Boundaries: Re-framing the concept
The term boundaries means the limits you set with others based on what you feel most comfortable with; this can be physically, emotionally,intellectually, sexually, the list goes on. If you are new to the concept of boundaries, it is common for boundaries to be perceived as rigid, or even isolating. It’s an understandable concern for people to think if they suddenly start implementing new “rules” or expectations of friends and family that they will be viewed as selfish or unreasonable. This assumption could not be further from the actual intention of boundaries. Boundaries are meant to improve our intimacy with others, and promote healthy relationships by helping individuals feel safe and respected in all situations.
What do boundaries do?
Have you ever heard the famous saying “You can’t control what other people do, all you can control is how you respond?” This saying goes hand-in-hand with the concept of boundaries. While we can’t control what others do, we can control how we respond to others. For example, If I have an alcoholic father, I can’t control how much he drinks, but I can choose to remove myself from the situation, and limit my interactions with him when he is drinking, because it is all too upsetting for me to deal with my father when he is under the influence. Boundaries keep us safe in an unsafe and uncontrollable world. Boundaries give a clear definition of what our limits are (emotionally, physically, spiritually, intellectually, etc.), and what we are comfortable with, and not comfortable when interacting with others.
A perfect example of boundaries: Work. Some work environments may be easier than others to carry out solid boundaries. A clear example: work is handled between the agreed upon hours, and co-workers and bosses respect that by giving you your privacy during off hours, by handling working matters only during office hours. If this is every challenged, it’s important you stand firm on what you are most comfortable with when balancing your work and personal life.
Okay, so where do I start?
So you’re on board with the concept of boundaries, but perhaps you’re not sure where you need them in your life, or maybe you wonder if you have solid boundaries already? Start by taking inventory of your primary relationships: mom, dad, partner, best friend, even co-workers/boss, etc. When you think of your current relationships with these people, what comes up for you? Think about recent interactions with friends, family, co-workers. Have you walked away from any situations where you just didn’t feel great with what went on, or how someone’s behavior impacted you? Maybe you felt unsafe, uncomfortable, or taken advantage of? Or do you ever feel that when you are around specific individuals it requires all of your energy and focus just to get through your time with them? If you can say “yes” to any of these questions, take a deeper look at the identified relationship and go further back into your history, is there a pattern here? Can you identify more than one instance where you felt unsure of how feelings or issues where handled when in the presence of this person?
Now that you’ve taken inventory, do you find boundaries to only be an issue with only specific, selective individuals? Or do you find you lack boundaries across the board with the majority of people who are in your life. If you have identified that overall, your lack of boundaries with the majority of your primary supports, you have work to do. It would be beneficial for you to consider working with a therapist if you want to explore why boundaries are so absent in your life, and how to start identifying what some of your basic needs and boundaries are.
Boundaries can come in many packages: they can be communicated through action, for example: removing yourself from situations in order to protect your boundaries or they can also be verbalized. For example: “I feel uncomfortable when talk negatively about our mutual friends in front me, and I want you to know next time it happens, I will not stick around to listen to the negative talk.”
Sometimes people feel they are overreacting when struggling with boundaries, it’s a common mistake for us to think it only our issue, or our fault, when we are uncomfortable with someone’s behavior.
Not everyone will accept your limits and requests with big smiles and open arms, especially when dealing with non-boundaried people. But if you are being communicative and honest upfront about your expectations and needs, they have the right to either get on board and move forward with you, or reject your request and walk away. This is the bittersweet aspect of boundaries, there is a risk here. Some may struggle to adjust with the new expectations and new consequences, but if they choose distance from you over building healthy intimacy, then it’s likely you are better off.
Boundaries take time, they take practice, and they are ever-changing. In the early stages you will make mistakes, and later on your boundaries and needs may change, and that’s okay. This is about you being honest with others and aware of who you are and what you need in order to connect and be close with others.
Don’t forget, you get what you give. If you expect others to respect your the boundaries you set, it’s only fair if you do the same and respect the boundaries set by others.