As we are fully involved in the Holiday Season now, I chose this month to write about the Skill of using Boundaries. Often in psychological circles the phrase “having healthy boundaries” comes up in reference to clients interacting with others, be it family members, friends, or the wider public. I have noticed that many times, clients don’t really understand what that means. We know what the words mean, obviously, but how do we actually have healthy boundaries?
Boundaries are anything that separates us from others. They help to define who we are. Where we end and another begins—that’s a boundary. In relationships, it is important to be close to another person but, like most things, boundaries can be thought of as being on a continuum where “healthy boundaries” lie somewhere between the extremes of “isolation” and “enmeshment”. Enmeshment is a term that I use to describe a person that is unable to view their own problems as separate from that of another person. As you can see, this hypothetical person has no boundaries. They can’t determine where they end and the other begins. So clearly the importance of boundaries cannot be overstated. However, we can also quickly see that they are very complex. In some cultures, or in some situations, healthy boundaries would be defined differently. Boundaries are influenced by personality, family, and setting so we need to look carefully at how to set up appropriate boundaries based on these personal factors.
The first step is to understand the different types of boundaries. These are physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, and general.
Physical boundaries can be thought of as your personal space. Broadly, who is allowed to touch you and in what areas. These boundaries include all levels of physical intimacy. You can also think about physical boundaries as anything that we take into our bodies like food and drink, medicine or smoke—anything that affects our physical being.
Psychological boundaries include information about yourself, your thoughts, beliefs and values. Think about who is allowed to know personal information about you, be it what you think, your political views, your contributions, your mental space.
Emotional boundaries are extremely important. This encompasses your feelings and their ability to be leveraged and manipulated. How do you respond when someone is giving you a guilt trip? Have you ever been held “emotionally hostage”? This area is frequently at play when talking about enmeshment. If you are taking on the distress of someone else or wanting someone (your therapist or friend) to take on your distress (misery loves company) it is an indication of emotional boundary issues. Who knows about your feelings? How and when do you share how you feel? Think about these questions when examining emotional boundaries.
Spiritual boundaries are the ability to choose your own religion, higher power, or spiritual life (or lack thereof). The old advice “never talk about politics or religion at the dinner table” is, perhaps, an attempt to strengthen spiritual boundaries. Who knows about your beliefs and spiritual life and how you share this is what compromises spiritual boundaries.
General boundaries are anything that defines and differentiates you as separate from others and others from you. Anything that you need to keep you healthy and “safe” interpersonally in the world would compromise general boundaries. Think about areas that were not covered in the previous descriptions but feel important to you.
In using skills of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, you can help yourself to adjust your boundaries as necessary with the mnemonic BOUNDARY. As written about by Dr. Lane Pederson, BOUNDARY stands for:
Be Aware of Self: Using skills of Observe and Describe (from Wise Mind or Mindfulness), pay attention to what you’re saying and doing. If your behavior or words fit the situation or relationship, you will probably feel comfortable. Try to look at your behavior on a continuum, and make sure it is not at either extreme (being unnecessarily closed or too open for the situation). We are aiming for the middle of the road.
Observe Others and the Situation: Paying attention to other’s body language will give you an indication as to whether your behavior and words are fitting into what is needed in the specific situation. Additionally, looking at the state of other’s boundaries (to identify if they’re being more or less open than what seems appropriate to you) which may make you feel uncomfortable. Remember that your boundaries are not in isolation. Your boundaries influence and are influenced by those of others around you.
Understand You and Others’ Limits: Use Wise Mind to help you become aware of your own boundaries based on the needs of the situation and setting. Also be aware of the others’ boundaries and respect them. If someone doesn’t want to share information that you think is innocuous, don’t pressure them to do so. From another person’s point of view, this may be seen as overstepping their boundary, exposing them to the possibility of harm.
Negotiate Sometimes: There are some situations where your boundary may need to be adjusted. In a therapy setting, for example, you may at first notice that your boundaries are very tight and as you begin to trust the therapist, you may be encouraged, rightfully, to loosen the boundaries and share more. The important thing to consider is how much you trust the other person. If they have shown themselves to be trustworthy, over time, you may need to loosen the boundaries with this particular person in order to deepen the relationship. Conversely, don’t loosen your boundaries just to be liked. Your self-respect is far more important. When boundaries are too soft in new relationships and we’re too willing to allow them to be breached, we are setting ourselves up for the possibility of being taken advantage of or self-loathing. Use Wise Mind to help you determine where and when boundaries should be strengthened or relaxed.
Differences Exist: Once again, remember that not everyone is exactly like you. Different people from different families, cultures, or settings may differently affect someone else’s boundaries. Respect these differences and work on being trustworthy but remember that you may need to use Radical Acceptance if someone’s boundaries are not similar to your own.
Always Remember Your Values: Similar to what was stated above, your boundaries are meant to protect and maintain your self-respect, safety, and reflect your values. Use the awareness of your values to help you determine when and whether boundaries need to be adjusted.
Your Safety Comes First: Remember the importance of maintaining boundaries to protect your physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual well-being. It occurs far too often that people compromise their own boundaries in an effort to be liked or to fit in with a crowd. Avoid situations that can cause this type of harm, or if unavailable, keep your boundaries firmly in place and dare to be different, proud and strong!
I like to work with my clients on ways to address boundary-pushing by others. I find it most helpful if you can pre-think situations where you feel there is a great likelihood of this occurring. You might “pre-think” things that you will and won’t talk about with certain people (“when I see Grandma, I’m not going to mention Trump”; “if Grandma asks me about whether or not I’m working, I’ll tell her that I’m thankful for her concern and everything is fine”.) Use the time before these events to rehearse what you will say if the situation arises. Having some go-to “stock” phrases on hand helps you to feel more confident in approaching these settings, even if you don’t end up needing them. The thing that I hear frequently from my clients is that they were “surprised” or “caught off guard” by questions or comments. There is really no way to prepare for every possible question or comment but if you think about it, there may be people who you know “always” ask about this or that, or “always” make comments that are inappropriate or over-step your boundaries. Work on coming up with some general phrases that you can use to re-establish your own boundaries while still preserving the relationship. Phrases such as “I can tell that you’re worried about me, but I am doing what needs to be done” or “Thank you for your concern. I’ve got it covered” or “Gosh, I’d really like to (talk about something else, enjoy the scenery, eat more turkey, use the restroom) right now” gently diffuse potentially upsetting situations while also giving you an escape, which you may need when dealing with people that don’t seem to take a hint!
Have a wonderful Holiday Season and use the time to practice keeping healthy boundaries all year round!