Understanding Boundaries & Why We Need Them
Establishing and maintaining clear and healthy personal and professional boundaries with others is an important aspect of our ongoing well-being. A lack of clear boundaries will prevent us from being and feeling our best. Creating and maintaining boundaries that are too strong can prevent connection with others that we desire. I encourage you to give yourself permission to reflect on your needs, establish boundaries, communicate your limits, and maintain/adjust them as needed.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that are designed to protect, honour and build personal well-being. They are created to clarify behaviours that are acceptable and unacceptable within relationship with self and others. Setting clear boundaries helps us feel more empowered, builds self esteem and allows us to maintain healthy relationships that can be sustained over time. Protecting our physical and emotional health requires us to trust ourselves, set limits and enforce them when boundaries are crossed.
Boundaries are like a home. If we visualize a home, our boundaries are similar to a fence that protects our property, and the door we build to let people into the house. Some may be willing to allow people through the fence and onto the lawn, but not inside the home. The walls of the home are a boundary in that case. Some others may be willing to open the front door, but not allow people to come inside. Still others may welcome people into their home but not feel comfortable allowing them to help themselves to what’s in the fridge or cupboards. Our boundaries differ from one another, and will shift and adjust based on individual relationships, and so building self-awareness about our personal boundaries and choosing to be clear about them to those in relation to us, can help to protect ourselves and what we value.
Where to set boundaries:
Time is an important, valuable and limited asset. We often feel we don’t have enough time to do what is most important in our lives. We can lose time by distracting ourselves with worry, getting sucked into social media, or allowing others to direct our time when clear boundaries are not established. Common examples of time boundary violations include:
when someone is late to arrive or stays too long,
meetings that are unproductive or unnecessary,
taking on other peoples’ tasks or responsibilities when they could do it themselves,
wages that undervalue your time or
Phone notifications that distract from what’s important.
Energy is where you find the stamina to function, care for others, persevere, get creative and accomplish tasks. Generally, energy is created when we are living in alignment with our personal values, accessing our strengths and taking time to replenish through rest, relaxation, meditation, being in nature etc. Knowing what invigorates you brings a sense of flow, zest, purpose, meaning and inner peace, so it’s helpful to find and focus on energizing activities. By choosing jobs, tasks and relationships that motivate and energize, we are better able to manage our energy sustainably. When energy boundaries are violated we often feel drained, stressed, anxious and in turmoil, which effects most if not all aspects of our lives.
Communication. How we communicate with others and how they communicate with us can have significant impact on how we feel about ourselves and others. Often when boundaries are not respected, communication is needed to clarify, re-establish and maintain boundaries over time. Tone of voice, length of conversation, content of conversation, physical space and body position can all be boundary considerations. Choosing to use assertive communication can help maintain effective and respectful communication regarding boundaries. Also choosing to be open with others who seek to express their boundaries with us can help to build stronger relationships based on mutual respect and trust.
Values. Personal boundaries related to values are built and maintained by choosing to live your life in alignment with your values, while recognizing that others may not value the same things you do. In conflict, it can be helpful to recognize whether the conflict is with yourself (not living in alignment with values) or between yourself and someone else (you are not living in alignment with their values). People commonly fall into a values-related conflict trap - in an attempt to prevent discomfort we may conform to others’ values in hopes of avoiding conflict. This is a trap because the approach simply shifts the conflict from the external source (the other person) to an internal struggle with self. When in a value conflict it can be helpful to stay open and curious about why the other person has chosen those values, ensuring that you show that you value them as a person even when you don’t have the same personal values. Being able to discuss value conflicts with others without having to convince the other to change their values, is another opportunity to build stronger relationships through mutual understanding or compromise.
Emotions. Consider emotions as a proximity alarm system used when our boundaries are being encroached on or crossed. We use emotion to help us to connect, care and share our deepest selves with others. People in our lives may say or do things that can trigger negative emotions, and often don’t intend to cause harm, but do. These violations to our emotional boundaries are important indicators about the quality of the relationship we are in and the need to establish new boundaries for both ourselves and the other in the relationship. Those who respect our emotional boundaries induce feelings of respect, appreciation, trust, confidence, optimism and curiosity whereas those who violate our emotional boundaries induce feelings of loneliness, shame, confusion, insecurity and anxiety.
When we are clear about our own values, it’s important to reflect on whether our emotional response is related to a thought that includes “You should/shouldn’t or I should/shouldn’t” as this assumes there is only one right way of doing something. Shifting to “You could or I could” helps to remind ourselves and others that we are all just making choices in each moment and that a choice we may make is not necessarily the same choice someone else will make. Learning comes through the experience of choice and the related consequences will help us to learn and improve our decision-making.
Unhealthy boundaries cause emotional pain that increase stress, worry and frustration. Over time, these responses can lead to feelings of inadequacy, dependency, anxiety or even depression. Not having clear boundaries is like leaving the front door of your home unlocked so anyone can enter at will, when you don’t want guests. Having healthy boundaries is good for relationships as they offer clarity and set clear limits and expectations for each other. Be warned - choosing boundaries of high stone walls around a home built like a fortress, can lead to isolation. Not having any fences or doors can lead to trespassing. The key is to find boundaries that are aligned to your values and the life you want.
Creating Clear Boundaries for Yourself and Others
Defining your boundaries: Take time to think about each relationship (work, family, friends etc.) and the feelings you may be having that could indicate there are boundary violations occurring. Reflect on what is causing these negative feelings. Define for yourself what is acceptable and unacceptable and consider how you are going to communicate your needs to others. Often, asking others for help in maintaining your new boundaries can be very effective in getting support for the creation and maintenance of boundaries, and presents an opportunity for the relationship to get stronger through the change process. Being clear about your new boundaries can upset others as they may not want the same change that you desire but it can also lead to greater closeness and deeper relationships. Seek to be empathetic when others are upset by the change you are requesting and be open to understanding the impact this change is causing. Negotiating boundary with others can also help to build agreement and consensus, resulting in both parties feeling their needs are important and being met in the relationship.
Maintaining boundaries: Changing your boundaries can be a challenging, as old patterns of behaviour may be tested. Being clear about what you are wanting to say “yes” to in your life, can help you say “no” when misaligned requests pop up.
When maintaining boundaries, it’s important to remind others of your boundary when it gets crossed, and ask for help in maintaining it. If you find someone continues to cross your boundary, ask politely yet firmly for them to stop, ensuring you remain respectful of their boundaries too. If their behaviours persist, you will need to consider what actions you will take to stop the behaviour and maintain your boundaries.
Recognize people in your life that support you and your boundaries and take time to thank them. Gratitude is easy and inexpensive to give.
Understanding, creating and maintaining boundaries takes flexibility and a willingness to adapt to the changing dynamics in your life. Knowing what you value helps maintain boundaries that protect and nourish what you care for most. It can take courage to protect yourself or to let others in, but the first step is to give yourself permission to do so.
Written by Amy Capern, PITC Student Therapist. Learn More about Amy.