Why Boundaries Matter
Every relationship that we enter into has boundaries. We may not consciously recognize these dynamics at play, but boundaries represent what we are and aren’t willing to let in. They signify our limits. Boundaries can sometimes be misunderstood as a rigid and selfish attempt to have things our way. When enacted in healthy ways, however, they are actually quite the opposite. Let’s explore what boundaries are, why they matter, and what it’s like to thoughtfully navigate them in relationships.
Boundaries speak to our values. They are based on our self-beliefs and needs. They differentiate us from the other person in the relationship, creating physical, emotional and mental space that we are comfortable with. “On the surface, boundaries seem straightforward to enact, but often times they are anything but that. For instance, some people did not grow up in a household that modeled boundary setting or engendered healthy boundaries. This is often and understandably carried through to our adult relationships, which poses challenges in assessing what is and is not acceptable for us in a relationship – whether it be platonic, romantic or otherwise,” states Christine Menna, LMSW and associate therapist at Gateway to Solutions. For those who have endured trauma, struggle with self-esteem or feel unworthy, making a statement about personal values and needs can also be difficult.
Unhealthy boundaries tend to operate in extremes – either reflecting co-dependency, only considering and seeking to accommodate the other’s needs, or solely focusing on one’s own needs in a rigid and isolating manner. A proclivity to accommodate the other indicates difficulty saying no, which may happen for a number of reasons, including a fear of punishment, of hurting the other person, or of abandonment and being turned away by that individual. This behavior sacrifices personal needs and space, sending a message of being unworthy. Inflexible, rigid boundaries suggest a need for control based on a lack of internal control. This is generally a projection of internal discord, feelings of being incomplete, and/or a fixation on personal thoughts and desires. On either end of the spectrum, unhealthy boundaries are detrimental and typically lead to feelings of resentment.
Healthy boundaries, on the other hand, embody respect. We show up for ourselves and for the other person. In signifying our limits, we take responsibilities for our lives and our needs. While so much of this process is grounded in personal values, it also takes into account the other person, respecting and seeking to appreciate their needs and values. “Boundaries can be a collaborative process, navigating the values of both parties in a relationship to attain a mutual, desired understanding,” states Menna. These limits will look different depending on the relationship. For instance, a person typically shares much more with their significant other than with a new friend. Safety, trust, reciprocity and communication become key components of how and what we decide to share. Similarly, as relationships evolve, so too might our boundaries. Healthy limit setting is fluid and flexible in nature, accommodating changes and growth.
How do you feel about the boundaries in your life? “There are a number of reasons one might have difficulties creating boundaries. The good news is that it’s possible to work through these feelings and experiences, and to learn how to more constructively clarify and activate your value system in a relationship,” says Menna. Remember that how we enact boundaries is a reflection on what is going on within ourselves, so it is important to look at how past experiences might be playing out in our lives. Additionally, it’s helpful to clarify what your values are and how you want to be seen, heard, and treated in a relationship. Doing so begins the process of seeing where your limits lie. Then, you can put these values in action, keeping in mind that creating boundaries can be an uncomfortable process, particularly at first and if it is something that is new to both you and the relationship. Being clear, concise and consistent is a productive approach to introducing and maintaining these boundaries.
If you feel like you need help in exploring the underlying dynamics and feelings around boundaries, you might consider speaking with a trusted professional who can navigate this path with you.