Research-Backed Advice

What Are Unhealthy Boundaries? 4 Examples

Highlight reel (TL;DR)

  • Unhealthy boundaries are boundaries that are either too weak or too strict.
  • They can lead to stress, burnout, or resentment.
  • Setting up healthy boundaries and learning how to cope when someone crosses them can help with your overall well-being.

Boundaries are limits you set to let others know how to treat you and help you decide when to say “yes” or “no.”

Setting healthy boundaries can help you feel safe and comfortable. Unhealthy boundaries do the opposite, leading to feelings of stress, burnout, and resentment, says Meghan Campbell, a self-advocacy coach in Ontario who specializes in boundaries.

Read on to learn more about recognizing unhealthy boundaries and how to set healthy ones. 

What are unhealthy boundaries?

Nedra Glover Tawwab, a licensed therapist and best-selling author specializing in relationships and boundaries, labels unhealthy boundaries as either “porous” or “rigid.”

In her book, Set Boundaries, Find Peace, Tawwab defines porous boundaries as weak or poorly-expressed boundaries that lead to unhealthy closeness. Rigid boundaries, on the other hand, are strict or harsh boundaries that build unhealthy distance between people.

What does this actually look like? Tawwab writes that porous boundaries may involve: 

  • oversharing
  • codependency
  • people-pleasing
  • an inability to say no
  • dependency on feedback from others
  • fear of being rejected
  • accepting mistreatment. 

An example of an unhealthy boundary might be saying yes to loaning money to somebody even though you don’t have the funds to do so.

She writes that rigid boundaries may involve: 

  • never sharing
  • putting up walls
  • avoiding vulnerability
  • cutting people out
  • having high expectations of others
  • enforcing strict rules

An example of a rigid boundary might be making a rule that you will never babysit your sister’s kids.

Here are a few other examples to answer the question: What are unhealthy boundaries?

Unhealthy parental and familial boundaries

  1. A parent who says, “I can’t answer my phone when I’m at work. You have to wait until the end of the day to talk.”
  2. A parent who always drops everything to answer every call and text immediately.

Unhealthy boundaries at work

  1. A leader who says, “I don’t talk about my personal life at work.”
  2. A leader who makes coworkers feel uncomfortable by asking personal questions.

Unhealthy boundaries for friends

  1. A friend who says, “I’m busy with work and my partner. I’m only available to hang out on Saturdays.”
  2. A friend who will cancel other plans, overbook themselves, and always make themselves available to hang out.

Unhealthy romantic relationship boundaries

  1. A partner who says, “I will always spend the holidays with my family, and I need you to be there.”
  2. A person who rejects or ignores traditions important to them and their family in favor of their partner’s traditions and relationships.

How to set personal boundaries

To set a healthy boundary, you need to find a sweet spot that isn’t too rigid or too lax. 

Your boundary needs to be clear and firm, but allow room for another person’s humanity, says Campbell. 

Not talking about your personal life at work, for example, establishes a boundary in the workplace. However, never making an effort to build rapport or connect on a human level can shift dynamics and keep people at arm’s length, says Campbell. 

Campbell offers the following tips for setting healthy boundaries:

  1. Determine your physical tells for when one of your lines has been crossed.
  2. Reflect on past moments when you recognized that a line had been crossed.
  3. Ask yourself, “What about that wasn’t okay?” and “What do I wish I’d done differently?”
  4. Form a few boundaries based on these answers.

Another way to come up with boundaries might involve reflecting on the following:

  • What’s okay vs what’s not okay
  • What you’ll tolerate vs what you won’t
  • What you’re responsible for vs what you’re not

Campbell says that once you have answers to these questions, you can gain more clarity on your boundaries by asking yourself:

  • What is the specific behavior or situation that crosses a line?
  • What kind of negative impact is the behavior or situation causing?
  • What needs to be different moving forward? 
  • What feels like a realistic consequence when a boundary gets crossed?
  • What does it look like for a boundary to be respected? 
  • Whether or not you need to communicate the boundary and how to do so.

Finally, Campbell recommends actually rehearsing your boundaries out loud. Say it in your own words to someone you trust. Then you can bring it up in the workplace, in newer relationships, or wherever you need to with more confidence.

Healthy vs. unhealthy boundaries

Healthy BoundaryUnhealthy Boundary
Has proportionate consequencesHas no consequences or overly harsh consequences
Is firm and clear but recognizes the other person’s humanityIs just a suggestion, or is too strict, leaving no room for the other person’s humanity
Helps you to feel safe, comfortable, and mentally and emotionally wellMay lead to trouble sleeping, overwhelm, anxiety, depression, burnout
Leaves you feeling empoweredLeaves you feeling resentful

What to do when someone doesn’t respect your boundaries

“At the end of the day, the only person who needs to respect your boundaries is you,” says Campbell. “This is why the consequences are so important.” 

She says that when boundaries are not being respected, you need to either clarify expectations or part ways. 

But if this person is somebody you have an established connection with, then be careful about being too quick to cut them out, cautions Campbell. Instead, be brave and do your best to communicate the impact of their behavior. They may be willing to make an effort and change if you give them a chance.

Final word

Your boundaries are a tool to help support your mental and emotional well-being. 

Unhealthy boundaries often result in unhealthy closeness or distance, potentially leading to burnout and resentment. 

Self-reflection can help you establish your boundaries, and with practice, you can get confident in upholding them so that people treat you the way you want to be treated.

Olivia Kelava
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