Good fences make good neighbours. -How boundaries make life better.
Good fences make good neighbours.
They show the extent of a property. They limit people and animals from roaming in or out. They provide privacy from prying eyes, and protection for our possessions. Good fences also permit neighbourly conversation, friendly sharing, and cooperation. With well-maintained gates, fences allow entry and exit of friends and family. The limits of the fence show others where our space begins and ends. The fence also marks the limits of the space we are responsible for.
Like a good fence life is also marked with limits. Speed limits, credit limits, and age limits, to name a few. We sometimes think these limits prevent us from getting what we want. However, they are really intended to protect us and others. Speed limits protect drivers and pedestrians from accidents. Credit limits protect borrowers from overwhelming debt. Age limits protect us from risky age-inappropriate activities.
Similarly, people have limits too. These include what they are, and are not, willing to do or have done to them. We refer to these limits as boundaries.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a boundary as something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent (Merriam-Webster, (n.d.).
Personal boundaries limit the extent of what an individual is comfortable with in their relationships. They are the standards, and expectations, that let others know what behaviour is considered acceptable, what won’t be tolerated, and where people’s responsibilities begin and end (Cloud, and Townsend, 2017).
Boundaries come in many types (Therapistaid, 2016). Different authors categorize boundaries differently. For the sake of this article, we will consider three basic groups including physical, mental or emotional, and resource boundaries.
Physical boundaries can include a range of topics from the personal like hand shaking, hugs, and sexuality, to larger physical concepts like property and privacy.
We all have extents to which we are comfortable with physical interaction. We expect others to respect these limits. Physical boundaries can be as subtle as maintaining appropriate personal space or as complex as learning the diverse cultural norms. For example, some people are hand shakers, or huggers, while others are not. Similarly, people have individual limits on the extent of their sexual interactions. By clearly communicating these personal limits we express our expectations. Failing to respect these limits would be a violation or assault.
Physical property and privacy boundaries are also important to our well-being. Respect for our personal space, whether it is a property line between homes or knowing people won’t snoop through your bedroom, provide a sense of security and safety. When these boundaries are ignored, it results in a sense of violation.
Regardless of their nature, physical boundaries are critical to our sense of safety and well-being. Therefore, learning to express and maintain them is crucial. For instance, saying “I prefer not to shake hands” or “I prefer to meet you rather than be picked up for our date” are expressions of the extent to which a person is comfortable, and has expressed th physical boundary.
Mental and emotional boundaries can include a person’s feelings, thoughts, beliefs and ideas (therapistaid, 2016). They limit how we allow others to interact with us, while retaining the right to have our own internal experiences. These boundaries establish the extent to which we are comfortable sharing our experiences with others. They also separate our
feelings, and the responsibilities for managing them, while maintaining awareness and respecting the feelings of others. This disengages us from manipulative and abusive interactions. Saying, “I am not comfortable discussing this with you” or “I will talk with you about this when we can discuss it calmly” are expressions of emotional boundaries. By setting and maintaining healthy mental and emotional boundaries we are accountable for our behaviour and protect ourselves from violations by others.
Resource boundaries range from financial and material to time and energy (therapistaid, 2016). They set limits on what we are willing to provide to others. This protects us so we can meet our own needs and maintain our well-being. Examples of this are negotiating fair compensation for your work, declining to loan possessions or money, and reserving undisturbed time for yourself or family. You have the right to decide how to use your
resources. This includes making yourself a priority (keep checking back for a future blog on the underrated value of selfishness).
Examples of expressing resource boundaries include, “I am unable to have you stay with me”, “I don’t loan my tools”, or “Please don’t call the house after 8PM.” These examples establish the limits of what we are willing to provide.
You may ask if these messages make you selfish? Or you may feel guilty if your boundaries upset someone. When in reality, healthy boundaries support healthy relationships. Brené Brown (2012) wrote, “Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.” After all, your needs and feelings are valid and important. Remember, “You are not required to set yourself on fire to keep others warm.” —Unknown
So what is a healthy boundary? Well boundaries are kind of like the beds in the home of the three bears. Some are too hard. Some are too soft. And some are just right. Or as psychologists label them Rigid, Porous, and Healthy (therapyaid, n.d.). But I like to go back to my analogy of good fences and good neighbours.
Rigid boundaries are inflexible rules.
They are like a brick wall. It is solid, immoveable, can’t be seen through or perhaps even climbed over. They exclude others and isolate us.
People with rigid boundaries tend to have authoritarian personalities with the need to feel in control (Martin, 2020, therapyaid, n.d.). They expect that things will be done their way. They can be highly sensitive to criticism, and struggle to consider the perspectives of others. They often lack the ability to be vulnerable or adaptable and may distance themselves to avoid rejection. They may have detached, impersonal relationships. Rigid boundaries close us off from others and can lead to mistrust and isolation.
Porous or weak boundaries are overly changeable or barely exist.
They are like an old, barbed wire fence. The few remaining strands of rusted wire hang loosely stapled to the wobbly posts. They run up and down, disappearing into the grass here and there, and broken or missing altogether in places. It is a barrier that wouldn’t hold back the wind. They permit others to ignore their needs and this can lead to them overextending themselves.
People with porous boundaries tend to have passive, people pleasing personalities. They may be unsure of their needs, struggle to ask for what they want, or say no (Martin, 2020, therapyaid, n.d.). They crave validation while they fear criticism, conflict, and rejection. They take on responsibilities that aren’t theirs and accommodate others at their own expense. They may have many overinvolved, superficial, relationships. Porous boundaries can lead to feeling mistreated, resentment, and abuse.
Healthy boundaries are firm but flexible (therapyiad, n.d.).
They are like a well build plank fence. The even lines of posts are sunk deep into the earth for strength. While the sturdy planks clearly mark the borders of the property. Meanwhile there are regularly spaced wide gates that swing easily on their hinges to create a clear passages, but also latch safely closed to limit access as required. These boundaries clearly show where the limits are, while still allowing the flexibility for others to enter or exit as appropriate.
People with healthy boundaries tend to have assertive personalities (Martin, 2020, therapyaid, n.d.). They have a strong sense of self, know what they need, and clearly communicate their expectations. They say no without guilt and accept others saying no to them without explanation. They, recognize the limits of their responsibly, and respect other's boundaries. They have clear core values that they don’t compromise but are still able to consider the perspectives of others. They cultivate meaningful, fulfilling relationships.
So how do you begin to set boundaries?
First take some time to explore and establish what your values and needs. You must identify your true feelings to determine your personal limits.
Then express these needs kindly and without guilt (Martin, 2019). This requires clear, direct, non-judgemental communication (Cloud, and Townsend, 2017).
Your boundary can be expressed as an “I” statement and may include your feelings, expectations, and the actions you will take if your limits are not respected. Keep in mind that "no" is a complete sentence and providing an explanation may just trigger debate intended to change your mind (Cloud, and Townsend, 2017). Be sensitive to the perspectives of others and remain flexible to changing circumstances but keep your core values and needs in mind as you express your expectations and limits. For as Mungi Ngomane wrote, “Respectful boundaries are needed so that we can look after ourselves and continue to give to others. After all, nobody can be expected to pour from an empty cup (2019).”
There are many examples of how to express a boundary but here are a few.
“I appreciate your invitation, but I won’t be able to attend”
“I feel embarrassed when you kiss me in public. Please save that for when we are home”
“I do not respond to work calls after hours.”
“I feel disrespected when you take over my projects. I value your input, but I will decide on how to proceed.”
“I am not willing to lend you my car. Please don’t ask again.”
“I feel overwhelmed when you yell. I will come back in 20 minutes and then we can discuss this politely.”
“I am not comfortable with your dog. If you are unwilling to keep him on a leash, I will have to visit with you a different day.”
If you are new to healthy boundaries, they can seem uncomfortable at first. That’s ok. You don’t have to be perfect at it right away. Just keep considering your values and expectations as you develop your limits.
Remember boundaries are not punitive. They are simply verbal explanations of our limits and the actions we will take to maintain them.
People may object to your limits at first. But with kind, consistent use you will find that people who respect you will also honor your boundaries (Martin, 2019). After all you are worthy and deserving of having your needs met and in healthy, respectful relationships. So carry on.
“Create boundaries. Honor your limits. Say no. Take a break. Let go. Stay grounded. Nurture your body. Love your vulnerability. And if all else fails, breathe deeply.” – Aletheia Luna (2017).
If you are struggling to establish and maintain boundaries reach out for support. We are happy to work with you as you develop this new skill. Contact us for more information and to speak to a therapist.
For more examples of how to express healthy boundaries in a variety of situations check out the article 59 phrases to help you set boundaries at https://www.prdaily.com/59-phrases-to-help-you-set-boundaries/
To read more about Boundries from a Christian Perspective you might enjoy Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Retrieved February 16th, 2023 from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/8404453-daring-to-set-boundaries-is-about-having-the-courage-to-love.
Cloud, H., & Townsend, J. (2017). Boundaries Updated and Expanded: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life (ENL). Zondervan.
Luna, A., Sol, M. (2017). Awakened Empath: The Ultimate Guide to Emotional, Psychological and Spiritual Healing. retrieved February 16th, 2023 from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/8860437-create-boundaries-honor-your-limits-say-no-take-a-break
Martin, S. (2019) How to Set Boundaries with Kindness. PsychCentral. Retrieved February 16th, 2023 from https://psychcentral.com/blog/imperfect/2019/01/how-to-set-boundaries-with-kindness
Martin, S. (2020) Are your boundaries too weak or too rigid? PsychCentral. Retrieved February 16th, 2023 from https://psychcentral.com/blog/imperfect/2020/06/are-your-boundaries-too-weak-or-too-rigid
Martin, S. (2023). What kind of boundaries do you need to set? The Better Boundaries Workshop. Retrieved February 16th, 2023 from https://betterboundariesworkbook.com/types-of-boundaries/
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Boundary. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved February 16, 2023, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/boundary
Mgomane, M. (2019). Everyday Ubuntu: Living Better Together, the African Way. Retrieved February 16th, 2023 from https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/70735464-everyday-ubuntu
What are Personal Boundries? (2016) Therapistaid. Retrieved February 16th, 2023, from https://www.therapistaid.com/worksheets/boundaries-psychoeducation-printout
Brown, B. ( Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead; as cited on Good Reads, retrieved February 16th, 2023 from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/7684840-compassionate-people-ask-for-what-they-need-they-say-no