Boundaries Basics


Most people have an idea about what boundaries are, but that doesn't mean that most people are great at setting boundaries. Discussing boundaries is common in therapy. Understanding boundaries is one of those basic concepts that is helpful to review periodically. It's kind of like a musician practicing their scales: the musician totally knows how to play a scale, but the repetition builds a base foundation for more complicated music. It's the same with boundaries and relationships. The more we practice boundaries, the better our relationships will be. Not only that, but we will have the skills to deal with more complicated relationships. (And relationships often tend to get complicated. Am I right?)

A boundary is a limit or barrier that separates you from something or someone else. Boundaries can be physical, mental, emotional, and relational. For example, a physical boundary could be your own personal space. When I teach the concept of boundaries to younger children, I often have them think of a hula hoop around their waist to define their personal space. A mental boundary indicates how much information you give and take. An emotional boundary is how much of your own emotions you share with others and how much of their emotions you let in to your own experience. It can also be how and when you express emotions. An example of a relational boundary refers to how much you talk to or spend time with another person. Those relational boundaries also take into account expectations, rules, and rituals in the relationship. Relational boundaries also incorporate those concepts of physical, mental, and emotional sharing.


I like to think of boundaries on a continuum from very rigid to very loose, like this:

Rigid/Closed/Cut-off ____________________________________

Healthy/Well-balanced - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Enmeshed/Loose - - - - - - - - - - - -

Rigid/Closed/Cut-off: The most extreme example of this boundary is a relationship where the 2 people are no longer speaking to each other. This happens in families and friendships. Bear in mind that being cut-off is unhealthy if you actually want a relationship with that person. Additionally, being totally cut-off from anyone is generally unhelpful. There are some very rare cases that being completely cut-off from certain people would be healthy. For example, situations of abuse or addiction may necessitate complete cut-off of some relationships. I generally don't recommend being completely cut-off from family members. I will always strive to find a way to have some sort of connection, albeit limited, with family members. Usually people with rigid boundaries have the attitude, "It's my way or the highway." They have a hard time accepting influence from others, and have rigid rules for interactions. Another example of a rigid boundary would be a parent who is inflexible to feedback from the children about rules. Or maybe the parent does not have an emotional connection with the child. Remember that boundaries are a two-way street, so parents of teenagers may struggle to have a closer relationship simply because the teen is experimenting with independence. :) Don't give up on them! They usually come back around. Enmeshed/too close: This type of boundary is the kind that people will say, "You have no boundaries!" It typically means that you have trouble distinguishing your own thoughts and emotions from the other person. For example, if the other person isn't happy, you can't be happy. You often agree with the opinions and ideas of the other person because you can't determine your own opinions or you're afraid of losing that relationship. Now ladies, this tends to be an issue among women because women usually value relationships and togetherness. There is nothing wrong with feeling sad with your friends or family members! It's a great talent to be able to empathize with others. It becomes a problem when you can't find your own happiness even when someone you care about is struggling.

Another indication that your boundaries might be too thin is that you find yourself saying "Yes" when you really want to say "No." Over-committing is a common boundary problem. If you are constantly feeling guilty and over-committed in your relationships, then you may want to seek professional help with setting appropriate boundaries. Healthy: Healthy boundaries involve give and take from both people. You can listen to feedback from and provide feedback to the other person. You are both able to share emotions with the other person. You will have different opinions, reactions, and perspectives, and you can become comfortable with those differences. For example, a husband and wife will share in decision-making and negotiate their differences. Children are allowed to express their thoughts and opinions about family issues. No abuse is present (emotional, physical, sexual). Remember that healthy relationships will at times be more close or distant through the course of the relationship, and that's OK!

Some things to keep in mind about boundaries:

  • A healthy boundary will look different for every person in every different situation. You may have a closer relationship with your spouse and a more distant relationship with a co-worker, and both can be in the healthy and well-balanced range. It's appropriate to have a much closer relationship with your spouse than with your coworker.

  • Finding the right balance for each relationship takes trial and error over time. You may need to experiment with what works and doesn't work for you.

  • Boundaries are constantly changing, and thus, they require work and maintenance. What was working for your relationship last year may not be working for you right now.

  • Boundaries are a two-way street. As much as you may want a certain boundary, the other person also has a say. Boundaries require negotiation.

If you think that you have some problematic boundaries in your relationships or would like to work on developing healthier boundaries, give me a call or shoot me an email!

#relationships #family #recovery #copingskills

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