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What Are Boundaries and Why Are They so Complicated?

Danielle Dahl, Lead Contributor

The common definition of a boundary is pretty straightforward.

It is generally something that separates one thing from another.

For instance, it could be a fence separating your property from your neighbors.

It might also be a median that divides parts of a highway.

There are natural boundaries too, like mountains or rivers that divide territories or nations.

Basically, it is anything that is meant to keep something out or define where something that belongs to you (or someone else) begins and ends.

What does the term personal boundaries mean when we talk about it from a psychology standpoint, and why are they complicated?

What are personal boundaries?

Much like the references mentioned above, a personal boundary is something that separates your physical space, feelings, needs, wants, and responsibilities from those of other people.

Boundaries are also used as ways to teach people how to treat you.

This includes both verbally and physically.

For instance, if you feel it is unacceptable for people to scream in your face, then that would be a boundary for you.

Not allowing someone to scream at you would be an example of maintaining a boundary, and you would be teaching them that type of behavior will not be tolerated.

Now, the reverse of this is also true.

If you tell someone that by screaming at you they are violating a boundary, and they keep doing it, and you do nothing, then you are teaching them that you will actually tolerate this action from them.

When a boundary is crossed, you have to let the other person know that it is not ok, otherwise, the boundary is useless.

Boundaries are only effective if you enforce them by giving feedback and providing consequences.

Here are a few other examples of things that you might want to consider as personal boundaries:

  • Expect respect
  • Communicating your own thoughts and feelings
  • Letting people know when they make you uncomfortable

There are many more personal boundaries that are the cornerstone to healthy relationships, both with ourselves and the people we love.

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However, sometimes it gets a little tricky, and you might just start to wonder if this is an example of a boundary, or is this just someone’s personality?

“You get what you tolerate.” – Henry Cloud

When boundaires start to get a little complicated

Let’s be clear.

Boundaries are healthy and have many benefits including allowing you to be your true self, allowing you to let go of the opinions of others, helping you create realistic expectations, and can keep you safe.

But lately, I have been wondering if there is a point in which we take them too far and become selfish and unapproachable.

Is there a point where the boundaries we create for ourselves actually damage healthy relationships and ruin the quality of our lives instead of making them better?

For instance, take the healthy boundary of “saying no.”

This is something many people struggle with, usually because they want to please people.

Saying no is an essential boundary we all need to keep ourselves sane, focused, and happy. 

Barrie Davenport, does an excellent job explaining this boundary:

You may find it easier to sacrifice your own needs for your partner’s out of a fear of upsetting them.

However, if they ask something of you that goes against your principles, disrespects your time, or forces you to sacrifice something important, it’s okay to say no.

It doesn’t have to be harsh, but learn to say it assertively.

“Boundaries are to protect life, not to limit pleasures.” – Edwin Louis Cole

Understanding the reasons behind a boundary

Are you constantly saying no to people and using this boundary as a justification.

If you never want to help anyone else, or leave your house, or be bothered with other people’s problems is it really a boundary?

Is it going against your principles?

If a coworker asks you to work on Sunday and you say no because it is against your beliefs, that seems like an appropriate use of the idea of a boundary.

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However, if you have just had 3 days off in a row and your coworker worked seven days straight and you say no because you had plans to lay in the bed again, is that a boundary?

When I think of disrespecting your time, I think of a person always showing up late for meetings with them, or maybe keeping you late at work all the time with no regard.

This would seem like it would warrant a conversation about respecting how valuable your time is.

However, refusing to help someone else occasionally because it isn’t convenient for you, doesn’t really feel like the same situation.

Then there is this idea of sacrificing something important.

When I think about this, I think about you already having something planned that someone is asking you to miss or reschedule.

Family time is important, date nights with your significant other are important, as are events that can’t be rescheduled like weddings or parties.

However, is the fact that you had planned to watch another episode of a show you have spent 4 hours watching today a reason to say no and use this boundary as a reason?

“The boundaries of your life are merely a creation of the self.” – Robin Sharma

Boundaries will usually bring up feelings on your end and in those you are exercising your boundaries with

When you start to build boundaries you might feel guilt or apprehension that people will be annoyed with you.

This is normal and is not a reason for you not to implement healthy boundaries.

If you haven’t been assertive in this area before, then the pushback might be even worse for others.

There is a fine line between knowing when what you are feeling is a normal, albeit uncomfortable response to boundaries, and realizing that maybe it is less of a boundary and more an area you might want to examine.

I don’t have an answer for where that line begins and ends for you.

That is a personal matter that will require some reflection on your part.

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However, if you are feeling like your relationships with those around you are suffering, or people are disconnecting themselves from you, and the boundaries are making you feel worse, then it might be a good time to ask yourself some tough questions.

Are you building walls or setting boundaries?

  • Are you using these boundaries as a reason to avoid people for a different reason?
  • Does safeguarding your time make you feel rested or lonely?
  • Are you just unconcerned with anyone else’s problems?

“Walls keep everybody out. Boundaries teach them where the door is.” – Mark Groves

Rethinking boundaries

If you think there might be an issue with the way you use boundaries, try figuring out what is important to you.

Having an attitude of gratitude and helping others is also a healthy practice that can make you feel good.

It is possible to do both.

Maybe start volunteering for a cause that is important to you on a given weeknight and say no when people ask you to do something on those nights.

Use your time wisely.

If you have some free time engage in some activities that are productive for self-care like journaling, spending time outdoors, or doing something you love.

This doesn’t mean that you need a whole day to do nothing.

Sometimes you might need a day like that, heck we all can use one now and again, but if you find yourself spending every day off like that it might actually be a sign that something else is going on.

The bottom line here is that we all need boundaries.

They really are a good thing.

Yet, they can also be complicated.

There is this temptation to use them as excuses to hide away or escape from life, focus solely on ourselves, and that can be detrimental to your health and the relationships that matter to you.

Share your thoughts about boundaries with us in the comment section below.

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