What are boundaries?

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Good fences make good neighbours.  But setting and negotiating boundaries is a bit of an art.  Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

It’s become commonplace in psychological circles to talk about boundaries.  What does this mean, and why are boundaries considered important?

In relationships. a ‘boundary’ is a kind of invisible fence which someone chooses to put around themselves, usually for their own safety.  Wherever people live, there is often a sense of ‘respected personal space’, a territory into which other people cannot go without asking for permission.  In healthy families, each member has a space of their own, however small, which is sacrosanct.

BOUNDARY SETTING AND BOUNDARY NEGOTIATING

There are two roles we play in interpersonal relationships – that of the boundary setter, and that of the boundary negotiator.  How we behave in these two roles will influence our social interactions, for better or for worse.

Boundary setting is all about creating a life for yourself in which you have enough privacy to do your own thing, but you are still available to others in a helpful way.  Healthy boundaries will enable you, for instance, to recharge your batteries without interference from others; but you will still be aware enough to help others out when they need it.

Boundary negotiating is all about allowing others to create a life for themselves in which they have freedom from your interference; but being aware enough to break through those boundaries when you need to be heard, or others need to be held accountable.

BOUNDARY PROBLEMS

There are four potential boundary problems, based on the twin skills of boundary setting and boundary negotiating.

  1. BOUNDARY SETTING TOO HEAVY – This is where we impose such strong separation between our self and the world, that we cease to be available to others in a meaningful way.  Examples can include obsessive rule-setting; fencing oneself in; imposing high standard of behaviour and alienating anyone who doesn’t fit the bill.
  2. BOUNDARY SETTING TOO LIGHT – This is where we fail to impose any meaningful separation between ourselves and the world.  We end up playing by other people’s rules all the time, and having no time or space for ourselves.
  3. BOUNDARY NEGOTIATION TOO HEAVY – This is where we impose ourselves so heavily on others that we disrespect their rules of safety and privacy.  Examples include deciding for other people what they are to do next, instead of asking them; invading their privacy with questions that make them uncomfortable; taking and using their possessions, or their information, without due respect.
  4. BOUNDARY NEGOTIATION TOO LIGHT – This is where we are so scared of impinging on others’ privacy, that we fail to impact on them at all.  We simply leave everyone else to themselves, never holding them accountable, or investigating their lives.  Examples include social fear, whereby a person might be so afraid of rejection or conflict that they let others impose all the rules.
WHO IS THE JUDGE?

It is my view that the judge of boundary issues, where possible, is the person themselves.  In other words, if your approach to boundaries is making you unhappy, then you might consider making a change.

Examples where I have witnessed some successful self-development include (names changed):

  • Phil (a heavy boundary-setter), who realised that he was making himself unhappy by setting too high a bar for friends.  He noticed that he had become hypercritical and defensive, and that this was causing loneliness and isolation.
  • Alice (a light boundary-setter), who found that she was becoming unhappy by rushing around playing by other people’s rules, especially by obsessively answering their requests for help.  She realised that her periodic bouts of exhaustion were partly due to a lack of skill in saying no when appropriate.
  • John (a heavy boundary-negotiator), who realised that he was making himself unhappy by demanding of others that they help him, and then becoming angry when they didn’t.  He started to see a cycle in which people avoided him because of his invasive, angry outbursts.
  • Rianna (a light boundary-negotiator), who detected she was making herself unhappy by fearfully staying out of everyone’s lives, terrified of imposing.  She learned, in small stages, to let herself speak to friends and colleagues as an equal, ask questions out of curiosity, and have her own unique impact on others.
AN EXERCISE

Take a little time to consider what your approach to boundaries might be.  Ask yourself four questions in particular:

  1. Are you discouraging others from relating to you with the high fences you impose?  If so, you might want to relax your boundaries.
  2. Are you finding yourself overwhelmed by other people’s demands?  If so, you might want to strengthen your boundaries.
  3. Are you putting people off with aggressive demands on your terms?  If so, you might want to work on negotiating more gently.
  4. Are you finding yourself trodden on by other people’s rules?  If so, you might want to work on negotiating more strongly.
Questions 1 and 3 (the heavy behaviours) are particularly difficult to answer honestly.  No one likes to think of themselves as overcritical of others, or too demanding.  But if you want to be well-socialised and welcomed by others, a bit of good self-appraisal might be good.  If you can empathise with others, and see that you may be making it hard for them to relate with you, you can perhaps adapt.

Questions 2 and 4 (the light behaviours) may be easier to see in yourself.  If you can empathise with yourself, and encourage yourself to protect your safety, or push yourself to make your personal stamp on the world without fear, then you may become happier.

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SUMMARY

Appreciation of boundaries is appreciation of personal space.

You exercise two skills in all relationships:

  • setting and imposing your own reasonable boundaries for your own protection and safety;
  • negotiating with the boundaries of others, so that they feel safe, but you have a chance to have an impact.
The art, in the case of both boundary setting and boundary negotiating, is to find moderation, so that you are not too heavy in your actions, but also not too light.

If you are unhappy in your relationships with others, it may be worth investigating whether it is time for a change in the way you set and/or approach boundaries.

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