Boundaries: Why They Are Important And How To set Them

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Dr Ottilia Brown

Boundaries: Why They Are Important And How To set Them

Posted 22 Aug 2020

Emotional Health

Dr. Ottilia Brown

Boundaries: Why They Are Important And How To set Them

Boundaries are the limits and rules that we put in place in the context of relationships but also within ourselves regarding what we will allow to filter into our being. Boundaries apply to different areas of life and thus there are different types of boundaries:

  • Physical boundaries are about personal space and physical touch.
  • Intellectual boundaries refer to respecting thoughts and ideas.
  • Emotional boundaries refer to respecting feelings and understanding how and when to share personal information.
  • Sexual boundaries include the emotional, physical and intellectual aspects of sexuality.
  • Material boundaries include limit setting with regard to money and possessions.
  • Time boundaries pertain to how time is used and respecting an individual’s time.

As with anything in life, too much or too little of something can be a problem. Think about having a boundary wall around your house… if it is too high, it will block out any views and could result in you feeling cut off from the outside world. If the wall is too low, it will be too easy for people to see into your property thus affecting your privacy, and it may also be easier for burglars to gain entry to your property. Similarly, unhealthy personal boundaries can be rigid or porous.

Rigid boundaries

Rigid boundaries can block your view of human beings and leave you feeling alone or isolated. People with rigid boundaries may avoid intimacy and have few close friends. They may also find it difficult to ask for help and can seem emotionally distant and detached. These rigid boundaries typically serve the purpose of protection from possible rejection and abandonment, but they will also block intimacy and connection. They may be a response to painful childhood experiences or attachment difficulties during childhood.

People with rigid boundaries tend to feel cautious or suspicious when people are trying to engage with them by asking personal questions, or angry if someone insists on getting their opinion on something, or uncomfortable when someone tries to bond with them perceiving their behaviour as intrusive. They may hold beliefs about not trusting people that are based in previous experiences of being hurt, rejected or betrayed.

Porous/Permeable boundaries

Porous boundaries serve the same function as the low boundary wall around a house. Individuals with porous boundaries may find it difficult to say ‘no’ or to express their opinion or voice their dissatisfaction with something. There may be an acceptance of abusive behaviours and a dependency on others’ opinions and validation. Sometimes people with porous boundaries share too much personal information and are overly involved with others’ personal lives and problems. They also commonly feel guilty when instituting a boundary. Similar to the person with rigid boundaries, the individual with porous boundaries fears rejection but tries to prevent it with people pleasing and chameleon behaviours. Sometimes porous boundaries developed in response to traumatic childhood experiences as a means of survival.

Common emotional responses include anxiety when they are not being included at work or socially or resentment when being asked to do something. They may complain when asked to do things, which is probably an indication that they actually want to say ‘no’, but the need to please and the fear of not being liked or being rejected gets in the way. They may also feel frustrated as they recognise these boundary violations but feel powerless to change their responses.

People with porous boundaries may hold beliefs that speaking up for yourself is dangerous (this may come from being exposed to boundary violations at a very young age) or that saying ‘no’ means that you are a bad or unlikable person.

Healthy boundaries

People with healthy boundaries are clear about their opinions and are able to directly and respectfully communicate their discomfort with someone’s behaviour. They are comfortable with saying ‘no’ and can accept being said ‘no’ to. They can manage information sharing according to the audience until they have built a trust relationship and tend to engage in values-based decisions and behaviours. Their boundaries are flexible but clear. There is a high level of confidence and self-respect and a tendency to take self-responsibility.

Healthy boundaries are reflected in thoughts and beliefs such as  ‘It is good for me to heed my intuitive feelings of discomfort and to act accordingly if I suspect that my boundaries are being violated’, ‘I have the right to an opinion and to say ‘no’’, ‘There are healthy ways of protecting myself that do not include being aloof or distant’.

Setting healthy boundaries

  • Assess the current health of your boundaries. Think about yourself in various situations where your boundaries may have been violated or where you think you may have violated others’ boundaries with specific reference to the first part of the article that outlines the various types of boundaries. Write down the examples and the accompanying thoughts and emotions that emerge.
  • Identify the irrational thoughts and underlying beliefs pertaining to your boundary category. 

Explore the sections on rigid, porous and healthy boundaries and notice the emotional responses that arise while reflecting. This will help you to identify the predominant boundary category that you identify with. Rigid and porous boundaries are linked to irrational thoughts. The language that you used while reflecting provides clues as to the nature of the irrational thoughts that you may be having. Identify themes, e.g. the word ‘guilt’ appearing often, or the feeling of fear… ‘I’m too scared to…’, or ‘can’t’ can be helpful clues. Irrational thoughts are driven by underlying beliefs, examples of which are outlined in the article. Identify the core beliefs that underpin your rigid or porous boundaries.

  • Now identify rational thoughts and healthy beliefs that can underpin healthy boundary setting behaviours.The rational thoughts and healthy beliefs you develop will depend on what you have identified during self-reflection. For example, if you have identified that you have rigid boundaries, you possibly recognise that you feel suspicious of people because you think that most people cannot be trusted. You can replace this with a rational thought process that would support the healthy belief that you can protect yourself while getting to know people by managing how much you share with people until you feel more comfortable about trusting them.
  • Engage in behaviours that reflect new thinking patterns and beliefs. Set clear boundaries and communicate these specifically and respectfully without explaining or justifying your boundary. Be succinct and firm. Know that this will be an uncomfortable process as you are engaging in new behaviours.
  • Tolerate the emotional discomfort. Anxiety and/or guilt could arise when you start implementing boundaries and could be exacerbated if you experience push back or pressure to revert to old patterns. These uncomfortable emotions could tempt you to apologise for newly set boundaries or to revert to old patterns as you attempt to escape the discomfort. Tolerate the anxiety and/or guilt and choose to do the behaviours anyway. The uncomfortable emotions will lesson as you start experiencing the rewards of your boundary setting behaviour. Use the breath as your anchor!
  • Consistently apply the boundary. This helps you to practice and to gradually feel more comfortable with the act of communicating and implementing your boundaries while it also helps those around you to adapt to your new ways of being.
  • Expect negative responses to your newfound boundaries. You would have been teaching people how to treat you and they would have become accustomed to and possibly even benefited from your rigid or porous boundaries. Notice who responds negatively to your healthy boundaries. Maybe these people previously manipulated you or were abusive or controlling. Stand firm… remember that boundary setting has to be done consistently and firmly (unapologetically) so that the new boundary can be established.

Ultimately, our boundaries reflect our self-respect and self-worth. Interacting with others from this place of worth will yield meaningful relationships and help us to weed out unhealthy relationships. Wishing you well as you build a boundary wall that protects and invites simultaneously!

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2 people have commented this blog.

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dana says:

4 months 1 week ago
Consistent application of the boundary is so important I found through my own experience. Mashallah.
Dr Ottilia Brown

Dr Ottilia Brown says:

4 months 5 days ago
Dear Dana. Thank you for your comment and for emphasising such an important aspect of boundary setting. Consistency is key... Both so that our brains can learn the new pattern of being and so that those around us can learn the new way of treating us. May you be well, Ottilia

Muhammad says:

5 months 4 days ago
I find this information very helpful, and it help me realise I need to do more to set some boundaries in my own life which make things nicer for me and my family.
Dr Ottilia Brown

Dr Ottilia Brown says:

5 months 1 day ago
Dear Muhammad I am so pleased that you found the article useful. It's great that you will be using the tips to improve things for you and your family. Wishing you well, Ottilia

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