For years, I thought I had healthy boundaries. I’ve always been pretty good at saying no, so I figured I had it all down (because I genuinely thought that’s all a boundary was). But recently, I started to notice a pattern of irritability throughout my day, and I realized I was spending so much time cleaning up everyone else’s messes that I didn’t have time for my own. It turns out, I wasn’t setting clear boundaries at all! And how could I, when I didn’t even have clarity around the strategies that would meet my needs for support? It got me thinking: how many of us are actually tuned into our boundaries? How many of us know what it feels like when our boundaries are set and working properly? So I decided to reach out to Elisabeth T. Lilja, a licensed therapist based in Salt Lake City who specializes in trauma, to shed some light on what healthy boundaries look like and how to know if you have them in place.
What is a healthy boundary, anyway?
Boundaries are more than just saying “no” to the things that don’t serve you (although that is a healthy component as you’ll read about soon). Lilja defined boundaries as “the needs, limits, and rules we set for ourselves.” That means you understand where your limits are, but you also understand what your needs are—and you’re able to create strategies (rules) to meet them. “Healthy boundaries within relationships are often informed by a healthy boundary relationship with ourselves,” Lilja said. “In relationships, we may look at healthy boundaries as created with connection over protection in mind.”
Lilja reminded me that there will be times when protective boundaries in relationships are necessary, but a signal that your boundaries are serving you both is when they help build a sense of connection with one another. You are both clear on what you need, you know each other’s limits, and you respect each other’s rules.
So now that we have a working definition of a healthy boundary down, let’s dive into the signs that you—and those you have a relationship with—are, in fact, working those boundaries the right way.
Green Flags You Have Healthy Boundaries
1. Your “no” is respected
When you’re clear on what’s a “no” for you and you respect and support that “no,” that’s a healthy boundary you’ve created for yourself. And when the people in your life respect it too, that’s a healthy relationship boundary. Keep in mind, “respect” doesn’t necessarily mean no questions asked. The people in your life may still ask for clarification around your “no.” “What this means is we aren’t pushed, bullied, or manipulated into a ‘yes,'” Lilja clarified.
When someone else has opinions surrounding your “no,” (which can often happen) it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t respect it. “How these feelings are communicated and responded to can indicate the health of our relationships,” Lilja explained. If you are able to hold space for someone else’s feelings about your “no” while still feeling grounded in clarity around your “no,” that’s a major green flag that your boundaries are in the healthy zone.
2. You engage in conflict with curiosity
You’re showcasing healthy boundaries when you “are able to be in respectful, healthy conflict that doesn’t move into name-calling, abuse, manipulation, or harmful actions like stonewalling,” Lilja said. And one way to avoid participating in those behaviors is by engaging in curiosity. “Curiosity is a way we can establish healthy relating,” Lilja explained. When you’re curious about the other person’s experience, you’re less likely to make assumptions about their experience that would lead to blaming or shaming.
Some questions Lilja offered to check in with yourself about whether or not you’re engaging with curiosity were: “Am I inviting room for clarification over conclusions, assumptions, and defensiveness? Am I asking questions to seek clarification? Am I aware and able to communicate in a respectful way what I am feeling or experiencing and may need?” When you engage with curiosity, it gives you space to feel confident about your own boundaries while respecting the boundaries of another.
3. You can express your needs and boundaries clearly
“Needs, or boundary expression, indicates that we are able to advocate for ourselves, that we value our worth and getting [our] needs met in a relational space,” Lilja said. In other words, you know your boundaries are in a healthy zone when you feel safe expressing what you need. When you’re grounded in what you need because you know it’s what’s best for you, it’s a lot easier to feel confident in the ask, even when it can’t be met in the moment.
“Again, this doesn’t mean that understanding and clarification can’t be wanted around the need or boundary expressed, or that the boundary or need will always be able to be met,” Lilja stated. “Rather, there is space for you to have and express your boundaries. And for persons you are in a relationship with to have the same.”
4. Repair is important to you
Even in the most well-meaning relationships, boundaries get crossed. “Ruptures happen in relationships—yes, even healthy ones,” Lilja said. When you prioritize repair after one of those ruptures, you’re setting yourself up for healthy boundaries in the future. Think of it as healthy boundary maintenance.
According to Lilja, repair looks like learning how to extend an apology (this isn’t just saying the words, “I’m sorry”), taking accountability for how you might have harmed someone, and acknowledging what you will try to do differently in the future. “Repair is a critical part of a secure relationship and healthy relating,” she said. “It’s a good sign if you and someone else can seek repair in a relationship.”
5. You’re consistent in your follow-through
Something that’s always stuck with me is the concept that healing requires time and evidence. When you receive consistent proof that something is serving you over a period of time, you begin to believe in it. You start to feel safer in your experience. In the context of boundaries, Lilja noted that consistency is when we do what we say we are going to do. And if something needs to shift, we communicate.
Having the experience of predictable follow-through builds and maintains a sense of trust that our boundaries will be consistently respected. “While it may not seem like it, follow-through is us upholding a boundary with ourselves,” she said. “Practicing boundaries with ourselves can lead to establishing, upholding, and maintaining boundaries with others.”
Expert Tips To Help Strengthen Your Boundary Skills
1. Notice when you are saying “yes” when you mean “no”
“Part of learning to find our ‘no’ is understanding why we might be saying ‘yes’ to something we want to say no to,” Lilja said. Getting to the bottom of what’s stopping you can help you shift out of this pattern. “A practice for this is to notice what belief may be coming up for you when you aren’t honoring a ‘no.’” For example, ask yourself what would happen if you said no. Are you worried the other person would feel let down, disappointed in you, hurt, or like you less? Maybe you feel unworthy to set that boundary?
Then ask yourself if the outcome you anticipate is the outcome that would actually happen IRL. “While [your] feeling or belief is real, is it true?” Lilja asked. “Are there times you have said no and what you fear might not have happened? It can be scary to gather different information, and this is something the body needs to start to make changes.”
2. Learn how to apologize and repair
Having healthy boundaries is not just about setting our own boundaries, but respecting the boundaries of the other person. And a key piece of respecting others’ boundaries is apologizing when we (inevitably) cross a boundary. “This can be incredibly challenging for many reasons,” Lilja empathized. “Repairing is also something that can get easier with practice.” Also, apologizing is always important, even if you didn’t have bad intentions or didn’t mean to hurt someone. An apology invites empathy, or acknowledgment that the other person’s experience is real.
If you’re curious what an actual apology looks like, Lilja offered phrases you can use below, which she calls the anatomy of an apology. Each one is important when you’re genuinely apologizing and attempting to repair.
- I am sorry for…: The “for” is important here. Name what you are repairing or apologizing for. Think of this as the why. Why are you apologizing? This is how you take accountability for your actions.
- I could have done things differently by… or Moving forward I will…: This shows that you not only understand what you’re apologizing for, but you know how to change your actions moving forward. This is critical for repairing the relationship in the future.
- How are you feeling? or What do you need to feel better about this?: Checking in allows the other person the space to communicate with you what they need, and what you both can do to truly repair.
3. Practice follow-through
Following through with your boundaries is as simple as sticking to your promises. Do what you say you are going to do, and communicate when something needs to change. When you show up consistently for yourself, you build trust and a better understanding of which commitments are and are not serving you. Lilja suggested starting small, like making one promise to yourself that you can follow through with on a daily basis. This might look like a morning or nightly ritual (think: journaling or meditating) or setting a time to finish something on your to-do list. Notice how you feel when it’s time to follow through with something, and how it feels to actually do it. “Keeping track of your follow-through can be helpful,” Lilja said. “If you don’t follow through on what you have selected, what happened? What is this telling you? Are you noticing a pattern?” All of this information can help guide you to shift your habits toward more consistent follow-through.
4. Seek therapy
If you’re looking for extra support as you flex these skills, therapy is an excellent way to practice with a third party. “Therapy can be a wonderful way to learn how to strengthen boundaries with ourselves and others—creating the space to be curious about what we learned about being in a relationship with ourselves and others,” Lilja confirmed. It can also be a safe place for you and a partner to practice engaging in healthy boundaries with each other to ensure you’re setting up a framework that will support you for years to come.