External boundaries are where we bump up against each other (like setting boundaries around our time or how we allow others to treat us). Internal boundaries are where we bump up against ourselves in ways that bring dissonance between competing desires (like wanting to take on a new project but knowing we don’t have the resources to complete it).
Because most of us only experience boundaries when we bump up against each other’s, we don’t really think much about the visual map of personal boundaries. But when we sit down to consider how boundaries work, it’s clear that boundaries are both internal and external.
In this illustration, I tease out some of the nuances between internal and external boundaries. Read on to learn a little more about these concepts.
Internal Boundaries Definition
Internal boundaries are boundaries that we set with and for ourselves, with our well-being in mind. If external boundaries are where we bump up against other people’s limits, internal boundaries can be said to be where we bump up against our own values, morals, personal capacity, and identity.
Internal Boundaries Examples
Examples of internal boundaries include, as outlined in this doodle:
- Knowing and honoring our capacity.
- A primary internal boundary is developing the capacity to hold in mind the dissonance between what we would like to do and what we are actually able to do.
- Example: being invited to cohost a podcast that sounds exciting, but refusing because we know that our job will be very stressful for the next few months.
- Taking responsibility for what’s ours.
- Internal boundaries include responsibility for one’s self and being curious about the consequences of how we move in the world.
- Example: instead of blaming our partner for not being attentive to our needs, we might thoughtfully reflect on how our fierce independent streak might actually make it really hard for our partner to anticipate our needs, and – in realizing that – choose to try intentionally communicating when and where we need their support.
- Cultivating self-awareness.
- Example: good boundaries of all types require that we know where we and others begin (Whitfield, 1993). We can do this by growing an awareness of our “self” and an ability to reflect on how experiences impact us.
- Being curious and not defensive
- Example: overly protective internal boundaries may cause us to become defensive anytime we perceive an offense. Internal boundaries that respect ourselves and leave space for supportive relationships to grow replace defensiveness with curiosity – or the ability to wonder what actually happened and mindfully consider the intent of others. This internal boundary can help us remain open to new satisfying experiences and new supportive relationships.
- Honoring our limits
- Similar to honoring our capacity, honoring our limits asks us to reflect on our own personal values and ethics.
- Example: mindfully considering our personal sexual ethic and sticking to those values when circumstances might tempt us to violate what we’ve decided is right for us*.
- *A personal sexual ethic can change and grow through a lifetime, but not making choices in the heat of the moment that we will regret later is key to honoring our limits.
Internal and External Boundaries in Families
The concept of internal/external boundaries has a specific meaning within some models of family therapy. In this article and illustration, I’m using the terms in a generic sense: dividing the concept of personal boundaries into boundaries that project out into the world versus boundaries that reflect inward.
Building Internal Boundaries
Creating internal boundaries that support personal development and mental health can be challenging for many people. For individuals who grew up in abusive environments or have been part of very codependent relationships, it can be challenging to set internal boundaries because there’s no strong sense of self or personal identity. Good therapy can help in two ways: by developing a stronger sense of self and through intentional skill-building in healthy internal boundary setting.
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External Boundaries Definition
External boundaries are boundaries we set regarding how we allow others to treat us. External boundaries can also be the frame we use that shapes our behavior and how we show up in relationships with other people. External boundaries are often never thought about until they are challenged by someone behaving in a way that makes us uncomfortable. Intentional thought about creating and setting external boundaries can benefit us and the people we are in relationships with.
External Boundaries Examples
External boundaries include (but are not limited to):
- Communicating needs and expectations.
- Boundaries most often cause problems in relationships when they are invisible. Without defined boundaries, our boundaries will likely be violated. Conversations about boundaries don’t have to be Big Serious Conversations™, they can be as simple as saying, “I’m going to be out of town this weekend. I’m looking forward to getting a break from everything, so please don’t contact me unless it’s an emergency,” or “Please let me know if you won’t be there so I can make other plans.”
- Setting boundaries on our time.
- Time is precious, and setting boundaries around time is one of the easiest external boundaries to set.
- Example: “I can’t do a girl’s weekend, but I’d love to spend the day with you,” or “I’m having a backyard barbecue this Saturday from 5:30 to 8 PM, can you come?” Letting people know the limits of our time, like when things begin and when they will end, is a boundary that can care for ourselves, others, and our relationships.
- Choosing to be mindfully present.
- Showing up for each other matters, and it’s getting harder and harder as our lives are increasingly filled with distractions and busy-ness.
- Example: when you’ve committed to giving someone your time, show up, turn your phone off, and pay attention without distraction.
- Acknowledging when we’ve messed up.
- This is a critical part of relationship building – relationships don’t have to end after a dispute. They can actually grow stronger if we have good internal and external boundaries.
- Example: two friends have very different boundaries, and one perceives that the other has violated their boundaries. Good external boundaries are exploring – together – where those boundaries bumped into each other, acknowledging where fault is appropriate, and engaging in repair. (Find the steps for engaging in relationship repair via this article about rupture and repair.)
- Holding boundaries when challenged.
- If we have set our own internal boundaries around our capacity and our limits, then almost inevitably we will find ourselves in the position of setting external boundaries that match those internal boundaries.
- Example: we’ve set an internal boundary around ethical behavior, but a friend offers to apply a low quality, temporary fix to our broken down car so it can be sold at a higher value. Good external boundaries might mean communicating to our friend that we are not comfortable with that option.
How to Set External Boundaries
Setting healthy external boundaries is something that all of us will be navigating – whether intentionally or not – throughout our lifetimes. Like internal boundaries, creating good external boundaries can be really difficult if our personal narrative includes stories of trauma, abuse, or codependence. External boundaries are especially important because they help serve as a compass, or a sort of North Star, to help navigate a world full of confusing relationships. External boundaries can help prevent burnout and vicarious trauma.
Boundaries help us navigate in the world as we negotiate between our internal self and the external world. Boundaries, both internal and external, work best when we’ve mindfully considered them through internal introspection and, if appropriate, psychotherapy. With care and mindfulness to respecting the boundaries of ourselves and others, we increase the potential to move through life with more satisfying relationships and less disruptive conflicts with others.
Image description for screen readers:
Image with a white background. The top of the image has a cloud-like header with the title “Boundaries are internal & external” inside.
Below the header is a drawing of a person that looks like an x-ray with bones in the forefront over a shadowed body outline.
On the left side of the person is a gold banner that reads “inside bits.” The internal boundaries listed in bullet-point form are: “Knowing and honoring our capacity, taking responsibility for what’s ours, cultivating self-awareness, being curious and not defensive, and honoring our limits.”
On the right side of the person is a gold banner that reads “outside bits.” The external boundaries listed in bullet-point form are: “Communicating needs and expectations, setting boundaries on our time, choosing to be mindfully present, acknowledging when we’ve messed up, and holding boundaries.”
Image created by @LindsayBraman.