What are boundaries?
All relationships need boundaries. A boundary is an imaginary line that separates me from you. They separate your physical space, your feelings, needs, and responsibilities from others. Your boundaries also tell other people how they can treat you – what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Without boundaries, people may take advantage of you because you haven’t set limits about how you expect to be treated.
You can think of a boundary as a property line. My friend Chris had a problem with his neighbor that perfectly illustrates how boundaries work. Chris’ neighbor would come into his yard and bring Chris’ newspaper from the driveway to his doorstep. She’d pick a few of Chris’ flowers along the way. Chris felt annoyed but didn’t say anything. Chris figured it wasn’t worth making a stink over it. The neighbor probably assumed it was okay for her to move the paper and take a few flowers. Maybe she thought she was doing Chris a favor. Months passed like this. Chris would sometimes find her neighbor’s dog in his yard. The dog pooped on his grass and chased away the birds at his bird feeder. Still, Chris said nothing. He wanted to be a “good neighbor.” He didn’t want a reputation for being difficult and he worried his neighbor might get angry at him if he told her to stay off his property. Finally, Chris came home one day to find the neighbor’s kids playing in his yard – yelling, trampling the flowers, leaving empty juice boxes on his front step, and throwing toys around like they owned the place. Understandably, Chris’ blood was boiling at this point.
Chris was responsible for not setting and enforcing the boundary. He allowed his neighbor to take advantage of his lack of boundaries. Certainly, it seems Chris’ neighbor behaved badly. She is, of course, responsible for her own actions, her kids, and her dog. Some behaviors are clearly wrong, but many, like the actions of Chris’ neighbor, start out in the gray area - acceptable to some people and not acceptable to others. Chris’ neighbor may or may not have known that Chris didn't like her picking the flowers. The point is, when you don’t speak up and say that a boundary has been crossed, it gives the impression that you’re okay with it.
It would have been better for everyone if from the beginning Chris had said, “Hi Neighbor. I’m sure you didn’t realize it, but I like to bring in my own paper and please don't pick the flowers in my yard.”
When a boundary is crossed, you need to provide feedback saying it's not okay. The boundary is worthless if you don’t enforce it by giving feedback and consequences. Some people will easily accept a boundary and others will continue to challenge and escalate it. So, if Chris’ neighbor continued to violate the boundaries, he’d need to address it with her again. The specific consequences depend on the nature of the relationship and the history of the relationship.
Chris could build a 10-foot-tall fortress around his house. This would definitely keep his neighbor away, but it would also keep out his friends and everyone else he wants to see. Chris needs a flexible boundary, like a fence with a gate, that keeps unwanted people out while still allowing other people in.
Why do you need boundaries?
Like Chris, without boundaries, you're going to have dogs sh**ting all over your lawn. You've probably already experienced the human equivalent of this.
- Boundaries allow you to be your true self
Boundaries create a separateness that allows you to have your own feelings, make your own decisions, and know and ask for what you want without needing to please others.
- Boundaries are a form of self-care
Healthy emotional boundaries mean you value your own feelings and needs and you’re not responsible for how others feel or behave. Boundaries allow you to let go of worrying about how others feel and places accountability squarely with the individual.
Boundaries also keep you from overextending yourself. You can't take on every project, work every shift, or be on every committee that you're asked to join. Boundaries mean saying "no" to things that don't align with your priorities.
- Boundaries create realistic expectations
Whether it’s with a friend, spouse, neighbor, or boss, relationships function best when we know what’s expected. When you clearly communicate your boundaries, people know how they’re expected to behave. When expectations aren't communicated and met, resentment and anger grow.
- Boundaries create safety
Boundaries provide physical and emotional safety by keeping out what feels uncomfortable or hurtful.
What prevents you from setting boundaries?
Now that we’ve talked about what emotional boundaries look like and why we need boundaries, let’s explore why we fail to set boundaries even when we believe they’re important.
It’s scary to do something different. What are you actually afraid of? How likely is this to happen? What will happen if you set a boundary? What will happen if you don’t? By asking yourself questions like these, you can give yourself a reality check and find out if your fear is alerting you of real danger or keeping you stuck.
Similar to fear, ambivalence represents that you aren’t 100% convinced that boundaries will solve your problem. Some ambivalence is fine. You don't need to be 100% sure before you act.
- You don’t know how
If you grew up in a family without boundaries, you probably never saw anyone model or teach you healthy boundaries. Setting boundaries is a skill that can be learned. Stay tuned: my next post is going to teach you specific steps for setting boundaries.
- Low self-worth
Some part of you feels unworthy or unlovable. Therefore, you always struggle to prove your worth by putting other people's needs before your own. You’re not used to being treated with respect, so you don’t even know what it looks like.
You don’t want to ruffle feathers. You don’t want to disappoint people. You’ll pretty much avoid conflict at all costs.
The truth is that setting boundaries can disrupt relationship systems. You will probably get resistance. Sometimes this resistance isn’t as bad as you imagined. Other times, there is a real danger. If you think that setting a boundary will put you in serious harm, please get help. One such resource is the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or http://www.thehotline.org/.
Like most things, setting boundaries becomes easier with practice. It takes time to gain confidence and learn new skills. And it takes time for others to adjust to your new boundaries.
Are you ready to learn how to set boundaries without guilt?
I created a workbook full of practical exercises designed to help you set boundaries and realize that it's healthy -- not wrong -- to take care of your own needs. These are the same exercises that I've used in my psychotherapy practice for nearly twenty years. They're available as PDF, so you can easily download them and get to work immediately. For more info and to view sample pages, click HERE.