Boundaries, Not Just About Abuse
Updated: May 3
My husband first introduced me to the idea of boundaries while we were still dating. Being fresh out of a divorce and a little insecure, it seems I had a habit of crossing his.
For the next several years I did a lot of my own work addressing those insecurities and got better at honoring both his and my boundaries. But it wasn’t until I began practicing as a therapist with my own clients that I really came to understand the nature and benefits of boundaries.
In my mind when I heard the term boundaries, it almost always conjured images of a woman (usually me) who’d "had it". Who was eventually frustrated or angry enough to finally put her foot down and "draw a boundary." To me, it meant needing a shield or barrier, something hard and defined, to protect me from you, and separate you from me when things aren't going well.
That, however, is not the true spirit of boundaries. It’s not about "taking it" until you can’t anymore, or waiting until the point of exploding before expressing that something is inappropriate. Rather than hoping someone respects us, or going along with things until we fit in, truly healthy boundaries are there from the beginning, setting clear expectations with consistent behaviors that define our experiences within relationships.
One definition that helps open up and expand the concept of boundaries comes from Ryan Howes, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena Ca. who says boundaries are “the line where I end and someone else begins”. A similar definition comes from the IPFW/Parkview Student Assistance Program, who shares that “a boundary is a limit or space between you and the other person; a clear place where you begin and the other person ends…”
Like the imaginary, but real lines that separate our two front yards, these boundaries serve to clear up confusion about who is who, and which person is responsible for what parts of the relationship. Meaning I know who I am, I know what I value, and I am not going to expect (or allow) you to determine those things out for me. And I expect you to do the same.
Someone with poor boundaries struggles to see things from another’s point of view. They do not always take into consideration the other’s feelings, wishes, or preferences, blending that line of where he or she ends, and overstepping where their partner begins. Here, I imagine one homeowner crossing onto the other’s front lawn and telling them how they need to keep their grass or what to do with the trees, fully expecting them to comply.
For example, she likes Mexican food. Because she has poor boundaries, she crosses that line between herself and her date, and expects that each man she brings to dinner with will also like Mexican food, with no separation or respect for individual preferences. This is an intellectual boundary and applies to topics from religion and politics, to favorite pets or vacation spots, and absolutely everything else in between.
Another example might be his need to feel masculine or appreciated. Rather than defining that for himself though, he looks to his partner to validate it for him. But when his partner doesn’t come through or does not validate his masculinity or value, he withdraws and becomes angry. He berates his partner for not saying the right thing, and makes the other responsible for his emotional experience.
To better understand why this is a boundary violation cue up the homeowners again. He planted a beautiful tree, but when she doesn’t comment on it, the first homeowner plops down in the middle of her lawn, refusing to leave until she tells him what he wants to hear. And only when she’s given him the compliment he wanted can he feel happy again about the tree he planted.
Time is another area that is often abused in terms of boundary violations. Bosses expecting employees to work on weekends, spouses demanding attention right now, friends assuming we will drop everything at the first sign of emotional need or crisis. While we have to right to say no to all of these things, remember too, that line between the two yards is a soft one. It’s not always a solid fence or a 20-foot steel wall. It can be crossed with the consent of both parties.
So, if a mother calls while her daughter is making dinner, the daughter can opt to protect her time by saying, “I really want to hear about this mom, but I need to call you back in 30 minutes after I’ve fed the kids.” Or she can choose to set the burner on low and give her mother her full attention now. The key is to realize that she has the right to choose. She, not her mother, gets to decide how and when she will give her time to her mother.
And this is where boundaries become essential for self-care and general well-being. Poor or loose boundaries often mean that we live our lives according to someone else’s rules and expectations; we end up doing things other’s want us to do, giving when we didn’t necessarily want to give, and rarely living life according to our preferences. Because we cannot say no, we tend to sacrifice things like our physical health, spirituality, hobbies, or education, and at the end of the day are often left feeling resentment, and wondering, when is it my turn?
Conversely are rigid boundaries, which might look like never asking for or accepting help from others, keeping people at a safe emotional distance, or seeing things only as black and white without compromise. These people are often left feeling lonely, isolated, and misunderstood. A healthy blend of the two is recognizing when to say yes and when to say no, and again understanding you have the right to do both.
The ability to set healthy boundaries requires that first you understand what it is you want. You must be able to identify your own likes and values, what your desire or what sort of person you want to be. It is also about identifying the opposites. What do you not like, what will you not tolerate? What kinds of things would compromise your values? How far is too far in order to maintain self-respect and still be yourself?
For boundaries to be effective, we must do more than set them, but we must also be willing to follow through with the consequences for infractions and violations. Most people understand the idea of drawing a physical boundary with abuse, “If you hit me, I will leave you.” But intellectual or emotional situations are sometimes more difficult. Still, if you think things through, often logical lines and consequences emerge. For example, your spouse enters your office to chat or ask questions several times a day, despite knowing you work from home and have a deadline to meet.
While some fear being rude, protecting this boundary is no less important, and could be done by saying something like, “I love you and enjoy chatting with you, but from now on I need to be able to complete my work uninterrupted. These distractions are affecting my work and if this continues, I will have to start locking my office door.”
A few barriers to setting and maintaining firm boundaries are fear of rejection, believing that the needs of others are more important, or hoping to avoid conflict. But in the end, you and you alone are responsible for your emotional, physical, and mental well-being. It really is a lot like taking care of your own yard; it’s figuring out what you like and what you don’t, making some distinction that separates your stuff from mine, deciding who may enter and when, and understanding that no matter what, ultimately the care of that lawn, and only that lawn, is up to you.
Originally published March 11, 2019