Boundaries set the foundation for a healthy relationship. Our personal experiences affect our ability to form and maintain healthy boundaries and it’s important to understand what happens when we give up our boundaries in a relationship, as well as the internal and external resistance that can undermine our boundary-setting.
Relationships are based on underlying assumptions about what is okay to do and what is not okay in a given relationship, and who is allowed to determine this. When relationships are based on equality, there is less chance of exploitation. But we rarely discuss these assumptions openly in everyday conversation, especially with the people who may have more power in our relationships. This may include people in professional areas (e.g. employers), in authority, or perhaps a dominant parent or partner. Before discussing setting boundaries, it is important to make several acknowledgements:
- all relationships have assumptions behind them, based on societal values
- these assumptions are rarely discussed openly in everyday conversation
- individuals may have different assumptions about certain relationships and their boundaries
- boundaries may be physical, emotional, spiritual and /or psychological
- boundaries are related to trust
- there can be both negative and positive consequences when people try to change their boundaries
- be clear about your rights, responsibilities and limits in regards to setting personal boundaries.
Boundaries are how we declare to the world what we feel and believe; who we really are. Boundaries are our limits. They tell everyone what we are responsible and not responsible for. Boundaries are words, images, energies, or whatever we do to protect our vulnerability from others, (or our own) negative energies. They are like a shield or invisible line containing our inner reality and protecting us from outside influences.
In the physical world, boundaries are easy to see. They are walls and fences; they mark what the owner’s property is; they say, “this where my property begins and ends‟. The owner is then responsible for what happens on this property.
We also need to have boundaries around our self, to protect our feelings and emotional property. Boundaries are a way of delineating what is “me” and what is “not me”. They contain the self and so are important in any attempt to define what “self” is. Once we are clear about what self is—our body, our feelings and our behaviour—we can use our boundaries to keep things outside of them which may harm us.
Once we become clear about what our responsibility is and is not, we can begin to let go of those that are not. To be clear about responsibilities, we need to understand what our rights are. Virginia Satir, an American author and psychotherapist known especially for her approach to family therapy, developed a “Bill of Rights” to support us is in the development of our personal rights:
- I do not have to feel guilty just because someone else does not like what I do, say, think or feel.
- It is OK for me to feel angry and to express it in responsible ways.
- I have the right to say “I don’t understand” without feeling stupid or guilty.
- I have the right to say “I don’t know”.
- I have the right to say NO without feeling guilty.
- I do not have to apologise or give reasons when I say NO.
- I have the right to ask others to do things for me and I have the right to refuse requests which others make of me.
- I have the right to tell others when I think they are manipulating, conning or treating me unfairly.
- I have the right to refuse additional responsibilities without feeling guilty.
- I have the right to tell others when their behaviour annoys me.
- I do not have to compromise my personal integrity.
These rights help us to create the boundaries we need to care for ourselves, by clarifying to ourselves and others, what our responsibilities in our relationships are. We can’t ask others to respect our boundaries if we don’t take responsibility to express them accurately and clearly understand them ourselves, and an understanding of boundaries is important or we risk overstepping them. Throughout life for a variety of reasons, our boundaries can become collapsed, or overly rigid and inflexible.
People with collapsed boundaries
- you can’t say no for fear of abandonment or rejection
- you share too much personal information too soon
- you take on other people’s feelings rather than just feeling empathy
- you have a high tolerance for abuse and for being treated with disrespect
- you believe „I must have deserved it‟ when treated badly
- you do anything to avoid conflict
- you have no ability to see flaws in others because you’re focused on being what you think others want you to be
- you have no sense of self.
People with rigid boundaries
- you’re apt to say no if a request is going to involve close interaction
- you have very strong defences to protect yourself from getting close to people: you may pick fights, or stay so busy that you leave no time for one-on-one relationships
- you avoid closeness because you fear either abandonment or engulfment
- you make little or no self-disclosure, perhaps preferring to draw the other person out but not sharing information yourself
- you’re unable to identify your own wants, needs and feelings
- you have very few close relationships, although you may have many acquaintances
People with healthy boundaries
- you are willing to say no, to let others know when they’re stepping on your toes; you’re also willing to say yes
- you have the ability to make requests and to seek alternatives when others must say no to you
- you have a strong sense of identity and self-respect
- you make appropriate self-disclosure; you reveal information about yourself gradually and only as mutual sharing takes place and trust develops
- you expect shared responsibility for relationships
- you recognise when a problem is yours or another person’s; when it’s not yours, you don’t jump in to rescue the other person
- you do not tolerate disrespect or abuse.
So this is our starting point for understanding what personal boundaries are, next week’s article will focus on how we develop appropriate boundaries. Click HERE to read Part 2
Satir, V. (1972/1990 (reissue)) Peoplemaking. Souvenir Press Ltd.
Virginia Satir is one of the key figures in the development of family therapy. She believed that a healthy family life involved an open and reciprocal sharing of affection, feelings and love.