By Laura Kemp
What is a boundary? The root word of “boundary” is “bound.” A boundary is a limit, a line, an expectation. Boundaries function to keep us safe and protected, to keep the good in and the bad out. The lack of boundaries leads to danger, pain, and hurt. Even Isaac Newton knew about boundaries when he discovered that “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” That law doesn’t just apply to physical force on an object. It applies in every single one of our relationships.
Boundaries are everywhere and once you start seeing them, you can’t unsee them. Some common examples of boundaries include the speed limit, the fence around your yard, and the unspoken rule that tells you not to greet the cashier at the grocery store with an enthusiastic hug. Even when you don’t realize you’re talking about boundaries, when you talk about the anger you feel when your boss asks you to do more than your job description entails, you’re showing that your boundaries are being pushed or have been violated.
While everyone has boundaries, not everyone has healthy boundaries. Boundaries are best understood on a spectrum from too strict and firm on one end to too lenient and loose on the other end. Healthy boundaries are somewhere in the middle. The challenge of setting healthier boundaries is a never ending pursuit on this side of heaven. It takes time and consistency to see the fruit of a healthy boundary. There are many ways to know you’re setting boundaries, but here are three to look for as you start. If this is you, you are doing something right, even when it feels wrong.
- You let someone down
If you’re a parent, you may or may not be okay with letting your child down. It’s easier to let your toddler down by denying them the freedom to run into the street than it is to let down your adult child by denying them bail money when they find themselves in jail. The sooner you start to set boundaries, the easier it is in the long run. Particularly if you are just beginning to tell people “No, I can’t do that,” you may be discouraged by others’ lack of enthusiasm with your newfound skill of setting boundaries. Let their anger, blaming, and disappointment be a sign to you that you’re on the right track. Keep going.
2. You feel terrible
Am I really saying you should rejoice that people are unhappy with you? Yes and no. It really feels awful knowing that you have the choice and ability to rescue someone from the consequences of their own actions and choosing to let them sit in their own discomfort. Feelings of guilt, anger, fear, sadness, and hopelessness could all be signs that you have transferred the responsibility back on to another person. Keep going.
3. You wonder if you’re doing it
When you are stuck and feeling so discouraged that setting boundaries is incredibly hard, you may start to wonder, “Am I doing it right?” If you’re reading this, and you’re asking yourself and your friends if you’re setting healthy boundaries, chances are you have started to do so. One of the best parts of talking to a therapist is having a 3rd party who isn’t in the middle of your relationships with you. Find someone, whether a friend, mentor, or counselor, who has experience in setting healthy boundaries and ask them to keep you accountable and tell you to keep going.
To learn more about boundaries, check out this book by Cloud and Townsend.
M.A. (Marriage and Family Therapy)
PCIT for behavior problems in young children; individual therapy for adolescents and adults; family therapy; boundaries and codependence; abuse and trauma; EMDR