How to maintain healthy boundaries in relationships
Boundaries allow what benefits us while keeping out what harms us.
Hi there! In this post, I’ll talk about what boundaries are and how to create them to improve your life and your relationships.
Do you frequently feel resentful, misunderstood, or underappreciated? Do you have a difficult time saying no or conversely do you have a difficult time saying yes? Do you ever feel like you have created these walls to protect yourself but end up feeling lonely and isolated? These are all indicators that your boundaries could be either too loose or non-existent or too thick and impenetrable.
What are boundaries? Boundaries establish where you and I begin and end. They prevent what harms us but allow what benefits us. When we know our boundaries we can communicate this with others, we can communicate with them what our limits are, what our needs are, and how we like to be treated.
Healthy boundaries are like a cell membrane that lets the healthy and desired in while keeping other harmful and undesirable things out. It allows us to feel safe and free and connected where we want to be connected. Having healthy boundaries is where we take responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and we allow others to do the same.
Healthy boundaries increase our self-respect because we have better integrity with what’s authentic for us. It’s also important to note that boundaries can change and shift over time, in fact, they often need to depending on context and safety and the relationship that’s involved. It’s important that healthy boundaries be dynamic, flexible, and yet strong.
However, when we have no, limited or porous boundaries, we are unaware or unconcerned with what our own thoughts, feelings, and needs are. We may not even know what they are, we may feel responsible for others feeling bad and spend an inordinate amount of time trying to meet their need while failing to assert our own.
When we have poor boundaries we may have a difficult time saying no for fear of rejection or abandonment. We may also share too much information too quickly. Rigid, inflexible, and impenetrable boundaries are kind of like a castle with no draw bridge to let experiences and people in. These boundaries are like walls that keep everything out, even the good stuff because we may prefer feeling lonely over feeling vulnerable. These kinds of boundaries are about self-protection at any cost, it’s more like a defense that keeps everything out but then we also miss out on feeling more connected with ourselves and others because it feels too unsafe to do so.
There are various types of categories for boundaries including physical, emotional, sexual, relational, spiritual, and more specifically boundaries that can be related to time, space, privacy, relationships, dating, maintaining relationships, and ending relationships.
Boundaries can be related to celebrations, holidays, and events. They can be related to parenting, privacy, cleanliness, to all kinds of different things and yes boundaries are important also for the therapist-client relationship.
Examples of situations you might need to set boundaries with include someone who is asking intrusive questions, over-sharing or under-sharing depending on the context of the relationship, and someone that’s over-talking, and not allowing you to contribute to the conversation. Maybe someone is contacting you too frequently or not frequently enough. We get to let people know how we like to be treated.
Other situations where we might like to create boundaries include if someone is consistently flaky or on the other hand expecting too much perfection from us. Maybe there is a lack of reciprocity in a relationship that we need to address. Maybe there are unwanted sexual advances, maybe someone’s shaming us or devaluing us.
There are multiple situations where we need to assess whether or not it is safe enough to set boundaries, in person with them or if we need to create physical boundaries to protect ourselves.
How can we create better boundaries? The first step is as frequently the case is increased self-awareness. We really need insight and self-reflection to be able to address, ok what are our current boundaries, what’s our style, what things are ok, what things aren’t ok. Often we’ll know this by registering in our body if there’s some discomfort or tightening or spaciousness it’s a good indication that something is or is not working for us.
Once we get clear on this we can see what our responsibility is, what we take ownership for versus what someone else needs to and address things accordingly. Once we have this insight we need to take action. We need to assert our needs and our boundaries. If we’re doing this with people that are already in our lives we might need to let them know in advance that we’d like to change the social contract and that there might be certain things that we’re going to do differently in the future and we’d like their support in it.
Next, we need a moment of self-reflection. We need to be open to whatever feelings arise as we set new boundaries. Was it scary? Did we want to acquiesce? Do we feel rejection or abandonment? How did it go? Do we want to do anything different the next time? It’s really important to be mindful and compassionate about this process because we’re often practicing new skills and it takes time to have a felt sense of competence.
Lastly, we may need to repeat this as necessary, even with the same person. Sometimes it takes multiple times of saying the same thing for someone to really register that we mean what we say and we say what we mean. It’s important to acknowledge too in this process that if someone consistently doesn’t respect your boundaries, that’s information that’s useful in being able to figure out how much contact and what kind of contact you want to have with this person.
Boundaries require maintenance and updates, so be sure to pay attention to boundaries that may or may not continue to work for you over time.
From a place of mindfulness and compassion, ask yourself the question, “What boundaries would I like to set or improve?”
Take good care.