Are your boundaries too weak or too rigid? Either can cause problems. In this article, you’ll learn the difference between weak, rigid, and healthy boundaries–and how to set better boundaries.
What is a healthy boundary?
Most of us are familiar with the concept of boundaries. Boundaries serve as limits, telling others how we want to be treated and what we’re each responsible for. They create a separation between you and others so you can maintain your individuality and values.
However, it can be hard to know what constitutes healthy boundaries – that sweet spot between boundaries that are too weak and boundaries that are too rigid.
Signs of weak boundaries
When we talk about boundary problems, we’re usually referring to boundaries that are too weak – boundaries that don’t provide enough protection and separation.
Here are four signs that your boundaries are too weak:
- You’re frequently overscheduled, busy, and tired because you didn’t set limits. You may be saying yes to things that you don’t really want to do, that don’t match your priorities or values, or that you simply don’t have the time or money to do.
- You don’t speak up when you’re mistreated. Someone with healthy boundaries can recognize abuse, disrespect, manipulation, and other forms of being taken advantage of – and they don’t tolerate it. So, if you either don’t recognize that you’re being mistreated or you realize it, but you don’t do anything about it, you’re boundaries are too weak and you’re not taking care of yourself.
- You’re afraid of rejection, criticism, disapproval, and conflict. Often, it’s fear that prevents us from setting boundaries. And fears of being rejected or criticized or of hurting other people’s feelings are common among those with weak boundaries. These fears make it hard for us to assert our needs, so, instead, we remain passive, we go along with what others want or need, trying to keep them happy in order to avoid uncomfortable feelings.
- You accept blame for things you didn’t do or couldn’t control. A boundary makes it clear that you are responsible for your own actions, thoughts, and feelings – and not for what other people do. So, if you lack boundaries, you’re prone to accept responsibilities that aren’t yours because you don’t know where your responsibilities end and someone else’s begins. For example, someone with weak boundaries might take responsibility for their teammate’s sloppy work or their spouse’s bad mood, and possibly even try to fix it.
Signs of rigid boundaries
On the other end of the boundary continuum, are overly rigid boundaries.
When we have rigid boundaries, we create too much space between ourselves and others. A rigid boundary is like a big, strong wall. It feels safe (walls are good protection), but it keeps everyone out, so we become isolated and disconnected.
Here are four signs that your boundaries may be too rigid:
- You’re quick to cut people out of your life. You don’t believe in second chances. If someone hurts you, you don’t want an apology or to work things out – you’re done!
- You have rigid rules about what you’ll do and when you’ll do them; you won’t make exceptions or be flexible. For example, if your Great Aunt Mary is coming into town and wants to have dinner with you at a Mexican restaurant, but Mexican food gives you heartburn, you won’t go.
- You tend to have surface-level relationships. You have trouble trusting people and are reluctant to share anything personal about yourself. This creates either relationships that don’t get very deep or relationships that are lop-sided, where you serve as confidant or counselor to someone who talks excessively about themselves and their problems, but doesn’t care to understand or know you.
- You take everything personally. You may have built rigid boundaries because you’re highly sensitive to criticism or rejection. Taking things personally is painful, so, understandably, you would want to protect yourself by keeping people at a distance and not sharing too many of your thoughts or feelings.
Can I have both weak and rigid boundaries?
Many people vacillate between boundaries that are too weak and too rigid. For example, you might have a pattern where you don’t set enough boundaries, then you get hurt, and then you to overcompensate with rigid boundaries for a while. You could also have weak boundaries with your family and rigid boundaries at work. Or it may feel like it’s a haphazard mix of the two. In any case, people who struggle with boundaries often have a combination of weak and rigid boundaries but they can’t find the middle ground.
Establishing healthy boundaries
As I said, healthy boundaries fall in between weak and rigid boundaries. They are assertive and clearly state what you need, and this protects you from being mistreated or from overcommitting yourself. Healthy boundaries are also flexible, meaning that you can loosen them up when it’s safe to do so. This allows you to form meaningful relationships where you feel more deeply understood, accepted, and appreciated.
Yes, it’s hard to know when it’s safe to loosen up your boundaries or when it’s in your own best interest to tighten them up, especially if you have a history of trauma or troubled relationships.
However, when you recognize that your boundaries are either weak or rigid, try to move them a tiny bit in the other direction. When you try to make a huge change in your boundaries, you’re more likely to end up at the other end of the continuum (going from weak to rigid or vice versa). Instead, just aim for a baby step.
Small incremental changes are less risky and let you continually reassess for safety. By doing this repeatedly, you will learn to trust your judgment and you’ll gradually start setting healthier boundaries.
©2020 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
Photo courtesy of Canva.com
Coming October 2021!
The Better Boundaries Workbook
A step-by-step guide to setting boundaries in all areas of your life.