Learning About Boundaries | Counseling | Therapy

Learning About Boundaries

Jessica Soriano , LSW — Associate therapist

Learning About Boundaries image

We’ve all heard the word “boundaries.” Boundaries are a popular buzzword that have crossed from mental health and psychology circles into the mainstream. Boundaries are one of the most important gifts we can give ourselves and others.

Boundaries, in many ways, serve as our personal defense mechanisms, drawing lines in the sand to protect our well-being. They discern what is acceptable and what is not, orchestrating the delicate dance of our interactions with others and the world. These boundaries are not one-size-fits-all; they adapt and evolve depending on the people with whom we engage.

What are Boundaries?

Boundaries, at their core, are like the protective walls around a castle, shielding the precious treasures within. They are the invisible lines or personal shields we consciously or unconsciously establish to safeguard our physical, emotional, mental, and social well-being. Think of them as the rules of engagement that dictate how we interact with others and the world around us.

These boundaries come in various forms, each serving a distinct purpose. Some are as clear as a "Do Not Enter" sign, requiring explicit communication or action, while others are tacit, known through societal norms and unspoken expectations. Regardless of their form, the knowledge of our personal boundaries equips us with a powerful tool for navigating the complex landscape of human interaction.

Boundaries are multifaceted and extend across various domains of our lives:

  • Physical Boundaries: These pertain to our personal space, comfort zones, and the level of physical contact we are comfortable with.

    For example, it is a physical boundary to decide who can touch you and how.

  • Emotional Boundaries: Emotional boundaries encompass the protection of our feelings and emotional well-being. They dictate how much emotional investment we are willing to make in various relationships and situations.

    For example, it is an emotional boundary to decide how much of our feelings we share with others.

  • Intellectual Boundaries: These boundaries define the extent to which we share our thoughts, ideas, and opinions with others. They can also encompass the level of intellectual engagement we seek in conversations.

    For example, it is an intellectual boundary to decide with whom we share our political views and how much we choose to share.

  • Time Boundaries: Time boundaries revolve around how we allocate our time and energy. They determine when we are available for work, leisure, and personal pursuits, and when we need time for self-care or reflection.

    For example, it is a time boundary to decide how much we work after leaving the office or while we are on vacation.

  • Material Boundaries: Material boundaries involve our possessions, belongings, and resources. They dictate who can borrow our things, when, and under what conditions.

    For example, it is a material boundary to decide if we want to use our money to buy things for others.

  • Social Boundaries: Social boundaries guide our interactions within different social settings and groups. They define the roles we play and the behaviors expected in various social contexts.

    For example, it is a social boundary to decide how often we want to see our friends and how we spend our time with them.

  • Sexual Boundaries: These boundaries revolve around our comfort levels and preferences regarding intimate and sexual interactions.

    For example, it is a sexual boundary to decide how often we are intimate with our partners and how we engage in the bedroom.

In essence, boundaries are the glue that holds our personal space and integrity together. They enable us to maintain a sense of autonomy, individuality, and self-respect in our interactions with others. Boundaries are not rigid, one-size-fits-all constructs; they adapt and evolve based on the specific relationships and situations we encounter.

Learning about boundaries and communicating them is not just an act of self-preservation; it is a fundamental aspect of healthy human interactions. They serve as the guardrails that guide us through the complexities of life, ensuring that we engage in ways that align with our values, needs, and comfort levels. By navigating the terrain of boundaries, we pave the way for more fulfilling, respectful, and harmonious relationships with others and ourselves.

Why is Learning About Boundaries Important?

Learning about boundaries is essential as boundaries play a role in:

  • Keeping us safe and comfortable.
    They help us define what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in our interactions with others and the world around us. Our boundaries will differ based on the people with whom we interact. In an ideal world, we have clear boundaries with our partner(s), child(ren), family, friends, coworkers, and strangers. Some boundaries are more flexible, allowing for closer interactions with those we trust, while others are more rigid, keeping some people at a distance.

    We might have boundaries around what we communicate with others. For example, sharing our feelings, challenges, and dreams with our partner who we know and trust, whereas we might keep conversation at a more superficial level with colleagues.

  • Helping us navigate different situations.
    They establish the rules of engagement and create an element of predictability, which in turn helps us navigate the world safely and effectively.

    Some boundaries are implied (e.g. don’t go out in public naked), some are assumed (e.g., don’t hug strangers), and some we may not even know we need (e.g., only sharing emotional vulnerability with people we feel safe with regardless of when someone asks).

  • Regulating our emotions.
    When we have boundaries in place and our boundaries are being respected, we are more likely to feel content in our lives and our relationships. If we do not have well-defined boundaries or other people are not respectful of our boundaries, we are more prone to negative feelings like exhaustion, resentment, and unhappiness.

    Our emotions after interacting with others can be telling regarding whether there is a need not being met or a boundary being violated. For example, there might be people in your life who you feel energized or relaxed around, whereas there might be others who make you feel exhausted after an interaction.

  • Ensuring mutual respect in our relationships.
    While it is essential to be attuned with our own needs, it is also critical to be aware and respectful of others’ boundaries. In relationships, boundaries promote mutual respect, clear communication, emotional well-being, healthy conflict resolution, and individuality. When we understand and respect the boundaries of others, we show empathy, kindness, and compassion.

    Have you ever been in a situation where your actions may have been hurtful, offensive, or dismissive to someone else and you had no idea? How did coming to that understanding affect your behavior moving forward? Did how the person communicate affect your response? While it is important for us to be respectful of others, we cannot be expected to read minds or predict what might be triggering for someone. Similarly, we cannot expect people to read out minds unless we directly communicate our needs. We all have the right to have a voice and to be treated with respect and care.

  • Defining our needs and values.
    Boundaries separate us from others. Our boundaries are basically just our needs, limits, and preferences. They exist across a whole host of domains. We can have boundaries relative to our physical, emotional, intellectual, time, material, social, and sexual needs.

    For example, when leading a presentation you might decide beforehand that you would like to take questions and comments at the end so that you are able to establish yourself as the topic expert and stay focused on the material.

How Do I Tune Into My Personal Boundaries?

Knowing your boundaries means having a good grasp on your needs and your limits. The first step to all of this is leaning into how you feel emotionally based on different scenarios and your interactions with different people.

People who are new to boundaries might need to look at situations retroactively, engaging in deeper reflection of both negative and positive interactions. Looking at situations can provide perspective and practice that can make assessing and asserting boundaries in the present easier overtime.

In some cases you may not have an emotional response or recognize that anything is amiss. If this scenario may apply to you or if you find it challenging to navigate your feelings and needs, you can explore this with the support of a therapist.

Who Might Have Difficulty Defining and Setting Boundaries?

Boundaries can be life changing. The problem is that it can be difficult to know how to better understand your boundaries when we as a society have not been given the tools to learn about them or understand them. Similarly, it can be difficult to be in touch with our feelings if that was never modeled for us or if we were never given permission to feel our emotions to the fullest extent. Family dynamics, upbringing, and early life experiences can play a significant role in shaping a person’s ability to establish and maintain healthy boundaries.

Our backgrounds can complicate this aspect of personal development, especially if we come from an environment(s) such as a household, school, or circle of peers where compliance is the norm and personal autonomy is not celebrated, whether it be modeled, subtly discouraged, or suppressed. Sometimes this comes down to family dynamics, other times it may be cultural.

Perhaps your parents had poor boundary setting or struggled with asserting their needs. Perhaps you come from a household with more rigid rules and expectations. Perhaps you may have experienced the exact opposite where you had no rules or expectations, which comes with its own difficulties. Perhaps you come from a culture that prizes collectivist thinking,which prioritizes what is beneficial for the family over what is important to each individual. Perhaps you were in a situation where you inadvertently learned to suppress your feelings and needs. Perhaps you experienced something traumatic that caused you to shut down and disconnect from yourself. Understanding the context of what makes it difficult to know your feelings, needs, and boundaries can be an important catalyst to inspire growth.

If you don’t have a good grasp on your feelings and needs, you may have to work on navigating your boundaries retroactively. It will involve some trial and error; you may experience different situations and scenarios that leave you feeling uncomfortable without understanding why.

Need More Support in Learning About Boundaries?

If you are new to boundaries, you may benefit from guidelines to help you explore your needs and prompt you to better understand your boundaries in any situation.

If you are feeling overwhelmed and would benefit from getting support from a therapist, at the Center for Growth, located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Ocean City, New Jersey, Mechanicsville, Virginia, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, trained therapists are available to help you with learning about boundaries.

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