Tending the Fences: Setting Healthy Boundaries
Winnis Chiang

"Good fences make good neighbors." This is a line from a poem by American poet Robert Frost.

Likewise, good personal boundaries make for good relationships. Boundaries are those invisible lines of protection you draw around yourself. They let people know your limits on what they can say or do around you. Healthy boundaries give you freedom in relating to others. Make them too solid and you build walls, too weak and you allow other’s actions to harm you.

It’s not always clear where our boundaries are or need to be. Recognizing and studying the signs of ignored or ineffective boundaries is a good place to start, as these “symptoms” give clues to the needed boundary. See if any of the following ring true for you.

Aloofness and distance. When you are unwilling or fearful of opening your space to others, or when you build walls to insure that others don’t invade your emotional or physical space, this may be a defense against cruel behavior, abuse or neglect that you allowed to happen. A person with healthy boundaries draws a line over which they will not allow anyone to cross. They recognize their right to say, “No!”

Habitual aggressiveness. This kind of attitude declares, “I dare you to come too close!” and is often the result of anger over a past violation or ignoring of your physical or emotional space by others. Healthy boundaries mean you are able to speak up when your space has been violated, leaving you free to trust that you can assertively protect yourself to ensure you are not hurt.

Over-enmeshment.  In some groups, the rule of interactions is that everyone must do everything together, and everyone must think, feel and act in the same way, without deviation from group norms. Healthy boundaries acknowledge that you have the right to explore your own interests, hobbies and outlets. 

Invisibility. The goal here is not to be seen or heard so that your boundaries are not violated. Healthy boundaries are in effect when you stand up for yourself—be visible, be heard—so that others can learn to respect your rights, needs and personal space.

Dissociation. If you experience “blank out” or “go away” during stressful emotional events, it results in your being out of touch with your feelings and unable to assert your limits. Healthy boundaries allow you to assertively protect yourself from further violation or hurt, and to choose to end relationships with those who will not respect them. With healthy boundaries, you can begin to feel your feelings again.

Smothering and lack of privacy. When another is overly concerned about your needs and interests, or when nothing you think, feel or do is your own business, it can be intrusive into your emotional and physical space, leaving you feeling overwhelmed or like you are being strangled. Healthy boundaries ask that others respect your uniqueness, your choices, your autonomy. 

Applying Boundaries

Once we see where our limits need to be clarified or put into place, we can begin to install fence posts or patch holes, to keep unwanted critters out. Here are some strategies for applying limits when your boundaries are intruded upon:

•  Calm yourself and take deep breaths.

•  Remind yourself of your right to set limits.

•  In a firm and composed manner, tell the other person how you feel.

•  Communicate clearly what your limits are, especially when you are extending a new boundary.

•  Ask the other person to respect your boundaries.

•  Make decisions about the relationship according to how the other person responds to your request.

Our kids and teenagers need boundaries and structures so that they can learn self-control and grow into taking ownership of more and more responsibilities. Choices all have natural and logical consequences. By respecting personal boundary, young people can earn their freedom and experience the reality of living in this world. So, in daily living, it is always important to differentiate between what you would do for yourself, what others would do for themselves, and what they really need help with.

Boundaries are fences, not walls. They shouldn't be too tight or too loose, just make your boundaries well known and apply them consistently. Good personal boundaries really help in building good relationships, personal growth and the building up of the other person. May all parents, relying on the grace and wisdom of our Lord Jesus, teach by example and by words, and guide their children to establish healthy boundaries amidst the impact of cultural turmoil.

"Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load." (Galatians 6:1-5)

Author's content used with permission, © Claire Communications


Thank you all for your concern about my back pain. Please keep praying for proper diagnosis, treatment and recovery.

Winnis Chiang

Winnis Chiang, founder of Parenting ABC and a retired LMFT, is passionate about helping Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking parents to get along with, enjoy, and positively influence their American-born children.