Setting Healthy Boundaries

Have you ever wondered why when we ‘try harder,’ ‘act nicer,’ or attempt to take care of others, it just doesn’t seem to work? Things don’t feel any better.  Have we looked clearly at our own boundaries first to make sure we are taking care of ourselves?  Just what is ‘a boundary’, you ask?  Boundaries are a form of property lines for our inner self; they assist us in knowing what our responsibilities are and are not.  Simply, boundaries keep the good in and the bad out. Boundaries exist in emotional, spiritual, sexual, and relational form.  Boundaries are limits as to what feels safe and appropriate, and they help bring order to our lives.  When we begin to define and strengthen our boundaries, we gain a clearer sense of who we are and what our relationships with others are about.  Maintaining healthy boundaries empowers us to decide how we will allow others to treat us and also provides the assurance that we have the tools to protect ourselves from painful acts of others.  Examples of boundaries include our own skin, time, emotional distance, and other people.

There are two main types of boundaries:  physical and emotional.  Physical boundaries are marked by skin; for example, deciding who can touch us and how is a physical boundary.  Emotional boundaries are defined by our requirements for safety. Choosing how we want others to treat us is an emotional boundary.  Determining what personal comments we will allow others to make is an emotional boundary. Emotional boundaries define the self.  Each of our unique selves is made up of a complex of values, beliefs, thoughts, ideas, feelings, and dreams.  Healthy emotional boundaries protect this complex.  The right to say ‘no’ and the freedom to say ‘yes’ strengthens emotional boundaries as does respect for feelings and acceptance of differences.   How we feel is an important source of information in learning to set healthy boundaries.  These feelings connect us with meaning, and we begin to learn emotional boundaries by the responses given to us by others.

When our boundaries are violated, it becomes difficult to reestablish new and firmer boundaries.  Violations of boundaries exist in two categories: intrusion and distance.  Violations of intrusion occur when a physical or emotional boundary is breached; incest is an example.  Violations of distance occur when intimacy is not appropriate to the relationship, such as cutting off or removing when closeness would be appropriate for the relationship.  If there is confusion about what is appropriate behavior with or from another person, determining what type of relationship it is may help define behavior within that relationship.

In learning to set boundaries, we need to explore:

  • What are the areas of conflicts in my life?
  • Who and what do I feel responsible for?
  • Who and what do I feel responsible to?
  • What healthy boundaries have I set in my life?  How did they work for me?
  • What unhealthy boundaries do I currently live by? What consequences did I encounter as a result?

Most of us generally buy into several “myths” around boundaries as we begin to set our own; consequently, we find it is “just easier” to go on doing things the way we always have, which keeps the unhealthy cycle of codependence in motion.  Some of these myths are:

  • If I set this as a boundary for myself, then I am being selfish (what is the difference between selfish and self-centered?)
  • If I set boundaries, I will be defying authority (bosses, parents, spouses, children, etc.)
  • If I set this boundary, then I will lose the ones I love and be abandoned.
  • If I set boundaries, I will hurt others.
  • Setting boundaries means I am angry.
  • If you set boundaries, then I will be hurt.
  • I can’t set that boundary; ‘they’ have been so nice/helpful/etc. to me.
  • Boundaries are forever:  If I set boundaries, I won’t be able to change them.

Why do we resist setting boundaries as well as accepting other’s boundaries?  Resistances to boundaries usually come in the form of external or internal sources:  External sources of resistance include:

  • Anger (a natural outcome at the beginning of the boundary-setting process)
  • Guilt (also rage in disguise and must be processed as not the problem)
  • Physical (resources can provide empowerment)
  • Pain of others (real or imagined, evaluate your motives and the other’s pain)

Internal sources of resistance may be:

  • Unmet needs of your own
  • Unresolved grief or loss
  • Fear of the unknown
  • External focus; blaming others rather than taking responsibility yourself
  • Guilt

One of the many benefits of learning to set boundaries is that they tell us where we begin and where we end. Each of us has the right to have a self, a self that feels protected and safe.  Our emotional health is directly related to the health of our boundaries, and learning to identify ourselves through boundaries can provide freedom in our lives. We are not born to be victims; setting and identifying healthy boundaries can empower us.  It is never too late to begin to build healthy boundaries for yourself.

Source: Boundaries: When to say Yes, When to say No, to take control of your life (Cloud and Townsend)

Pat Drerup-Cotter, LPF For more information call 404-402-2176 or contact Pat here.