Posted by: Donna Cunningham | July 10, 2010

The 3 Major Ways of Setting Boundaries—Which Type are You?

 Reprinted from permission from Dr. Brian Grady’s blog

The word boundary in the American Heritage Dictionary is defined as “an indicated border or limit.” In relationships boundaries are often defined as the line that indicates where one person ends and the other begins. People with healthy boundaries have developed an identity separate and distinct from others and are not dependent upon others to nurture their personal and spiritual growth. 

Figure 1 illustrates healthy boundaries. In this relationship, the line between partners is easily identifiable. They are independent beings, yet they are close enough to be connected and to have an impact on each other’s life. In healthy relationships boundaries are flexible. They grow and change. Boundaries can be lowered to promote intimacy or extended to promote safety.

In Figure 2, it is difficult to distinguish one partner from the other. This is called enmeshment or collapsed boundaries. Partners in an enmeshed relationship generally try to merge with the other in order to avoid the emptiness they feel when alone. This is troublesome, because partners either seek to lose themselves in the other or expect their partner to become lost in them.

Figure 3 illustrates a relationship where each partner is completely self-contained, having very little impact on the other and very little emotional connection. This is called an emotionally detached relationship or rigid boundaries. The boundaries in this relationship tend to be more like walls and prevent intimacy.

What kind of boundaries do you have?

Look at the following characteristics to determine what kinds of boundaries you have:


  • You can say no or yes, and you are ok when others say no to you.
  • You have a strong sense of identity. You respect yourself.
  • You expect reciprocity in a relationship-you share responsibility and power.
  • You know when the problem is yours and when it belongs to someone else.
  • You share personal information gradually in a mutually sharing/trusting relationship.
  • You don’t tolerate abuse or disrespect.
  • You know your own wants, needs and feelings. You communicate them clearly in your relationships.
  • You are committed to and responsible for exploring and nurturing your full potential.
  • You are responsible for your own happiness and fulfillment. You allow others to be responsible for their own happiness and fulfillment.
  • You value your opinions and feelings as much as others.
  • You know your limits. You allow others to define their limits.
  • You are able to ask for help when you need it.
  • You don’t compromise your values or integrity to avoid rejection.


  • You can’t say no, because you are afraid of rejection or abandonment.
  • Your identity consists of what you think others want you to be. You are a chameleon.
  • You have no balance of power or responsibility in your relationships. You tend to be either overly responsible and controlling or passive and dependent.
  • You take on other’s problems as your own.
  • You share personal information too soon. . .before establishing mutual trust/sharing.
  • You have a high tolerance for abuse or being treated with disrespect.
  • Your wants needs and feelings are secondary to others’ and are sometimes determined by others.
  • You ignore your inner voice and allow others expectations to define your potential.
  • You feel responsible for other’s happiness and fulfillment and sometimes rely on your relationships to create that for you.
  • You tend to absorb the feelings of others.
  • You rely on others opinions, feelings and ideas more than you do your own.
  • You allow others to define your limits or try to define limits for others.
  • You compromise your values and beliefs in order to please others or to avoid conflict.


  • You are likely to say no if the request involves close interaction.
  • You avoid intimacy (pick fights, stay too busy, etc.)
  • You fear abandonment OR engulfment, so you avoid closeness.
  • You rarely share personal information.
  • You have difficulty identifying wants, needs, feelings.
  • You have few or no close relationships. If you have a partner, you have very separate lives and virtually no shared social life.
  • You rarely ask for help.
  • You do not allow yourself to connect with other people and their problems.

How do I change?

Understand that developing healthier boundaries (as with any life change) is a process, not an event. Thus, it will take time and practice. There are no quick fixes. However, healthy boundaries will lead to improved self-esteem and increased intimacy in your relationships. So the payoff is big, if you are persistent! Below are a few suggestions to help you stay on track in the process:

1. Identify the ways in which your boundaries are unhealthy. Make a list of how they express themselves in your life.

2. Write letters to yourself encouraging change and addressing the fears that work to prevent change. Nurture your right to have boundaries!

3. Make a list of personal rights (i. e. boundaries) in your relationships and paste it where you can read it often.

4. Keep a journal and record the pain associated with not maintaining healthy boundaries in your relationships. (Sometimes pain is a great motivator.)

5. Write an entry in your journal answering the question “Who Am I?” Do this periodically.

6. Look for role models of healthy boundaries in your life or in the media. When confronting a boundary challenging situation ask yourself “What would my role model do?” Better yet, if your role model is a part of your life, ask them!

7. Build in time for yourself away from your relationship on a regular basis. This will include alone time, time with your close friends, time for spiritual growth, and time to attend to life’s little responsibilities.

8. If you have difficulty saying ‘No,” look for opportunities to practice. If you have difficulty saying “Yes” to any activity that involves interacting with others, look for opportunities to practice.

9. Seek counseling to examine the roots of your unhealthy boundaries.

– author unknown at this time –

(See a list of more articles on Skywriter about boundaries here:  Boundaries 201–More Tips for Neptunians.)

ABOUT DR. GRADY: Brian Grady is a psychologist in private practice in Victoria, BC. He has a Ph.D. from Simon Fraser University. Brian believes that self-awareness is crucial in therapy, and so frequently uses mindfulness in his sessions – closely studying one’s own reactions, feelings, and body sensations, moment-to-moment. He also believes that body, mind, and spirit overlap, and gives attention to all of these as appropriate. His websites are: and Dr. Brian Grady’s blog. Phone: 250-592-4281; email: 


  1. Overall I’d say I fit the healthy boundaries category. I’m not very verbal with my limts/values though, cause then people lie accordingly, in order to impress you. I refuse to get intimate with people who don’t seem to worth it (and I have a very sharp eye for that!). I totally loved the “share personal information too soon” part, to that I’d have to add “ask too personal questions too soon”. I get that a lot with people, I call it “friendship attack” , it feels like their trying to coerce you into intimacy!
    I admit that I can’t say no easily, but that’s not a problem in reciprocal relationships. Plus my face/ posture does a good work hiding that part, my way of staying out of trouble, I guess.

    Anyway, the reason why I’m posting this comment is because I have to share this piece of experience. So, to whom it may concern: Sometimes, life can get pretty unfair to those you love, and you subconsciously try to balance the scale by deliberately harming yourself. It’s a mixture of unexpressed anger and guilt for what you are/have. If you’re currently experiencing sth like that, please, don’t go there! The self-destruction path leads nowhere, serves noone, and you’ll live to regret it. Take my word for it!
    Please, excuse the preaching style (I know I’m not entitled), and thanks for listening.

    • Yeah, it’s awkward when nosy people ask questions that are too personal, because in this era of full disclosure and extreme media intrusiveness, we’re not supposed to be uptight about things like that. One of my therapist friends taught me to ask them, “How would it help you to know that?” It tends to kerfuffle the nosy.

      And what you’re saying about feeling you have to balance the scale by hurting yourself is definitely a big boundary issue–a form of survivor guilt. Here’s an excellent article about that from Kachina of In2themystic, one of my guest bloggers: Donna

  2. With transiting Neptune conjunct my descendant, activating my MidHeaven-conjunct Venus (10th house) square my Ascendant-conjunct Pluto (12th house), this gentle reminder is much appreciated. Grady’s illustration of boundaries is much like what a therapist told me several years ago: healthy relationships appears as 2 index fingers standing upright – when 1 bends towards the other in need, the other remains standing to support it up to a point; if the needy finger keeps sliding, itself only goes down, but health give/take action keeps them both from doing so. If both fingers bend towards each other in need, sadly they both collapse. I continue to view relationships in such a fashion since this imprint. Simply putting my 2 fingers up & seeing this physically keeps me in check.

    • A good, “handy” reminder, Dixie. Yes, transiting Neptune conjunct the Descendant is a major study of boundaries, for sure. By the time it’s done, you’ll be able to teach university-level courses in it! Donna

  3. My goodness this is spooky how relevent you are to me these days Donna.

    I’ve been experiencing transiting Mercury in 12th (Leo) squaring my natal Moon conjunct Neptune (Scorpio) in 3rd. Someone has made what I consider another familiar and outrageous request of me. He has Moon conjunct Mercury in Scorpio in 3rd. His Mars sits on my Moon/Neptune. For the thousandth time it has thrown me for a loop. Collapsed boundary par excellence. I’ve written my boundary letter but hesitate to send it (many precede it unheard). Another tack is needed.

    • Sara,

      Sometimes, the strongest boundary is silence. Do nothing & you’ve illustrated to the culprit that they no longer have impact. No more letters; remember, insanity is doing the same thing over & over, expecting a different result. Good luck!

      • Thanks Dixie! You’re right. Shall take my Pine Bach Flower Essence immediately also.

  4. Do boundaries have only to do with our Pisces house and it’s planet placements, or in our placement of Neptune around our charts, house is resides in or house in which Pisces cusps?

    Do we take any other planet or house in consideration – Moon, Sun, 7th house?
    And if so how, when assessing our level of boundary abilities?

    • Fuzzy boundaries have much to do with Pisces placements and Neptune features, but good boundaries also have some solid support from Saturn. The 7th house and Venus have to do with love relationships and commitment, but not all relationships are marred by bad boundaries, only probably those with Neptune as part of the picture.

      But then I must also say that when I was writing about adult children of alcoholics, I did find the sign Cancer fairly prominent, so probably the Moon does play a role–unfilfilled dependency needs. (I have a download of the chapter somewhere on this site, probably listed in the boundaries articles.) Donna

  5. I’m getting closer to the healthy boundaries category. It sure feels a lot better. Learning to feel my own feelings and go with my gut were two key factors in learning about healthy boundaries. Also, accepting that sometimes it’s perfectly all right to be angry. That’s the soul’s alarm that someone’s pushing your boundaries. I am a little nervous about whether I’ll be able to maintain a healthy relationship.

    One of the challenges I had in the past was in maintaining friendships and relationships at the same time. I never knew how to balance both at the same time because I felt like it meant I had to abandon one or the other.

  6. I have a super hard time with boundaries. My family never had any and my mother was/is either engulfing me or on the verge. I am recently divorced and in a fairly new relationship… not living together. She on the other hand, has very rigid boundaries. I have tried very hard to move toward the middle…. there are time periods when she does too…. but then goes emotionally distant. It’s hard to get a word out of her in these emotionally distant times. But it sends me into panic. Any thoughts?

    • Hi, no quick and easy answers, for sure, but there are lots of articles on this blog about boundaries, and I think it’s a gradual process of educating ourselves and improving our self-monitoring as to times and ways our boundaries are functioning in a less than optimal way. Donna

  7. Very interesting….. When transit Uranus in my 5th house opposed my Sun I inherited my first Grand Daughter to raise. It put me through some paces alright and I had to fight for her in court. Now this son has two more with another dysfunctional woman but they are struggling to raise them and several times it looked iffy but I held back hoping they would succeed.
    The woman is still riddled with her problems but her strong suit is that she is clean. orderly and takes good physical care of the babies.
    Whew… now that transit Neptune is lifting away I hope it means the crisis has passed and that my son and his woman will be able to carry on with their responsibilities towards their two daughters.
    Natal Neptune a near conjunction to my ascendant and transit Neptune, from the 5th house of children opposed first mercury and then my Sun at 29 Leo. I hope this means I am out of the woods now as far as having to rescue the babies.
    As a mother , the very nature of woman is to give up blood, time and energy to the helpless newborn. The child must come first and stepping in to rescue a child when its parents fall apart is only a form of continuing this pattern. I have always loved the fog but in this instance when the fog clears I pray to have done the right thing.

  8. To whom it may concern, I facilitate a Veteran Men’s Group at one of our VAs. One topic of discussion is “Settting Boundaries in a Relationship.” I find the information here to be quite help in my discussion. Thanks for helping our returning Veterans.

    • Thank you, Lovell. That sounds like an exceptionally helpful resource.

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