This week’s blog post is about boundaries – what are they, and why are they so important? Read on to find out!
What do you think of when you hear the word “boundaries”? Do you think it sounds really physical, like an actual wall or line in the sand separating you from other people? Well, I’m actually talking about “boundaries” as a metaphor, to describe the kinds of behaviours that you’re willing to tolerate from yourself and other people – if it’s good, it can stay in the boundary, and if it’s not good, then it’s “out of bounds” and therefore not acceptable in your relationships.
Often the people I work with in therapy really struggle with the idea of boundaries. Sometimes, people have been brought up to believe that anything they want for themselves is selfish, and therefore they put everyone else’s needs before their own. Or, they think that if they try to establish a boundary then the people close to them will reject them, and they feel that it’s easier to put up with poor behaviour than be alone. Those things may be true, but I often wonder whether being on your own is really worse than being around people who minimise your feelings, constantly do things that hurt you, or make you feel bad. Often, the answer is no.
A boundary is just a line for behaviour that you will or will not tolerate. That’s it. It’s not inherently “manipulative” (although certainly can be used that way if people try to make their boundaries about other people’s behaviour, e.g. “I only want to be around you if you’re going to be 100% positive all of the time” – they can hold that boundary, but you can’t possibly live up to it and if you try, you’re going to fail and feel bad). If people tell you that they feel manipulated by your boundaries, that may be because you’ve never set any with them before and they don’t like having to face consequences for their actions.
I’ll give you an example. I don’t smoke cigarettes. I’m happy for other people to do whatever they want with their lives, but because I don’t smoke, I don’t want to be around people who do in a confined space. If I’m sat outside a café and someone lights up, I’m going to move. That’s MY boundary – I’m not going to stop you doing what you want to do, but I don’t want to be part of it. If someone feels upset by that, then that’s their issue, and I’d encourage them to think about why my willing participation in breathing in their second-hand smoke is so important to them – but I’d be encouraging them from a distance, because I won’t be sat next to them!
I don’t think that’s a particularly extreme boundary to have. I also don’t think it’s extreme to have boundaries around the following:
These are just a few examples, but generally, boundaries are flexible and change over time based on new information. A friend who you were close to when you were younger suddenly starts to drink a lot of alcohol and becomes aggressive when drinking? You’re allowed to have a boundary around when you interact with them (e.g. not when they’re drinking). You might not have had that boundary before, but you might need it now because their behaviour has changed and your feelings about that are different.
A lot of the things above people might not view as boundaries – “they’re just the natural consequences of people doing things you don’t like,” you might say. In that case, I’d say “well done for having reasonable boundaries!” A lot of people don’t have ANY boundaries and would allow that friend to be around them when drinking, even if they became aggressive and hurt them, or would sit next to a chain-smoking person outside a pub because they didn’t feel comfortable to move, or hug that person who has always been horrible to them because it’s “polite.” The idea that you can put your own personal comfort above “politeness” is often life-changing for people who haven’t been allowed to do that before, and just establishing one or two clear boundaries, based on their values, can really help.
So, that’s my thoughts on boundaries – next week, we’ll look at how you can set boundaries more effectively, including a couple of techniques that can help you to feel more confident in sticking to your own boundaries. Let me know what you think in the comments section.
Dr Sarah Blackshaw: Clinical Psychologist, blogger, tea drinker, interested in dinosaurs and shiny objects