Boundaries: Why We Need Them & How to Create Them
In my field of treating Intimacy Disorders, we find ourselves talking a lot about intimacy. What, exactly, is INTIMACY? Many use this soundbite to explain it:
INTIMACY= INTO ME YOU SEE
In other words, authentic intimacy with another person is the courageous and vulnerable act of allowing that person to “see” you, know you, ALL of you, in spite of your flaws. The good, the bad, the light, the dark. In return, they are supposedto accept you, love you, warts and all, and you are supposedto extend them the same sentiment and grace. Obviously, it almost never works out that way because we are all imperfect and fallible human beings. As a consequence, it’s imperative that when we are practicing physical, emotional, and intellectual intimacy with others, we must also use BOUNDARIES.
The word "BOUNDARY" is defined as “a line that marks the limit of an area; a dividing line (www.dictionary.com).” A personal boundary is defined as “a guideline, rule, or limit that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe, and permissible ways for others to behave toward them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits (Boundaries: Psychological Boundaries – Healthy www.guidetopsychology.com). Brene Brown, PhD, simply defines boundaries as “what’s ok and what’s not ok (Rising Strong 2015).”
Before I explain how to develop and practice boundaries, I first want you to understand why maintaining boundaries is so important.
Boundaries Help You Practice Self-Love
Boundaries are so much more than just a line of delineation between what’s ok and what’s not ok. Identifying and establishing personal boundaries is an act of self-love and self-respect. Think about it: When you let another person know that you are not ok with something or you say “no” to a request by another, you are rumbling with that deep fear that they may not accept you with the boundaries and needs you’ve set forth. That is why so many people struggle with the “disease to please” others, even at the cost of their own values, worth, and sanity. As a consequence, your initial reaction may be to ignore boundaries altogether in exchange for being the “sweet, fun-loving, giving, flexible” loved one. You might tell yourself that you’re being polite and making other needs and happiness a priority (admirable traits, to some). However, in reality, opting out of maintaining healthy boundaries with others will drain your emotional resources, lead you to feel like a martyr, and often contribute to resentment and passive aggression toward others. Therefore, the kindest, most loving thing you can do for yourself (and others) is explore and identify your personal values, goals, strengths, weaknesses, needs, and limits. Those are authentic, real pieces of you that should be seen, heard, and respected by yourself and others.
Boundaries Help You and Others Feel Safe
Similar to a protective fence around a home or a locked door at night, establishing boundaries can help you and others feel more at-ease with a well-defined, extra layer protection from the uncertainty and chaos of the world around us. Many child-development experts assert that children flourish when they are in an environment with well-defined—but flexible—rules and limits. Adults are no different. The more we understand our own “rules for engagement” and limits along with others’ boundaries, we tend to feel more comfortable, more willing to be vulnerable, and safer, overall. Remember, feeling “safe” is always a prerequisite to practicing authentic, vulnerable intimacy.
Terrence Real summed it up very well when he discussed the importance of finding a balance between developing healthy boundaries to keep you safe while allowing them to be permeable enough to allow others to connect with you: “When you are boundaryless, you are connected but not protected. When you are behind a wall, you are protected but not connected. Neither is intimacy.” The answer lies somewhere in between (p 129 The New Rules of Marriage 2007)
Boundaries Can Increase Empathy, Compassion, and Love
Some people believe that boundaries create obstacles to loving and giving to others. However, Brene Brown asserts that the most compassionate and empathetic people she knows have very strong boundaries. She further states that compassion, empathy, and love are unsustainable without boundaries. How can you accept and love others if their needs and your giving are limitless? If you are giving your time, attention, love, and compassion in a boundaryless capacity, it is a recipe for hurt and feeling like others are taking advantage of you. You cannot care more about people pleasing than your own boundaries and needs, the end result will be emotional exhaustion and resentment. (Daring Greatly 2012, p 78)
Remember: You can love and accept others (and yourself) while also keeping yourself and others accountable. Remember to focus on behaviors and choices, not the people.
Boundaries Can Help You Heal From Betrayal Trauma
When we are betrayed by trusted loved ones, physically and/or emotionally, there is a long path to healing and recovery. Suffering betrayal and hurt in a relationshipleaves us feeling deep pain from disconnection and fears of unworthiness (i.e. shame). It makes it difficult to trust and connect intimately with others. Plus, the gaslighting that often occurs with betrayal makes identifying and setting healthy boundaries even more confusing. Nonetheless, practicing boundary-setting is a cornerstone to healing and rebuilding real intimacy within a relationship. Practicing self-love and self-respect through boundary-setting is the antidote to shame and disconnection. It can also help you feel safe enough to courageously and honestly show up every day in your relationships. Betrayal trauma recovery requires a daily practice of vulnerability, authenticity, accountability, and shame resilience. None of these characteristics are possible without boundaries.
Jennifer Scheider said in her book Back From Betrayal: “…Many partners recognize the need to work towards establishing and holding boundaries, They need to learn how to pay attention to their needs and their feelings, to be assertive about their wants and needs and to deal constructively with situations that make them feel bad. In order to do this, they must first develop enough self-esteem to be willing to risk another persons’s displeasure by asserting their rights.” (Back from Betrayal 2015 p 277)
How to Begin Identifying & Establishing Boundaries
The goal of an intimate relationship is to feel safe enough in the relationship (and in who you are and what you have to offer another) to express your true, authentic self to your partner without an underlying fear of abandonment, rejection, or disconnection. Relationships should feel balanced and enhance/enrich one’s life. Healthy boundaries allow a person to experience comfortable interdependence with other people, resulting in well-functioning exchanges with others, and positive self-regard.
I ask my clients to review the chart below and explore how they respond to various "relationship challenges" with their partners, co-workers, friends, family, etc. The Boundaries Chart helps you identify your own habits and behaviors when engaging with others. Reviewing the chart regularly might help you see where your strengths and weaknesses lie, and which relationships may challenge your ability to institute boundaries and limits. This chart is a great roadmap and guidance for how to interact with everyone.
When beginning the path of identifying and establishing boundaries, I love citing Brene Brown’s short and simple slogan:
Choose Discomfort Over Resentment
In other words, choose the discomfortof asserting your own wants and needs in a relationship in lieu of ignoring your boundaries because the end result will most often be resentment. The outcome of doing things only for the sake of making others happy (Or not upset, or disappointed with you) usually results in resentment and passive aggression. Those are not traits that will contribute to your self-worth and love.