Understanding and Setting Clear Boundaries
What are boundaries?
Boundaries define who you are and separate out what you think and feel from the thoughts and feelings of others. Boundaries are the limits that you create to identify reasonable, safe and acceptable ways for others to behave towards you.
Boundaries are first developed in childhood and you develop healthy boundaries by being taught that all people have equal rights and can expect their relationships to be respectful and reciprocal, with a healthy level of give and take. When you have healthy boundaries, you are confident expressing your emotions and needs and you are not threatened by other people expressing theirs.
Unfortunately, no one gets to be raised in a perfect world by perfect parents and so it can often be a long and difficult journey towards developing healthy boundaries.
Whilst growing up, you may have received messages that it was selfish to express your emotions or rude to say “no.” This can lead to you being extremely accommodating of other people’s emotional needs, at the expense of your own and you may now experience some of the following tendencies:
Bottling up your emotions
Absorbing other people’s pain
Needing to be liked all the time
Often feeling used and taken advantage of
Feeling as though you are always in the wrong
Giving in and agreeing whether you want to or not
Taking on responsibility for other people’s problems
Believing that it is rude or selfish to say what you want
Feeling as though you are never good enough as you are
Blurred boundaries can lead to enmeshed relationships, in which your sense of self blurs into another person’s identity. You can be especially vulnerable to forming enmeshed relationships if in childhood you learned to suppress your own needs and focus exclusively on the needs of others. You may now find yourself being overly responsible in relationships and doing too much for others to try and please them and make them happy.
This can lead to an increased sensitivity to changes in other people’s moods and leave you feeling emotionally drained. You may also feel guilty about disappointing others or not living up to their expectations, which may contribute to you pushing on and ignoring your own needs. If you continue to do this, you are vulnerable to being exploited and you are likely to end up feeling depleted, resentful and emotionally exhausted.
People often mistake enmeshed relationships for true intimacy, which they are not. The healthiest kinds of relationships are those in which people recognise their differences and respect each other’s limits. If two people have worked hard on their individual development and boundaries before forming a relationship, they are streets ahead of those who expect to “never have a cross word.” True intimacy takes lots of time, arguments, communication, mistakes, acceptance, forgiveness and support.
When a whole family is enmeshed, every family member is pressured to think and feel the same way the dominant family member thinks and feels. Superficially, such families may appear close, yet often individuals feel very distant from each other and they can get caught up in family dramas, with little sense of themselves in the situation. It can be very difficult to express different views or opinions in an enmeshed family, where conformity is prized above authenticity. If that is you, check out how you feel the next time you are leaving the family BBQ, dinner or holiday.
What is the impact of abuse on boundaries?
Your boundaries are always being violated if you are in an abusive situation. Abuse can take many forms including physical, sexual and emotional. In an emotionally abusive situation, you absorb someone else’s emotional pain because of threats or criticisms directed at you. The other person may blame you rather than take responsibility for how they are feeling and you may end up feeling guilty for no good reason.
Sometimes, if you have suffered from abuse or neglect, you can become so hungry for affection and affirmation that you may allow yourself to be taken advantage of and abused for the little nurture that you do get in that situation. Sometimes you may give yourself away sexually when what you want is kindness and care.
Whilst blurred boundaries can lead to enmeshed relationships, rigid boundaries are at the other extreme and can lead to emotional distance in relationships. Often in response to childhood abuse, loss or neglect, people build emotional brick walls which block close connection with others. If this is you, it may feel easier to isolate yourself than to form intimate and trusting relationships with others, in which each person shares their vulnerabilities. You may be fiercely independent in your relationships, preferring to control situations and keep people at arm’s length. You may avoid ever depending on others and even a friendly, kind gesture may be interpreted as intrusive.
Rigid boundaries are associated with the following tendencies:
Limiting social interaction
Avoiding emotional intimacy
Stonewalling others with silence
Dismissing other people’s feelings
Pushing people away with criticism
Seeing other people as emotionally needy
Putting other people off with walls of anger
Focusing on work, hobbies, interests etc. to the point of excluding connection with others
Building Healthy Boundaries
Healthy boundaries honour your right:
To be yourself
To ask for help
To have privacy
To not be abused
To make mistakes
To change your mind
To trust your instincts
To take care of yourself
To express your opinions
To be treated with respect
To have power over your life
To comfortably say “yes” and “no”
Building healthy boundaries requires a commitment to building greater self-awareness, as you need to be able to connect with how you are feeling in order to recognise when interactions are blurring or crossing your boundaries. Knowing what you can tolerate and acknowledging what makes you feel stressed and pressured will help you get to know your limits, which you can then communicate to others. It can take time to understand and build healthy boundaries, but it is worth the effort. Healthy boundaries give you freedom to define who you are, be clear about your limits and ultimately develop positive and fulfilling relationships with others.
Katherine, Anne. (2000) Boundaries – Where You End And I Begin. Parkside Publishing