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Thinking About Boundaries…

When working with my clients, I often bring up the topic of boundaries. This blog post focuses on how understanding more about boundaries can help change the quality of your relationships and your life.

A boundary is a line which marks where your personal and emotional space ends…and others’ begins.

Healthy Boundaries

A healthy boundary is flexible, not rigid. You can decide what you will let in and what you will keep out. You can evaluate what to allow in based on knowing your beliefs, values, feelings, needs and wants and using that information to determine what situations and relationships work well for you and those that don’t.  When you are operating with healthy boundaries, you give freely without guilt or obligation beforehand and without resentment afterwards. You are responsible only for your own behavior, well-being and needs. You are not responsible for others’ feelings, needs, happiness, mood or behavior.

vs. Unhealthy Boundaries

If you are unaware of your own needs, feelings and beliefs and your focus is outside of yourself, you will either be overly rigid in your boundaries, too flexible in your boundaries or flip-flop back and forth.  Having overly rigid boundaries can feel like being “selfish” or “self-centered,” to you or other people. It can feel very “in control” or “controlling.” You will tend to do whatever makes you feel most comfortable. You feel such an urgency to protect yourself and feel safe that it is very difficult to think about what others need and want. You may find yourself feeling very critical of others who are different from you, because it is hard for you to make sense of two differing viewpoints. You  often feel angry and defensive when people disagree with you, because it feels like they are attacking or opposing you rather than just voicing a different opinion.

Overly flexible boundaries feel like you are very giving, selfless, people pleasing, thinking of others before yourself. You do things out of obligation, because they are the “right” things to do, because you or someone else might think badly of you if you don’t do that something.  You will tend to worry too much about what other people think of you, believing there is a “right” and “wrong” way to do most things, focusing on what will make others happy, what others need. When you have overly flexible boundaries, you will  often become frustrated at how “needy,” “selfish” or “demanding” others are with you.

If you make a decision about what to do for or with someone based on guilt, you are not respecting your personal boundaries. Also, if you find you feel resentful or angry with another person to whom you gave something to (time, friendship, favors etc), you are actually angry with yourself for having not respected your own needs and feelings. In other words, you have not paid close and careful attention to your limits or boundaries.

Signs That You Have Unhealthy Boundaries…

It is extremely challenging to set and enforce healthy boundaries when you don’t know yourself very well. Rather than clear and calm communication with others about what you want, need, feel and believe, you will likely have one of the following experiences:

  • Confusion—When confronted with a choice to make, you may feel unsure, foggy, tired and struggle with what the “right” decision is.
  • Anger—You may feel angry with another person or situation that is asking you or just wants you to do something for them.
  • Guilt—You feel guilty that you don’t feel the same way as someone else, don’t needor want the same things as someone else you are close to.
  • Frustration—When someone you are close to and care about is unhappy about something, you may be frustrated, annoyed or angry that they won’t do more to fix their problem or let you fix it for them.

How can I strive to improve my boundaries?

As a starting point, try and pay attention to your interactions with others and investigate if you are behaving in ways that indicate poor boundaries. When you catch yourself being too rigid or flexible with your boundaries, try to change your behavior in small ways.  Remember that change takes time!

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