Clear boundaries define us. Physical, mental and emotional boundaries allow us to see the difference between our own physical space, thoughts and emotions, and those of others. Boundaries give us the freedom to live by choice, not “shoulds.” Blurred boundaries cause confusion and pain. It’s challenging and disorientating to live on the whims and conditions of others. Are you experiencing the freedom of clear boundaries?
“Good fences make good neighbors.”
So goes the old proverb from the well-loved Robert Frost poem.
Likewise, good personal boundaries make for good relationships. Boundaries are those invisible lines of protection you draw around yourself. They let people know your limits on what they can say or do around you. Healthy boundaries give you freedom in relating to others. Make them too solid and you build walls, too weak and you allow other’s actions to harm you.
It’s not always clear where our boundaries are or need to be. Recognizing and studying the signs of ignored or ineffective boundaries is a good place to start, as these “symptoms” give clues to the needed boundary. See if any of the following ring true for you.
- Aloofness and distance. When you are unwilling or fearful of opening your space to others, or when you build walls to insure that others don’t invade your emotional or physical space, this may be a defense against cruel behavior, abuse or neglect that you allowed to happen. A person with healthy boundaries draws a line over which they will not allow anyone to cross. They recognize their right to say, “No!”
- Chip on the shoulder. This kind of attitude declares, “I dare you to come too close!” and is often the result of anger over a past violation or ignoring of your physical or emotional space by others. Healthy boundaries mean you are able to speak up when your space has been violated, leaving you free to trust that you can assertively protect yourself to ensure you are not hurt.
- Over-enmeshment. In this game, the rule is that everyone must do everything together, and everyone must think, feel and act in the same way, without deviation from group norms. Healthy boundaries acknowledge that you have the right to explore your own interests, hobbies and outlets.
- Invisibility. The goal here is not to be seen or heard so that your boundaries are not violated. Healthy boundaries are in effect when you stand up for yourself — be visible, be heard — so that others can learn to respect your rights, needs and personal space.
- Dissociation. If you “blank out” or “go away” during stressful emotional events, it results in your being out of touch with your feelings and unable to assert your limits. Healthy boundaries allow you to assertively protect yourself from further violation or hurt, and to choose to end relationships with those who will not respect them. With healthy boundaries, you can begin to feel your feelings again.
- Smothering and lack of privacy. When another is overly concerned about your needs and interests, or when nothing you think, feel or do is your own business, it can be intrusive into your emotional and physical space, leaving you feeling overwhelmed or like you are being strangled. Healthy boundaries ask that others respect your uniqueness, your choices, your autonomy.
Once we see where our limits need to be clarified or put into place, we can begin to install fence posts or patch holes, to keep unwanted critters out. Here are some strategies for applying limits when your boundaries are intruded upon:
- Calm yourself and take deep breaths.
- Remind yourself of your right to set limits.
- In a firm and composed manner, tell the other person how you feel.
- Communicate clearly what your limits are, especially when you are extending a new boundary.
- Ask the other person to respect your boundaries.
- Make decisions about the relationship according to how the other person responds to your request.
Author’s content used with permission, © Claire Communications
For further reading on setting healthy boundaries, codependency and healing the hurts that cause challenges in these areas, I suggest Facing Codependance by Pia Mellody and Boundaries, by Drs. Henry Cloud & John Townsend.