Editor’s Note: We are sharing this article, originally published in March 2020, as a reminder of the power of setting healthy boundaries in each and every relationship in our lives.
Practice it again: No, no, no.
Limits, honey! We all need them and we could all benefit from having healthier ones. With the help of Jess Doughty, a licensed professional clinical counselor who practices at Resilient Life Therapy in Wayzata, Minnesota, let’s discuss what boundaries look like, why they’re necessary, and how we can best identify them. So, you know, you’re not suddenly raging with resentment or mortifying your kids or shutting down emotionally, whatever your preferred Boundary Violation reaction is.
For starters, what are boundaries?
Boundaries = your limits and rules within a relationship. They can be emotional, physical or mental. They can be rigid, porous or sound. Think of boundaries as the lines in the sand between what you consider to be acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
Boundaries = your limits and rules within a relationship. . . . Think of boundaries as the lines in the sand between what you consider to be acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
– Keeping others at a distance for fear of being hurt or rejected
– Avoid intimacy and close relationships
– Protective, aloof, and unlikely to ask for help
– They share too much and get too involved in the problems of others
– Fear that if they do not comply with others they will be rejected
– Has difficulty saying “no”
– Understand your personal wishes and needs and be able to communicate them
– Share only enough personal information in the right way: at the right time, in the right place, with the right audience
– Can accept hearing “no” from others
– Do not compromise your own values and opinions for others.
While we would all love to have healthy boundaries at all times with everyone in our lives, chances are everyone is a combination of all three, depending on the situation. Maybe you’re porous when you’re stuck in a bottle on wine night, rigid in romantic relationships, healthy at work, and a combination of all three with your finicky family.
How flexible you are with your limits is another factor. Doughty thinks of it this way: “Boundaries can have many different qualities, from a ten-foot-high stone wall to a picket fence,” she says. “The quality of the border is linked to the systems of values, priorities and motivations. I mean, I can have a hard and fast rule that I won’t ‘take’ anything from anyone (steel), and even if someone bribes me, my boundary won’t budge (the ten foot brick wall). There may be other limits that serve as a guide, but I am willing to adjust them as needed, flimsier like a picket fence.”
Think about it: What are your stone walls and what are your picket fences?
What if we have no limits?
“Boundaries provide a sense of security and expectation that we can lean on,” says Doughty. “It is important to know your limits to know who you are, what you are capable of and what is simply too much.”
No, your employee shouldn’t be texting you a mundane work question long after hours off. No, your sister shouldn’t disdain your complicated relationship with your mother. No, you can’t touch me there. No, no, and more us.
The trick and the hardest part? You have to communicate your limits. Be direct, firm and courteous.
How do you know when you need to set limits?
If you are experiencing a sustained, heightened level of an unpleasant emotion, particularly resentment or anxiety, you may have identified a clue that somewhere in your life there is a lack of emotional, mental, or physical boundaries. Be careful about also internalizing other people’s moods and emotions, which may initially appear empathetic but may actually be a lack of emotional boundary setting.
If you are experiencing a sustained, heightened level of an unpleasant emotion, particularly resentment or anxiety, you may have identified a clue that somewhere in your life there is a lack of emotional, mental, or physical boundaries.
How can you practice identifying boundaries?
As usual, your body knows best. “If you think about when someone is physically too close to you, how does he feel?” Doughty asks. “The impulse is typically to create more distance with the person, hoping he’ll get the cue to back off. This is a ‘felt sense’ that arises in us when someone is violating a boundary.
We all know how it feels when close talkers or shoulder grabbers invade our physical boundaries. Identify the equivalent of how you feel when someone steps on your emotional space bubble. How do you feel when someone pushes your emotional boundary bubble: resentful, uncomfortable, deflated? Take stock of that so you can identify it faster the next time it happens and set and enforce those limits.
Is it possible to have too many limits?
Healthy limits = good. Having too many rigid limits = oh oh. “We can certainly be too limited in a variety of ways, which can be transmitted by being ‘unresponsive’ and ‘unavailable’ to others,” Doughty warns. (Sorry to everyone I dated in my twenties!) “This can also be conveyed in the attitude that if I don’t feel like doing something, I shouldn’t have to. The reality is that there are obligations in life and it is important to keep them.
There is also the risk of being too flexible, in terms of boundaries, in certain areas of our lives and too rigid in others. Let’s say you’re putting in overtime at the office, no problem, just to be cranky at your fellow patient. Or if you let your in-laws trample your parenting style but don’t even consider the kindest advice from a well-meaning friend. “When those closest to us start giving us feedback that they feel ignored, it might be time to look at the boundaries and see if you’re stretching yourself too thin in one area at the expense of another,” says Doughty.
Are the limits human nature?
“We were created for connection. This is a basic human need that is not conscious but innate,” says Doughty. “Although some may argue this now, historically it has been shown that we need each other for basic survival. When belonging and connection are threatened, especially chronically, we worry about staying connected at all costs.
The cost, unfortunately, is the auto-sensing system that helps us sense when something seems out of place, too much, or unsafe. “If we didn’t have the ability to feel these things,” Doughty says, “we wouldn’t know what our limits are or how to set them.”
Enough of that. This is to find the limits of your healthy limits. And to the occasional porous boundaries when we pour too much wine and inevitably share too much, because once in a while, that’s okay, too.
Megan is a writer, editor, etc-er who reflects on life, design, and travel for Domino, Lonny, Hunker, and more. Her rules of life include, but are not limited to: zipper when merging, tipping cash, and contributing to her IRA. Be a friend to her and sign up for her Night Vision newsletter or follow her on Instagram.