Themes in Therapy: Boundaries

Themes in Therapy: Over the many years that I have worked as a therapist there are themes that keep coming up in converstaions. One of them is the theme of personal boundaries.

Boundaries: A reflection on understanding personal boundaries. 

Part 1: In therapy, the theme of boundaries comes up often. We talk about how hard it can be to recognize them, to grow them, to hold them, to maintain them and most importantly to feel good about them. The conversations revolve around the pain that comes from having boundaries crossed or violated, the common confusion about where to place appropriate boundaries in any given situation and the challenges of maintaining well-chosen boundaries when there is a lack of acceptance or even opposition to what we deem our limits. All of us have experienced this is one way or another, in small ways and in ways that may well have involved risk to life itself.

Boundaries come in all shapes and form; there are physical boundaries of course, and then there are emotional, mental, spiritual, financial and ideological ones. There are geographical boundaries as well as political and cultural ones.

Trespass of the borders that protect our life and being may be overt as is the case in physical or sexual violence but they can also be subtle. A put-down of our values or choices in life-style, maybe said in the guise of ‘teasing’ can be injurious, an unwanted touch in the workplace or a disregard for our needs, opinions or preferences among family or friends.

The make-up of our boundaries is seeded at a young age. We need good role models to show us healthy boundaries and also to help us maintain them.  It is because of other people’s reaction that holding our boundaries is hard so having our right to assert appropriate boundaries supported from childhood helps to strengthen them. Experiencing serious abuse in younger years is often compounded by the lifelong confusion of one’s personal boundaries: what can I accept, what do I need to say no to….the clear knowing of this is hard after the violation of what should always be protected. Therapy offers a path to re-learning boundaries, to keep feeling into what is right for oneself at any given time and to feel able to communicate this in the many ways that we can.

How do we recognize a boundary trespass or violation? The most obvious infringements are not so hard to see; being hit or yelled at, touched inappropriately or having someone take without permission what is ours is clearly a violation of the integrity of our being, our safety and our right for respect. But what about the less apparent intrusions?

We can fine-tune our ability to notice when someone or something is crossing our limits:

Step 1: Become familiar with the body’s signals that tell you that someone is about to or has already overstepped your boundaries. You might experience a discomfort, a sense of feeling trapped or identify the presence of fear or anger. Both these emotions are closely linked to a transgress of your limits so it is very important to pay attention and listen to them. After all, emotions are the messengers between our inner and outer worlds.

Step 2: Believe your experience. If you are in the habit of minimizing or denying what you are experiencing it might be helpful to talk to a therapist to help establish or re-establish appropriate limits.

Step 3: Back yourself. As an adult you are in charge of your boundaries.

Step 3: Be gentle with yourself, take your time (unless you are in an unsafe situation) and remember that it is a learning process that takes practice and support.

Often we recognize a boundary only once it has been overstepped. Reflecting consistently on triggers you will discover more and more about your rights, your values, your needs, your preferences and the appropriate responses that protect your safety, integrity and your ability to be clear and assertive.

Part 2: In Part 1 on boundaries, I spoke about the importance of recognizing one’s boundaries and supporting oneself to live them as best we can. It’s a work in progress; the more we practice, the easier it gets. Another way to cultivate clear, strong boundaries is to grow ever more comfortable in respecting other people’s boundaries. Notice what you do when someone (kindly) denies you a request…no, I am not available to go out that night, no, I won’t mind your kids, no I won’t lend you money, no, I don’t share your belief about….Is your response ‘ no worries’ and you mean it or do you quietly vow to never help that person out ever again? Or do you start an argument or walk away in a huff?

What would it take to be gracious about your response, having just bumped into the boundary of another? Would it be an option to accept the feelings you have in reaction to the ‘no’ as your own rather than blaming the person who (courageously) stated their position?

The really good thing about people who are able to communicate with kindness their clear boundaries is that you always know where you stand. No guess work as to what’s really going on (in the case of fuzzy or vague boundaries). And no fear of repercussion or passive-aggressive stabs. Good boundaries well communicated hold no prisoners. It takes a good dose of respect, humility and acceptance to be able to say ‘no worries’ and mean it.