Odds are good that at some point in your life, someone has stressed the importance of boundaries. Odds are also good they weren’t specific, and you weren’t terribly sure what they meant by boundaries. When I was in school for my counseling degree, my professors constantly touted the importance of boundaries, but rarely did they delve into the complexities of boundaries.
When I think of boundaries, I think of the way they build skyscrapers. Modern day skyscrapers are designed to sway in the wind. Too rigid and they would snap under windy conditions and too much movement and you no longer have a building to bother with. How much they need to sway is of course dependent on geographic wind conditions, building height and a multitude of other factors beyond the reach of my therapist brain.
Ideally our boundaries function in the same way. Strong and able to withstand difficult conditions, but with enough flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances.
So important are boundaries to our wellbeing, our relationships, and our overall sense of identity, I have decided one write-up is insufficient. This will serve as the first in a series of writings, each focusing on a different aspect of boundaries.
So, what are boundaries?
Boundaries are essentially borders between us and other people. They may be emotional, physical, sexual, material or even relate to time. Boundaries inform our sense of identity and help us feel safe, secure, respected, and differentiated from others.
Part of what makes boundaries complex is not just the different types of boundaries, but also how they must shift between types of relationships. If you have the exact same boundaries with your partner, your dentist and the grocery store cashier, it is quite likely you are having an odd relationship with at least two of them.
Our profession and/or hobbies may also dictate what types of boundaries we need. A nurse and an accountant will certainly have different types of boundaries in place in their work setting. For example, if your accountant asks you to get on a scale, you might need a new accountant.
Although complex, you are probably already better at managing boundaries than you think. Here is a brief quiz, answer yes or no.
1. When arriving to a public bathroom stall, do you pop your head underneath the stall next to you to greet your neighbor?
2. When you notice a colleague missed a belt loop, do you undo their belt, and fix it for them?
3. While ordering coffee, do you take a moment to let the barista know about your most recent sexual escapade?
Assuming you answered no, you can see some versions of boundaries are automatic, instinctual even. With some practice and intention, more nuanced boundaries can feel the same. And by the way, if you answered yes to any of the above, you can assume someone will be discussing boundaries with you very soon.
Benefits of healthy boundaries
We often assume that people with strong boundaries are selfish or unkind. However, research indicates the opposite. In an interview, Brene Brown, PhD, shared the following, “one of my most shocking findings of my work was the idea that the most compassionate people I have interviewed over the last 13 years were also the absolutely most boundaried”. She goes on to provide her definition of boundaries, “boundaries are what is okay and what is not okay.”
When we have healthy boundaries, we have expectations for how people treat us. This often leads to improved mental/emotional health, avoidance of burnout, better developed sense of identity and improved relationships. As Brown states in her interview, “we often feel resentful or hateful when people violate an unspoken boundary.”
When we are clear with others about what we need, we provide them an opportunity to meet our need, or ideally let us know if they cannot.
Boundaries are a critical component of self-care, though we do not normally think of them that way. When we do not have healthy boundaries, each aspect of our life can be negatively affected, our finances, our jobs, our relationships, our mental health, and our sense of safety and privacy.
Admittedly, this is one of those easier said than done things. Setting boundaries is not always easy and certainly people may not like your boundaries. However, do not let any of that deter you. (Note: there are exceptions, most notably if there is a risk of violence or abuse. If you are in an abusive relationship, and need help, click here.)
Here are some basic guidelines to establishing a boundary:
1. Back up boundary setting with action.
2. Be direct, firm, and gracious.
3. Do not debate, defend, or over-explain.
4. Have support easily available on the sidelines in the beginning.
5. Stay strong, do not give in.
For example, let’s say you have a friend who makes unwanted, rude comments about your weight. You might say, “I know you care about me, but this is not something I am willing to discuss with you.” Now let’s say they persist. “If you continue to talk that way, I am going to have to ask you to leave.” Then stick to it. It might be difficult or uncomfortable, but you are worth standing up for.
How do I know if I have unhealthy boundaries?
Sometimes we feel the effects of poor boundaries, without knowing the cause. Below are some general examples. This is list is not exhaustive and naturally things like your work, your culture and your beliefs will shape them. Personal boundaries are reflective of what make you feel safe and secure.
Examples of potentially unhealthy boundaries:
Telling everyone, everything about yourself
Feeling responsible for others’ happiness
Going against personal values or rights to please others
Accepting food, gifts, touch, sex that you do not want.
Allowing someone to take as much as they can from you
You base how you feel about yourself on how others treat you
Believing others can anticipate your needs
Falling apart so someone will take care of you
Being overwhelmed by other peoples’ problems/emotions
Not noticing when someone else displays inappropriate boundaries
Substance use, guilt, shame, and depression can sometimes lead people to feel like they do not deserve to have good boundaries. The truth is, we all deserve to feel safe, secure, and respected. If you need help establishing boundaries, Substance Use Therapy is here for you. While the road to establishing them can be difficult, it tends to be well worth it. Boundaries are a process.
Looking for more information on boundaries? Keep reading the series.
The Boundary Series,Part 2 : Physical Boundaries
The Boundary Series, Part 3: Emotional Boundaries
The Boundary Series, Part 4: Time Boundaries
Brene Brown interview: https://www.theworkofthepeople.com/boundaries
About the Author:
Kimberly May, LPC-S, LMFT is the founder of Substance Use Therapy in Austin, TX. Kimberly works with individuals, couples, and families whose lives have been affected by substance use. By utilizing a harm reduction framework, Kimberly works effectively with people in any stage of use. In addition to substance use, she works with other issues such as anger, burn-out, anxiety and grief. Contact today to schedule a no-charge, 30 minute, in-person consultation.