What is a boundary?
Well, there are probably lots of ways to understand boundaries, for all kinds of contexts. In counselling, when we are looking at interpersonal boundaries, we define them simply as “what is OK and what is not OK”.
That means personal boundaries might be different for different people?
Ever have a conversation with someone at a cocktail party, and they feel a little close, so you take a half step back as you’re chatting. And in a few moments, they feel too close again, and you step back with the other foot? And after 15 minutes of chatting, you’ve backed up 15 feet and they are still too close?
Yep, their physical personal space boundary is closer than yours.
Not right. Not wrong. Just different.
What are some examples of personal boundaries?
Well…one easy example is in the previous question…the amount of physical distance you like between yourself and others (which will vary depending on how well you know that person).
- feeling your own feelings without others telling you what you are feeling
- making your own decisions. You might be influenced by others, and some decisions might be ok for others to make…other ones you want to make independently.
- deciding how busy you are,
- deciding what you will say “Yes” to
- knowing when and how you want to be touched and when you don’t want to be touched
- what you wear, how much you drink, what you eat, what career you pick, how you converse with another–
These are all areas where one has boundaries which one can assert, or where one can feel their boundaries violated
Do some people have more problems than others?
Some have a lot more difficult asserting their own boundaries and/or respecting the boundaries of others.
Those who tend to have more problems with boundaries are:
- those who find their value in being liked by others. “People pleasers” are often pulled into letting others step on their boundaries so that they will be seen as “nice” by others
- those who grew up in homes that were chaotic and boundaries weren’t acknowledged or respected.
- those who live or have lived in a home where there is an addiction.
- And lots of others too!
Can you give me an example of growing up with poor boundaries?
Dad doesn’t come home from work for the planned family dinner. When Mom calls him, she hears his slurred speech and the background noise of the bar. Mom is upset and pour out her heart to her child who is standing nearby (Telling a child something that is between parents- Boundary Violation #1). She cries and is angry and is almost beside herself and the child is frightened, so the child begins to calm the mother down (Child delivering emotional care to the parent- BV#2) enough so that she can put the child to bed. The next morning, when the child sees Dad, the child is angry, but realizes he quickly should be happy when Dad cheerfully says that Mom was overreacting and that a guys is allowed to get a drink once in a while (The child is talked out of a feeling and is pressured to feel a certain way- BV#3). Dad asks the child not to tell Grandma and Grandpa about the incident. (A child is told to keep a secret from a loved one at a level–that’s an unreasonable pressure for a child- BV#4)
You see how that can mess with a kid’s head?
Whose job is it to make sure boundaries are observed?
Simply put, yours.
It’s your job to teach other people what your boundaries are. Because you are a unique individual, you will have a unique set of boundaries that you will need to inform others about.
And on the other side, part of being responsive in a healthy relationship, is to ask about boundaries, remember the other person’s boundaries and be respectful of them. Boundaries can change over time, but to coerce another person to change their boundary is, in itself, a boundary violation. Not cool.
But expecting others to respect my boundaries is uncomfortable and at times, awkward. It the discomfort worth it?
Darn rights, it’s worth it!
Clarifying your boundaries ultimately helps you to be a happier, healthy person. You’re less resentful, more energetic, more at peace, less exhausted, less frustrated and angry.
- Quite simply, it makes your life better when you’re not over committed to too many people and projects because you don’t let yourself say no
- You are able to feel your feelings and express them to others
- You make your world safer because people know what doesn’t feel good for you
And many people think that having good boundaries will make a person stand-offish and distant. In actual fact, they are freed up to be warmer and kinder because their inner resources are at healthy levels.
So often, folks in our anger management program fundamentally struggle with boundaries. They say nothing when people are offensive and hurtful…and then one day, they snap aggressively. Part of getting the anger to be constructive is figuring out how to healthily assert one’s own boundaries and to respect others’ boundaries.
Great video from Brené Brown about this:
I have trouble with boundaries. What do I do?
Give yourself permission to learn about them, to practice. It’s ok to admit that you don’t do boundaries well.
Learn to stop and listen to your body. Ask yourself, “Is it OK for me when this person touches me this way?”, or “How do I really feel about that person’s request?” or “What did I feel when my husband said what he did?”
So often, people don’t know boundaries because they simply haven’t stopped to listen to their bodies and ask, “What is OK and what is not OK?”
Know that it takes courage to start practicing boundaries. It’s not gonna be easy, and there will be sweaty palms involved.
Talk to a friend who seems to have good boundaries and pick their brain. Find out how they do what they do. Become a student of learning boundaries.
You’ll be glad you did. And while some of your family members or friends might not be thrilled at first, in the long run, everybody wins!