Our lives are made up of a host of different relationships. We have relationships with our partner, children, parents, friends, work colleagues, amongst others. If you are anything like me then these relationships, to a large extent at least, appear to pretty much maintain themselves on some sort of autopilot, until that is, something goes wrong.
When that happens, we can become confused. A disturbance or rupture in a relationship, whether it be an argument, disappointment, frustration, irritation or whatever, can often be traced back to an absence of well-defined boundaries. The purpose of boundaries is to signal to others the types of behaviours that are acceptable, desirable, appreciated, and their opposite.
An absence of boundaries
Boundaries are an abstract idea, and therefore invisible. They need to be communicated in order for others to become aware. People are not mind readers. Unless we are told, we are just guessing how others want to be treated. Similarly, if we are silent, we force others to guess or assume about us. Healthy boundaries serve everyone – we get to be treated as we would wish, and we can be confident in our behaviours towards others.
Boundaries are a foundation of healthy relationship. Without them, dysfunction can easily creep in. We might agree to do something we don’t want to do, or think is unreasonable; or we may disagree with an idea or course of action but say nothing and go along with it. We probably just want to keep the peace and avoid conflict. Later on though, an unrelated and seemingly innocuous incident can trigger a mini, or perhaps not so mini, explosion.
“Just set your boundaries”. Sounds pretty straightforward. It can be, though usually involves quite a bit of thought, what is often referred to as introspection. What do I value? What do I believe? What do I like? What types of things are okay? When we do this, we quickly discover we find it easier to answer these questions in the negative, and struggle to articulate what we want, rather than what we don’t want or like.
Boundaries are abstract psychological lines that serve as signals between people that indicate what is desirable and what is not. Boundaries are broadcast through behaviour and perceived through attention. They are a two-way street; whilst they may not be symmetrical, they ought to be reciprocal.
Simple, not easy
Once an idea of boundaries has been developed, the hard part starts – sticking to them. Sticking to boundaries under stressful conditions can be quite a challenge. We tell ourselves it would be so much easier to go back to what we used to do. This can especially be compelling for someone who does not like to offend, who dislikes conflict and wants to keep the peace and it would be easier to regress to old habits, but only in the short run.
Boundaries take some courage to define and a deal more to implement. As is so often the case with anything worthwhile, perseverance and flexibility are needed, because the process will have its downs and ups. There is nothing easy in pulling up someone about something they have done or said many times before. Others might well be surprised and perhaps confused by our new behaviours. We might not be taken seriously at first, which might cause us to regress. Or we might overstate our newfound boundaries and come across as uncompromising or even rude.
In all likelihood, these and more will happen. In fact, they would probably happen if we were to set boundaries for a single relationship in our lives, let alone all the different relationships and contexts in which we find ourselves and are required to navigate. Boundaries can be a great help. At their core, boundaries are all about signalling to others how we wish to be treated and paying attention to similar signals from them about their wishes.
Dr Dana Nelson (2016). Self-Care 101: Setting Healthy Boundaries. Inner Journeys Counselling. http://www.dananelsoncounseling.com/blog/self-care-setting-healthy-boundaries/.
Medically reviewed by Bethany Juby, PsyD, Written by Leah Campbell (2021). Why Personal Boundaries are Important and How to Set Them. PsychCentral. https://psychcentral.com/lib/what-are-personal-boundaries-how-do-i-get-some.