Good relationships are a mix of many factors, including affection, trust, loyalty, understanding, honesty and encouragement. When a relationship has these qualities, it can endure any kind of difficulty. The concept of “boundaries” is another part in the equation. Setting boundaries is an important part of keeping your relationships balanced and healthy. Boundaries can help to maintain respectful interactions for both parties.
Boundaries can be understood as the separations where one person ends and another begins. Boundaries denote limits, and crossing these limits can often lead to difficulties in relationships. A boundary is a kind of protective barrier, that says “This is me, here; and that is you, there.” It is a separation that allows you to be who you are, behave as you see fit, and engage in activities you desire. Similarly, you must also be aware of other peoples’ boundaries so that they can be who they are, behave as they see fit and engage in activities they desire. When boundaries aren’t respected, people become unhappy and sometimes angry. Understanding and respecting boundaries, and having your boundaries respected, allows people to engage in healthy interactions without discomfort, tension or anger.
How Boundaries Are Created
Most people begin setting personal boundaries in childhood. Children are often keenly aware of someone transgressing their boundaries, telling others to “get off me” or getting out of an unwelcome embrace. As they grow older, the culture generally imposes other personal boundaries that children begin to understand and integrate into their own behaviors, such as sitting at certain distance away from the next person or not blurting out the first thing that comes to mind. It’s important to set boundaries with children so that we can feel safe with others and know their personal limits will be respected. Learning these skills will help children function well in group environments. They learn how to respect other peoples’ boundaries and also learn to expect consideration of their own boundaries. Parents and teachers generally correct children when boundaries are being crossed. However, when children play without adult supervision, there can often be conflicts about boundaries, particularly with sensitive children
Increasing Boundaries at Puberty
At the age of puberty, the need for boundaries tends to increase. Children’s changing bodies create feelings of inadequacy and self-consciousness that may cause them to create larger “boundary zones” around their physical bodies. At the same time that personal, physical boundaries tend to increase, social boundaries can become less respectful. Interactions can become concentrated, with devoted friendship bonds, intense hatreds and fierce competitions in sports, academics and social status. Boundaries of this nature can become blurry, particularly because of lack of self-confidence. Children may feel awkward and unattractive, so they are unsure of what their appropriate boundaries should be regarding name-calling or social exclusion. As children grow into young adults their self-acceptance grows, and they are able to re-establish comfortable boundaries in their work, school and social relationships.
Boundaries at Adulthood
In adulthood, all of the information we have learned throughout childhood and adolescence about the separation between self and others begins to crystallize. The range of experiences has grown to such an extent that most people instinctively know when they have crossed a boundary and apologize immediately. However, some people, even at adulthood, have failed to internalize these lessons about setting boundaries in relationships. They may be constantly at odds with others, may be judged disrespectful or have constant problems in their personal relationships. Others will constantly feel victimized by others and feel they are never treated equally in relationships. These people did not learn how to set boundaries in relationships and may require counseling to undo some of the damage caused by this lack of fundamental knowledge of human interaction.
Signs of Boundaries Being Crossed
If you’re one of the people who did not learn how to set healthy boundaries while growing up, you may be unsure on how to tell whether a boundary has been crossed or not. Here are a few tips to help you distinguish whether someone has deliberately or inadvertently crossed your personal boundary.
- Emotional disconnection – You may not trust your own feelings or interpretation of a situation, so you automatically disassociate from your feelings about it.
- Disassociation – This can feel like blanking out during stressful situations. The person may tell himself or herself it doesn’t matter, despite a strong feeling of discomfort.
- Feeling pushed into being, saying and believing like someone else – This pressure can mean someone is treading on your boundary of separateness and insisting that you be exactly like them.
- Feeling like a victim – These feelings may mean that you have stood up for yourself even though someone has crossed your boundary.
- Shyness or aloofness – This feeling can be caused by past experiences of being overwhelmed or bullied. The person may become habitually fearful of expanding personal boundaries to include others.
- Coldness and distance – This defense can be a result of having to deal with continuous intrusions on the person’s boundaries.
- Feeling smothered – Too much close and lack of personal boundaries can make the person feel overwhelmed and unable to define their own personal space.
- Feeling of having your privacy invaded – Constant crossing of boundaries can make a person feel that nothing can be privately experienced.
A Look at Boundary Problems
Boundaries problems can exist in almost any form, but some experiences of boundary crossing are common:
- Giving too much information
- Letting someone else direct your actions too much
- Talking at an intimate level too early in a relationship
- Acting on first sexual impulse
- Going against personal values to feel part of the group
- Accepting gifts or sex that you don’t want
- Touching without permission
- Letting others define you
- Letting others describe how you feel
- Allowing others to take too much from you
- Taking too much from others
- Expecting others to know and fill your needs
- Food abuse
- Self abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Not noticing when others are crossing your boundaries
How To Set Good Boundaries
The first step in learning to set good boundaries is learning what your boundaries are. This understanding may take a bit of trial and error, as well as examining your feelings in interactions with friends, family and other people in your daily life.
- Identify the symptoms of having your boundary crossed by another person.
- Identify why you allowed the boundary to be crossed without comment. The cause may be irrational thinking or beliefs that you have about yourself in regard to others.
- Find new patterns of thinking about yourself and how you should be treated.
- Plan new behaviors to help you maintain boundaries to protect yourself from others actions.
- Find socially acceptable ways to express your need for boundaries in normal situation. This measure may include practicing lines you might use to express that you are uncomfortable or ways to leave the situation that makes you uncomfortable.
- Actively use the strategy in real life situations to inform others of limits on your personal space, privacy and right to self-esteem.
Creating Good Boundaries
You can build good personal boundaries even if you haven’t had them in the past by reinforcing a number of important concepts about boundaries:
- Setting boundaries in an important skill that will help you to establish good relationships that will make your life easier.
- You have the right to say “no” when you feel uncomfortable.
- You have a right to take care of yourself, speak up for yourself and ensure that you are safe.
- Taking risks to uphold your boundaries can help your relationships grow in depth and understanding.
- You are separate from others and do not have to blend in with others to be accepted.
- If people make you feel invisible or unimportant, you must stand up for yourself to ensure you are heard and respected
- Your feelings are important and distancing yourself from them is not healthy for you or your relationships. Make sure you are listening to your feelings in all situations.
- Shyness and aloofness are defense mechanisms you will no longer need once you establish good boundaries in your relationships.
- The word “appropriate” is a helpful concept in establishing boundaries, that is, understanding what is “appropriate” for the situation, whether it is at work, school or social occasions.
- Use your voice to ensure that others know where your boundaries are and when they are crossing them.
- Never feel bad when you have to set a boundary. You are ensuring that a good relationship can develop with the other person.
- Resolve to establish boundaries whenever you feel you need them to create healthier relationships in your life.