What Are Personal Boundaries?

Ray Hawk

Personal boundaries are a collection of physical and psychological limitations that individuals require to maintain a sense of privacy and autonomy in their day-to-day lives. While what defines acceptable limits for personal boundaries varies from individual to individual and also from culture to culture, common themes exist. Increasing levels of portable and easily accessible communications technology have also served to add stress to the ability to maintain acceptable levels of distance and privacy within society.

Personal space boundaries differ by culture.
Personal space boundaries differ by culture.

Included in the concept of personal boundaries is the concept of acceptable behavior in social groups. Both religious and political beliefs as well as levels of economic and social status in a group will create a unique set of personal boundaries for each individual. What may be entirely tolerable for one person as a subject of conversation may be intolerable for another. Such violations of personal boundaries often remain hidden unless the offended individual is willing to face rejection and admit that the behavior is unacceptable to him or her.

A raised fist can be meant to limit someone's personal boundaries.
A raised fist can be meant to limit someone's personal boundaries.

Spatial empathy, or the study of proxemics, is one aspect of personal boundaries that is immediately apparent when individuals intermix in unfamiliar social settings or cultures. Human beings retain a personal space, or bubble of territory, around themselves as they move about, with a psychological claim to it as their own. When this is intruded upon, it can be a violation of personal boundaries. Proxemics is the study of how this space is defined by individual cultures, and includes not only individual space, but also the space allotted to distinguish homes and towns from one another as well.

Citizens of the US and Northern Europe tend to define a larger personal space than people of other cultures, which is the distance close enough to shake hands, or about 2.5 feet (0.8 meters), whereas Latin American or Middle Eastern concepts of personal space can be less than 1 foot (0.3 meters). This has the net result of social encounters where those with larger defined spaces back away from those with more narrowly defined spaces, who are compelled to continually move in closer, creating discomfort for both groups. By contrast, some Asian cultures like that of Japan demonstrate an even larger personal space, where the practice of bowing requires at least three feet (0.91 meters) of distance from the other individual.

The merging of acceptable personal boundaries involves nonverbal communication, such as hand gestures and body movements, which are known to be a large part of how human beings convey emotions. Nonverbal communication is used to communicate personal boundaries in one of two ways. Either it is composed of symbolic gestures meant to establish levels of assertiveness such as a thumbs up gesture, or a raised fist, which can be a bullying gesture used to limit someone else's personal boundaries. Such communication can also be composed of conversational gestures coordinated with speech to convey an increased sense of meaning and group solidarity.

Environmental psychology suggests that when an individual has mixed into a culture or social group that is different from his or her own, it is his or her obligation to adapt his or her personal boundaries to more closely align with those of the group, at least on a temporary basis. At the same time, most social psychology recommendations are for individuals to be more vocal in expressing their comfort level and values with regard to boundaries since the natural inclination is to suppress them. When such boundaries are rebuilt however, it can often lead to failed relationships, as strong differences prevent close interaction.

Bowing is a common practice in Japan, and requires a certain amount of space between two people.
Bowing is a common practice in Japan, and requires a certain amount of space between two people.

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Discussion Comments


My problem has always been setting personal boundaries in relationships. There are times when I don't want someone hugging me or putting their arm around when I'm not prepared for that kind of intimacy. It has nothing to do with my feelings for that person, but more to do with the way I grew up. My family usually kept their distance around each other, and we rarely gave out hugs or pats on the back. I've dated women who grew up in families that practically wrestled each other every time they met.

It's never easy to have the conversation about personal space boundaries. Someone who enjoys snuggling or hugging might not understand why someone else doesn't like to be touched.


I have found that my personal space boundaries change depending on the circumstances. My wife and children can practically climb on top of me, but I feel uncomfortable if a co-worker stands within three feet of me. There have been times when I've tried to work on a creative writing project and have had to order people out of my imaginary personal space. I just can't concentrate when someone gets too close for comfort.

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