A boundary is a limit or guideline you set to govern social interactions and relationships. Boundaries are rules of engagement; they separate healthy normal behaviors from undesirable or unacceptable ones. They are a good part of any relationship and evolve through time as we do. While there are many types of boundaries, today we’ll focus on emotional boundaries with others.
Family interactions are usually our crash course in boundaries – our families teach us what’s praiseworthy versus what will result in punishment.
You discover your parent’s limits the first time you’re scolded for throwing a tantrum. Alternatively, if your parents did not have clear guidelines, you may struggle to understand why friends or other relatives find the same behavior upsetting. My parents set many boundaries with us surrounding appropriate displays of emotions. I learned not to speak to them (or any adult) in a disrespectful manner. They enforced civility even during disagreements. “It’s natural to argue, but not OK to scream, curse or be nasty just for the sake of being nasty!”, my mom often said . Their framework was my norm and has stayed with me through my adult life. But of course we didn’t always follow the rules, we were kids after all and some of us struggled with boundaries more than others. But when we went out-of-bounds, we’d lose a privilege of some type. Guaranteed. So I quickly figured out boundaries and consequences for crossing them in the safety of my home.
We absorb so much from our families without even realizing it. Where, when, and how we set boundaries is based on what behavior we consider “normal” and acceptable; the barometer is typically set by what we observe in childhood. Some adults retain the boundaries set by family or cultural norms while others actively curate a personal code that matches their adult beliefs. Boundaries with family, friends, and romantic partners usually change as we grow. We set better boundaries when we have secure sense of self/identity.
Limits are set by parents to protect their child, but in adolescence and adulthood we are responsible for setting boundaries to protect ourselves. Our rules are CRITICAL because they signal to others how we want to be treated and what we will tolerate. People without clear emotional boundaries (and those who struggle to enforce them) are bound to attract boundary-steppers. Friends, family, lovers may cross lines without even knowing. Without governing principles for how we’re treated – how can we ensure safety and fulfillment of needs?
Every healthy person has boundaries but it’s up to the individual where they draw the line and how they communicate those rules to others. Different boundaries are appropriate for the varied social interactions we encounter daily. For example -boundaries with coworkers may be tighter than those with our roommates or friends we’ve known for years.
Exercise: Think back to a BIG conflict that happened when someone violated your boundaries.
-What was the boundary violated?
-Why do you think you developed this boundary in the first place?
-How was this boundary communicated? Was it communicated at all?
-Was the boundary expressed before or after the conflict?
-Did you enforce the boundary? If yes: in what ways? If no: why not?
-What was the end result?
-What could you have done differently to prevent or better handle the issue?
To avoid a never ending cycle of “boundary stepping”, we must consciously define, express, and enforce our limits. Healthy people set boundaries to protect their feelings. But even the strongest of us are tempted to let close confidants overstep them. Why is this? Most often it leads back to a simple concept: we think budging will somehow bring us some type of emotional fulfillment. We cave on how we want to be treated in hopes of obtain love, attention, favor, appreciation, excitement. We think “well I know I hate how they talk to me, but gosh I sure do love hanging out with them!” or “I hate getting drunk calls from my ex, but maybe if I put up with this long enough we can get back together”. We let people pass our safety limits to secure better treatment in the future. Odd, right? It goes without saying that this strategy almost never ends with our needs being met. The tactic of sacrificing our dignity often leaves us unhappy and saddled with the guilt of knowing we should have protected ourselves better.
I’ll be really honest with you guys. It was very difficult for me (as an adult) to set healthy boundaries with my parents. Especially considering that I was conditioned to accept their terms unilaterally without much thought to my own terms. It took years of my young adulthood to learn how to properly communicate to my folks that my adult life was separate from theirs. I found a way to explain that while I was often happy to share – there are situations I want to navigate alone without their input or interference. This felt awkward and painful at first, but eventually they got the point and learned to respect my boundaries without much reminding. When they would aggressively pry or involve themselves I learned to immediately cut the conversation or interaction short. But the funny thing about boundaries is that once you go through the potentially uncomfortable stage of setting and enforcing them, those who truly love and respect you will accept them and move on so you can ease back into the more enjoyable parts of the relationship.
When people respect your boundaries (and you are mindful of theirs) the connection deepens and can weather all storms.
Give yourself permission to set and enforce the boundaries needed to flourish,