In therapy, we are always talking about boundaries. Here’s a quick summary on what boundaries are, why they’re important, how to set and stick to them, and even some examples of healthy boundaries.
WHAT ARE BOUNDARIES?
Boundaries are the invisible lines that we draw in order to keep ourselves safe. You could think of boundaries as the place where you end and another person begins. What might feel safe to you may not feel safe to another person, and vice-versa. It’s important to know that boundaries are protective; they help you maintain good mental health. When you put a boundary in place, it should be clear, firm, and, most of all, respected.
WHY DO WE NEED BOUNDARIES?
Simply put, without personal boundaries chaos that would ensue. Inappropriate touching, enmeshment, manipulation, burnout, and identity confusion would be the norm. There would be little evidence of respect for one another’s personal space or time, and we would frequently find ourselves in a state of conflict or avoidance.
OK, SO WE ALL NEED BOUNDARIES. HOW DO WE SET THEM?
Setting healthy boundaries means that you have enough self-awareness to understand what’s happening to you when interacting with others. This means paying attention to the thoughts, emotions, and sensations that occur before, during, or after an interaction.
Maybe you notice that your body tenses up when a casual acquaintance enters your personal space. Perhaps one of your clients took your words “call me anytime” to heart, leading to frequent calls on Sunday nights. Maybe the total absence of alone time is suffocating you. Or maybe you experience anxiety around the idea of saying “no.” These are all signs of potential boundary violation.
Saying “no” doesn’t have to be painful. Putting your hand up for a high-five or saying “Sorry, I’m not a hugger” when that acquaintance goes in for a hug is perfectly acceptable. Letting your client know that they are important to you and that if they send an email they can expect a response within 24 hours is a really nice way of saying “I respect you, AND I respect my right to personal time.” Even a blanket statement such as “Sorry, ‘X’ doesn’t work for me. How about ‘Y’?” is a great way to keep boundaries intact while also offering a compromise.
SETTING BOUNDARIES WITH LOVED ONES IS IMPORTANT, TOO.
Setting boundaries with loved ones can be done respectfully. To the relative who frequently gives unsolicited criticism or advice about your personal life, try a response that offers little room for further discussion. “I appreciate your insight/concern, and I’ll take it into consideration.” If the gentle version doesn’t work, be consistent and firmer: “The subject is not on the table for further discussion,” or “Thanks for your concern, but as this is a personal matter, I prefer to handle it myself.” If all else fails: “This is pushing my boundary; I’d appreciate it if you could respect that, even if you don’t understand it.”
It may feel awkward at first, but setting boundaries gets easier with practice. Shedding unnecessary feelings of responsibility for others can lead to a lighter, more in-control you.