While personal space and depth of conversation are unique to the individual, distance can hinder our ability to connect. Is it time for better boundaries?
Boundaries. By now, I’m sure you’ve heard this term thrown around a fair bit. And yet, if you are like many people, you are likely still a little fuzzy on exactly what a boundary is, how it is established, and how it can be helpful to you. Furthermore, you are likely wondering what boundaries have to do with fearlessness and relationships.
Let me start by sharing two brief stories about two individuals, each on a quest for love.
“Tony,” a man in his early 40s, recently decided to change his life in a powerful way. He is getting healthy, in mind and body, and is seeking a relationship with a mindful partner. He puts himself out there, engaging in conversation easily. On first dates, he becomes comfortable with talking, and shares about his interests, mindful practices, and beliefs. Unlike his date, Tony also discusses his history of romantic relationships, difficult childhood, and struggles with anxiety. He leaves feeling that the date went well and that a good, deep connection was established. Tony feels confused and rejected when a second date is declined.
“Heather,” a woman in her late 30s seeks counseling due to feeling dissatisfied and lonely. She shares that after years of dating she has not dated anyone longer than a couple of months. Heather reveals that she is a strong woman, and “does not take any crap” from men. She follows several self-written rules—about returning text messages or phone calls, PDA (aka public displays of affection), and physical intimacy. She has a set rule for each and follows it regardless of what is developing in the relationship. Heather feels that these rules help develop a sense of respect in the relationship and ensures that the relationship develops slowly.
As you can see, these two individuals have a very different way of engaging in relationships.
Tony demonstrates wide, open boundaries, and shares of himself freely. However, he does so without regard to the length of time he has known the person. He also does not adapt the depth and breadth of sharing to the amount of sharing of his date is comfortable with. Inevitably, this can leave the other person feeling overwhelmed with too much information, too fast. He in turn, feels rejected.
On the other hand, Heather demonstrates more rigid boundaries. She also does not adapt her boundaries to the length of time she has known a person, or particular qualities of her date. Heather has hard and fast rules, which she applies globally. They are intended to keep her safe and promote healthy relationships, but unfortunately, preventing relationships from developing much at all.
Let’s step back for a moment, to define what exactly a boundary is and how it can help or hinder your relationships.
When teaching clients about boundaries, I describe them as the imaginary lines we draw around ourselves to protect our physical and emotional self from the behavior and demands of others. When implemented, boundaries teach others how to interact with us in all sorts of situations (e.g., relationships, work, family, and community).
Your ability to establish, maintain and enforce healthy boundaries starts long before you came across this article. Boundaries are taught, implicitly and explicitly, in childhood first by your parents or caregivers, and then are supported (or contradicted) by others in your environment (e.g., siblings, teachers, friends, neighbors, and community figures).
Depending on these early and ongoing experiences, you either develop generally healthy boundaries or varying degrees of unhealthy boundaries (e.g., excessively flexible to excessively rigid)
- Teach others where your physical self ends and where others begin
- Teach others your comfort level with degrees of physical proximity (e.g., you likely feel more comfortable with a friend standing close to you as compared to someone you just met)
- Teach others what kind of touch you are comfortable and uncomfortable with
- Teach others how you would like to be spoken to/with
- Teach others what your beliefs and values—what you stand for
- Teach others what you are willing to allow or accept from others
- Teaching others what your emotional needs are
These may seem rather intuitive, but the more I work with clients, I realize just how difficult they are for so many. But why?
Think for a second about a boundary that can be difficult for you to establish or to uphold with someone in your life.
- Maybe you have difficulty saying, “no” when you don’t want to go on another date with someone that you don’t feel comfortable with.
- Maybe you agree with others when they espouse certain beliefs, even though you feel differently.
- Maybe you have difficulty not allowing your family member or friend word vomit on you day after day, with little attention to how you are doing.
- Maybe you jump in to save others, when you really need to worry about yourself
- Maybe you allow someone to touch you when you don’t feel comfortable with them doing so.
- Or, maybe you keep saying, “yes” to every project your boss assigns you, at the expense of your work-life balance, self-care, and sanity
At the root of all unhealthy boundaries (both too flexible or too rigid)—no matter what type of boundary—is fear. Yes, fear.
- Fear of being rejected
- Fear of being too needy
- Fear you will not be valued or accepted
- Fear of being smothered, taken advantage of, or a push over
- Fear of being emotionally, physically, or sexually hurt
- Feeling unworthy of love, respect, protection, and/or personal space
Fearless Boundaries Self-Reflection:
Think of at least one physical and one emotional boundary that you are not setting or upholding and ask yourself this, “How is fear preventing me from having healthy boundaries with this person or people in my life?”
*If you are having difficulty thinking of which boundaries are difficult for you, try asking a close friend whom you trust, to provide some gentle insight.
Determine what is at the root of this fear. What do you fear will happen or not happen if you set this boundary?
If you want to take it a step deeper, think back to what you were taught about your physical and emotional boundaries as a child, adolescent and adult. If you need help with doing so, or want some guidance with this, individual psychotherapy can be beneficial.
Reflect on how establishing or upholding these boundaries—especially in your romantic relationships—could renew and transform your relationship with yourself and with others. Remember, boundaries teach others how we want to be treated. So, go ahead and reach for the stars with this one!
Like I said, boundaries are a seemingly basic concept that everyone has heard of, and yet, few have really looked closely at in their lives. Knowing what boundaries you would like to set and fearlessly setting them can be amazingly transformative to your life and relationships.
[image: via pixabay]