How do we first develop appropriate boundaries?
The first sign you might see of a developing boundary is when a child learns to say no or stop. They are setting a boundary with their friends and family which indicates that they don’t like what is happening. The ultimate goal for parents at this stage is to encourage children to be autonomous while letting them know they are loved and safe. The child knows, “I am separate to you, but I can count on you‟. Parents should let children know when that child is violating another person’s boundary, i.e., touching someone without their consent in a way that they don’t like. If you had a secure attachment to your parental figures and had appropriate boundaries modeled as a child, setting boundaries as an adult may be easier.
The value of saying ‘NO’
Being able to say “no‟ is one of the most important boundaries in life. Many people compromise themselves in relationships as a result of not being able to say “no‟, for example, instead of stating their needs around a particular issue clearly they may withdraw or punish the other person. Mothers, in particular, may feel taken advantage of and find it difficult to set boundaries with their children and partners. But ironically, when people become parents it is often then that they first really start to set boundaries in their relationships, usually for the protection and safety of their children. Some people find setting boundaries so hard that they may attempt to manipulate to get what they want. They might even leave the relationship rather than have to confront a boundary issue! Think about the boundaries issues that you have in your relationship. Do you have trouble enforcing them? Why do you think this is?
The value of acceptance
Being able to hear your partner’s “no’s‟ and accepting them, supports healthy boundary-setting. If your partner were to ask you for space, what’s the first feeling that would come for you? How could your reaction influence the outcome of that request? How could you negotiate this with them so that you both have your needs met?
In her book, “You Can’t Play The Game If You Don’t Know The Rules“, Dr. Irene Alexander describes four main default patterns of boundary-setting:
Complaints – Can”t say no, prefer to go with the flow and not rock the boat. Often Complaints become martyrs, choosing not to accept the help of others.
Controllers – These can be either outright controlling or subtly manipulative in their approach. Although they are good at stating their own needs and rights, they can’t hear no from others.
Non-responsive – Can’t say yes. They look after number one and often don’t know how to reach out to other people. They have not mastered the childhood lesson of “I cannot have everything I want‟. They can also live isolated lives as a result of putting their own needs first.
Avoidants – Can’t hear yes and can’t receive the services of others.
The way in which you were parented can influence your ability to set clear boundaries, as defined above. For example, an authoritarian parent may create a compliant child, or a child who has to fight for everything may become a controller; a sensitive child growing up with a controlling parent may become avoidant as a means of coping. Dr. Alexander states that “Boundaries are necessary to protect us, to keep us healthy, to keep the good in and the bad out. A reverse boundary is one that keeps the good out and the bad in”. Using the examples given above you will see that the Complaints ‘let in the bad’ and the Avoidants ‘keep out the good‟.
Undertake the exercise below to test the strength of your boundaries:
Just keep a note of how many times you tick never, seldom, occasionally, often, and usually.
Personal Boundaries Questionnaire
|by Charles L. Whitfield M.D.||(1)||(2)||(3)||(4)||(5)|
|1. I can’t make up my mind.|
|2. I have difficulty saying “no” to people.|
|3. I feel as if my happiness depends on other people.|
|4. It’s hard for me to look a person in the eyes.|
|5. I find myself getting involved with people who end up hurting me.|
|6. I trust others.|
|7. I would rather attend to others than attend to myself.|
|8. Other’s opinions are more important than mine.|
|9. People take or use my things without asking me.|
|10. I have difficulty asking for what I want or what I need.|
|11. I lend people money and don’t seem to get it back on time.|
|12. Some people I lend money to don’t ever pay me back.|
|13. I feel ashamed.|
|14. I would rather go along with another person or other people than express what I’d really like to do.|
|15. I feel bad for being so “different” from other people.|
|16.I feel anxious, scared, or afraid.|
|17. I spend my time and energy helping others so much that I neglect my own wants and needs.|
|18. It’s hard for me to know what I believe and what I think.|
|19. I feel as if my happiness depends on circumstances outside of me.|
|20. I feel good.|
|21. I have a hard time knowing what I really feel.|
|22. I find myself getting involved with people who end up being bad for me.|
|23. It’s hard for me to make decisions.|
|24. I get angry.|
|25. I don’t get to spend much time alone.|
|26. I tend to take on the moods of people close to me.|
|27. I have a hard time keeping confidence or secret.|
|28. I am overly sensitive to criticism.|
|29. I feel hurt.|
|30. I tend to stay in relationships that are hurting me.|
|31. I feel emptiness as if something is missing in my life.|
|32. I tend to get caught up “in the middle” of other people’s problems.|
|33. When someone I’m with acts up in public, I tend to feel embarrassed.|
|34. I feel sad.|
|35. It’s not easy for me to really know in my heart about my relationship with a Higher Power or God.|
|36. I prefer to rely on what others say about what I should believe and do about religious or spiritual matters.|
|37. I tend to take on or feel what others are feeling.|
|38. I put more into relationships than I get out of them.|
|39. I feel responsible for other people’s feelings.|
|40. My friends or acquaintances have a hard time keeping secrets or confidences which I tell them.|
Scoring your Personal Boundaries Questionnaire
Give yourself 1 point for every time you ticked the Never circle, 2 points every time you ticked the Seldom circle, 3 points every time you ticked the Occasionally circle, 4 points every time you ticked the Often circle, 5 points every time you ticked the Usually circle. Add up all your points, and you have your Personal Boundary score.
161 or More — It appears you have a serious problem with not setting Personal Boundaries. It may help to seek counseling so you can explore why it is so difficult for you to set boundaries, you may have never been able to set boundaries.
121 to 160 — There is a very strong chance that you are not setting Personal Boundaries. Are you a conflict avoider or a people pleaser? Finding a course to help you develop more assertiveness may help.
81 to 120 — You may have a problem with setting Personal Boundaries. Are you sometimes lacking confidence in your decisions? Start trusting your instincts more. A retreat may help you to connect with yourself and become more aware of the true nature of your experience and needs. Regular meditation practice can guide you to trust your instincts more.
40 to 80 — It appears that you do not have a problem setting Personal Boundaries. A well-rounded individual 🙂
Today we have explored the strength of your boundaries next week we will cover – Types and functions of boundaries and the resistance we may encounter. Join our newsletter on the right-hand side so you don’t miss out.
You can read Setting Personal Boundaries Part 1 here
Alexander, I. (2009) You Can’t Play the Game If You Don’t Know the Rules
In this book, Irene Alexander explores what makes relationships work, covering everything from boundaries to sex. The essence is learning how to relate openly and effectively. When you achieve this, even conflict can be constructive and relationships will take on new depth and satisfying fullness.
Charles L. Whitfield M.D.
Charles L. Whitfield MD is a pioneer in trauma recovery, including the way we remember childhood and other trauma and abuse. A physician and front-line therapist who assists trauma survivors in their healing, he is the author of fifty published articles and ten best-selling books on trauma psychology and recovery; three of these books have been translated and published in ten foreign languages.