are your thoughts on why it is difficult to set personal boundaries?

About the Author: Kerstin Jatho

Kerstin is the senior transformational coach and team development facilitator for 4Seeds Consulting. She is also the author of Growing Butterfly Wings, a book on applying positive psychology principles during a lengthy recovery. Her passion is to develop people-centred organisations where people thrive and achieve their potential in the workplace. You can find Kerstin on LinkedIn, Soundcloud, YouTube and Facebook.

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!

Leave A Comment