What are Boundaries?
Boundaries allow us to be with others and to feel comfortable with those around us. They help us have healthy interactions with those we want to spend our time with throughout the various contexts of our lives. Physical boundaries keep us safe and secure; the relationship’s level of intimacy determines how physically close we want to be with another person, and the boundaries we set ensure our comfort level is met and kept. Emotional and mental boundaries safeguard our overall well being by providing the right amount of connection with and insulation from others.
Essentially, boundaries exist for the health of the relationship: if each person upholds their own boundaries, limits, and expectations, the relationship will thrive. Every relationship has a set of boundaries each individual places importance on; when these boundaries are maintained, each person has the space and freedom to experience the optimal level of connection.
The level of our boundaries’ flexibility is a pivotal element in the health of a relationship. If we remain too firm and unchanging, we might drive others away. But if we allow others too much power or control, we may lose sight of our desires and risk losing the ability to have our voice.
Rigid Boundaries: Too Closed
Imagine you are holding a pane of glass. Try giving it a twist; does it bend? No. Try stretching it out; does it give? No. Now, drop it; most likely it will shatter. For some people, the boundaries they set are like this pane of glass: too rigid, and consequently, too fragile. Individuals who have rigid boundaries are those that are too closed off to fully develop healthy relationships. They might have a strong desire to control people and situations, are often distant or detached, and tend to use manipulation to get what they want. Consequently, they are not open to hear or respect those in relationship with them, causing frustration and often separation from others. Isolation is common among those with rigid boundaries because, essentially, it remains difficult to be in a relationship with them as there is not enough give. Additionally, these individuals resist change throughout their lives, either out of fear of the unknown or again, the need to control life’s circumstances.
Diffuse Boundaries: Too Open
Let’s return to your pasture’s fence: what would happen if you always left the gate wide open? You would likely lose your livestock and would run the risk of too many visitors, welcome or not. Diffuse boundaries are those that are too loose and often result in blurred lines. With these unhealthy boundaries, you may experience others using you, walking over you, or simply not respecting your needs and desires. Relationships are two-way streets: it takes an equal amount of give and take to make the connection work and deepen.
Flexible Boundaries: Just Right
Relationships can be messy, and like most trial and error situations, need time, attention, and just the right amount of flexibility. Imagine the Golden Gate Bridge: it requires a specific amount of structural flexibility and its construction allowed it to move up and down and side to side. By letting it bend and sway a calculated amount, the suspension bridge’s architects ensured it remains intact under the force of high winds or under the weight of heavy traffic. Similarly, we must allow a certain amount of flexible movement between ourselves and others by building into our relationships the ability for everyone to receive what they need and give what they can.
Listen to this Tedx Talk by Sarri Gilman, author of “Transform your Boundaries,” as she discusses how “good boundaries free you.”
5 Steps to Setting Healthy Boundaries
1. Determine your desires. Know what you want and need out of your relationship with others, whether they are an intimate partner, a parent, a boss, or a friend. Evaluate your priorities and assess what is reasonable to ask; being aware of what you will and will not compromise is key to both parties’ wellbeing.
2. Set your boundaries. Decide what your limits are and how you will express them. Come up with concrete boundaries to put in place and be ready to carry them out.
3. Express your needs. We can often express our needs and communicate our boundaries through our actions, but sometimes we need to verbally let others know the limits we have set in place for ourselves. When articulating your boundaries, do so with respect, clarity, and self-assurance. Remember, boundaries exist for the health of the relationship, and the ones you put in place will likely be mutually beneficial.
4. Stick with it. You may receive pushback from those in relationship with you because of the boundaries you have set. Be ready to stand by your convictions, and with gentleness and compassion, continue to express what you need.
5. Reevaluate as needed. Relationships are ever changing: they tend to shift, mold, and develop right along with us. Depending on the level of individual and collaborative growth of each member of the relationship, you may need to modify your boundaries. To ensure healthy amounts of growth in your relationships, allow yourself to reevaluate the boundaries you have set and clearly communicate any necessary adjustments. Is the other person ignoring your boundaries? You may need to have another conversation in which you express your concerns and restate your limits. Has your relationship outgrown your boundaries? It may be time to expand them, allowing the relationship to flourish even more.
Examples of Healthy Boundaries
Seeking help from others: Let your coworker help you meet that deadline.
Standing up for yourself: Communicate to your friend when you feel uncomfortable about their controlling actions.
Setting time limits: Schedule weekly calls with your mother; you don’t have to pick up the phone every time she calls.
Saying ‘no’: Be honest with yourself and others. If you have a hard time saying no start with, “I need to think about that.”
Finding your voice: You have a right to your opinions. If this is a difficult one for you, start with low-risk decisions like what you want for dinner. Try to avoid the phrase, “I don’t care” when someone asks what you want.
Going at your own pace: Slow it down, if needed; you don’t have to rush into something just because someone else is in a hurry.
Sharing the load: Split up the household chores and don’t be afraid to remind your partner of their responsibilities.
Asking for personal space: Take a solo vacation to recharge and reset. Explore a hobby or interest that serves no one else but you.
Speaking up: Share your concerns with conviction and respect.
Learning to boundaries is essential for cultivating healthy relationships of all kinds. Without healthy boundaries, resentment and bitterness can easily take root both of which are significant threats to any relationship. Counseling can help you identify and understand where your limits are and can help you develop the skills needed to better advocate for your wants and needs in any type of relationship.