We often hear the word boundaries in conversation, but what exactly is a boundary and how do we use them in relationships?
One of the simplest ways to understand what a boundary is, is to imagine a property surrounded by a fence with gates that allow access to the property or keep people off of the property. You have the right to choose who you allow on to your property or not. You can open or close the gate.
You are your own property. This includes your thoughts, beliefs, money, belongings, ideas, emotions, spirituality and physical body. You belong to you. Sounds obvious right? But many people struggle with boundaries in relationships because they are not exactly sure where their property ends and someone else’s begins. They are not clear on where the fence should be in relationships, or what to let in or out of the gate.
Boundary issues are the primary source of conflict in many relationships. Many have grown up witnessing examples that indicate that it is ok to take what we want from others in order to meet our needs, or that people can treat us how they like. For others, the message we got was to put others needs first. Some of us may have been told it is unloving, unkind or even selfish to exert our right to honour and protect ourselves using boundaries. This can create a lot of confusion, conflict and hurt within relationships, particularly in intimate partner relationships and those with close family members. Love and healthy relationships cannot exist without healthy boundaries.
Imagine the image of a house with all it’s beautiful furnishings, artworks, clothing, cushions, blankets etc that represent your unique style. Imagine now this house represents you. This house image can be a useful metaphor to represent your thoughts, emotions, personality and physical form. Now how would you like people to treat your house? Would you be ok if visitors just came on in without knocking, invading your privacy, took what they wanted, used your belongings without permission or told you rudely they think your style is wrong or awful! This is what loose boundaries looks like. For those with more rigid boundaries, they may not have visitors on to their property , or the visits may be short, cold and not enjoyable. Sounds terrible doesn’t it, but for some, this is what life can feel like without appropriate boundaries around relationships. Without boundaries we can feel taken advantage of, hurt, isolated, alone, misunderstood, disrespected and resentful. Boundaries are critical for safety and help outline what behaviours are acceptable and those that should not be tolerated.
Now in contrast using the same house metaphor as above, imagine a visitor that knocks on your door and politely waits to be welcomed into your home. Once inside, they wait to be offered a seat, they laugh with you, chat and you enjoy each other’s company. The guest compliments your furnishings and honours your unique style. They ask if they may borrow something and honour you by returning it on time. This level of respect reflects appropriate boundaries.
So if boundaries are so important, why do we have so much difficulty setting appropriate boundaries? Some reasons include:
- Being afraid of rejection
- Being afraid of others judgment, anger or retaliation
- Feelings of guilt at seeking what we need or desire
- Not feeling worthy
- Not understanding how to set a boundary
- Examples we witnessed in relationships growing up
- Confusion around what boundaries are
- Not understanding our needs or how to meet them.
We are wired for connection and it can feel very threatening to risk a relationship by setting a boundary. But boundaries help us protect ourselves and identity safe people. People who care about your well-being and who respect and use healthy boundaries themselves, will be able to handle your boundaries and even respect you for them. Setting new boundaries can help us create healthier respectful relationships and identify unhealthy or toxic people in our lives that we may need to consider moving away from. Setting boundaries helps us have self respect, stand for and protect what is important to us and express our individuality. Having too rigid boundaries can keep out the love, connection and support we desire. Having too loose boundaries leaves us exposed to violations and potential harm.
So if boundaries are our property lines, how do we use them in relationships?
If we are used to having loose or rigid boundaries we may not recognise this at first until we start to experience certain symptoms within ourselves or our relationships. So how can we recognise if we need to strengthen our boundaries?
- Feeling angry often
- Saying yes when we feel like saying no
- Saying no when we feel like saying yes
- Anxiety around speaking up for yourself or asking for what you need
- Feelings of guilt or unworthiness at asking for what you need
- Putting others needs before your own
- Not considering others needs as equally valid to your own and visa versa
- Being afraid of other people’s judgement, anger or rejection
- Tolerating hurtful, aggressive or belittling behaviour
- Feelings of resentment after giving too much and feeling like you are not getting enough
- Patterns of repeated conflicts with others
- Anxiety and/or depression
What steps are involved in setting a healthy boundary?
State clearly how you feel and how the person’s behaviour impacts you. Ask for what you would like in future and state the consequence (what you are prepared to do or not do) if they repeat the behaviour in the future. For example…
“I felt hurt and disappointed when we turned up late to this event that was very important to me due to your choice to try and alter something on the car when we were due to leave which in turn meant we arrived late. In future if you agree to attend something important with me, I would like to ask if you would make arriving on time with me a priority. If you feel you cannot do that, or you choose to be late, I will leave on time without you and attend by myself.”
Another example may be ” I will not tolerate being yelled at. If you continue to yell at me I will leave the room and discontinue this conversation. If/when you are willing to speak calmly and respectfully to me, I will be willing to continue our conversation.”
Some people fear this is being manipulative or presenting an ultimatum. This however, is not the case when setting a healthy boundary. We have a legitimate right to choose what behaviour we will or will not expose ourselves to, so it is perfectly reasonable and healthy to state your request and outline a consequence.
Steps to setting a boundary include:
- State the issue clearly using “I” statements about how the person’s behaviour impacted you without shaming or guilting the other person (remember to focus on the behaviour not the person)
- Ask for the behaviour you would like from the person in future
- State what the consequence will be if the issue occurs again
- Follow through on the consequence if the behaviour is repeated
- If someone continues to disrespect your boundaries, it may be time to consider changes to the relationship or breaking away from this person
It is important to remember when learning to set healthy boundaries that we have a right to ask for what we need and the other person has a right to refuse. They are their own property also and have a right to their own choices as you do. We can only own our own behaviours but we also have the power to decide what behaviours of others we will or won’t tolerate.
Boundaries have some simple steps to them but they can be challenging to implement and it can feel overwhelming to enforce them if you have not had much practice. It is important to have people around you to support you through the process of learning to set boundaries and can be very helpful to seek a professional therapist to support you. You are important and your needs and feelings matter. You have a right to be treated with dignity, respect and kindness. Boundaries can help create stronger healthier relationships and can help us identify safe people with whom we can feel free to be ourselves.