What is a boundary? If you search for the word’s meaning, you will find a definition similar to “a line that marks the limit of an area…a dividing line”. Personal boundaries are exactly that: a dividing line – a limit for what type of behavior you will or will not accept.
Having boundaries gives you the space you need to be true to yourself, to have the freedom to act, feel and be who you are. Boundaries help you maintain your personal integrity. They give others limits to how they should interact with you, being respectful of you and, in turn, you being respectful of who they are.
Maintaining fair boundaries is good for your mental health and your relationships with friends, family, and coworkers. Let’s dive deeper into setting and maintaining boundaries.
Boundaries Keep the Good In and the Bad Out
Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, authors of the groundbreaking book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life state in the very first chapter, “Any confusion of responsibility and ownership in our lives is a problem of boundaries. Just as homeowners set physical property lines around their land, we need to set mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries for our lives to help us distinguish what is our responsibility and what isn’t.”
Boundaries help define what is you – and what is not you. Boundaries help differentiate you from someone else, showing you where you end and someone else begins, which leads you to a sense of ownership. And just like a fence or dividing line, boundaries help you keep the good in and the bad out.
But boundaries are not impenetrable walls, meant to keep everything out. There are times when we have bad inside and good is waiting for us on the outside, so we need to have gates or drawbridges in our boundaries to let help reach us from the outside. Boundaries are supposed to “breathe”, allowing us the freedom to enjoy safe relationships and avoid destructive ones.
What is Within Your Control with Boundaries
Boundaries are a way to describe your spheres of responsibilities – what you are and are not responsible for. In order to understand your boundaries, you must first know what is within your control:
- Feelings – feelings come from the heart and can tell you the state of your relationships. Own your feelings and be aware of them. They should neither be ignored or put in charge. Your feelings are your responsibility and you should see them as your problem so you can begin to find an answer to whatever issue they are pointing toward.
- Attitudes and Beliefs – Attitudes have to do with your orientation toward something, the stance you take toward others. Beliefs are anything you accept as true. Own your attitudes and convictions because they fall within your side of responsibility. You are the one who feels their effect, so only you can change them.
- Behaviors – Your behaviors have natural consequences. Whatever you put effort into – good or bad – you will reap a reward – good or bad. For example, exercising leads to better health; constantly sitting and not moving leads to health issues.
- Choices – You are in control of your choices, no matter how you feel. To set boundaries, take responsibility for your choices. You make the choices, so you must live with the consequences.
- Values – what you value is what you love and assign importance to. By owning your values, you can determine if they are productive or hurtful in your life and you can change them.
- Limits – you can set limits on your own exposure to people who are behaving poorly; you cannot change them or make them behave correctly. You can also set your own internal limits, having self-control without repression to have feelings, impulses, and desires without acting them out.
- Resources and Gifts – by using your gifts and being productive, you will invariably be happier. Letting fear or oppression by others control you will keep you from using your natural strengths for your good and the good of others.
- Thoughts – own your own thoughts by taking ownership of your thinking processes, grow in knowledge and expand your mind, and clarify distorted thinking.
- Desires – desires lie within your boundaries. Dreams, wishes, wants, goals and plans, hungers and thirsts are all part of your personality and should be pursued if they are real and true desires that meet what you truly need.
- Love – the ability to give and respond to love is your greatest gift. Taking ownership of how you receive or resist love is your responsibility.
Setting and Maintaining Better Boundaries
Specific, orderly changes in your life can help your boundaries to mature. Drs. Cloud and Townsend suggest using the following eleven steps as guides to measure growth in setting boundaries and determine where you are in your development.
- Resentment – resentment and anger are early warning signals that someone is violating your boundaries. Ask yourself if you have permission to feel angry when controlled by others? Are you aware you are being violated? Can you hear your early-warning signal? If yes, you are heading in the right direction. If not, consider finding a safe place to tell the truth.
- Become Drawn to Boundary-Lovers – as you develop limits and boundaries, you become drawn to people who can hear your no without becoming critical, finding permission in them to be honest, authentic and loving individuals.
- Joining the Family – develop close and meaningful connections with people with whom you have more clearly defined relationships instead of boundary-muddied relationships. Boundaries cannot be worked in a vacuum. You need others with the same values of limit setting to encourage you, practice with you, and stay with you.
- Treasuring Your Treasures – begin a list of what you treasure: your time, your money, your feelings, and beliefs. How do you want others to treat them? How do you want others not to treat them?
- Practice Baby Nos – growth in setting emotional boundaries must always be at a rate that takes into account your past injuries. Ask your good friends or support group if you could work on boundaries with them. The will show you their true value in their response to your truth-telling. Begin practicing your no with people who will honor it and love you for it.
- Rejoicing in the Guilty Feelings – boundary injured individuals are slaves who struggle to make value-based decisions on their own, often reflecting the wishes of those around them. A weak conscience or harsh internal judge can make a boundary-injured individual feel guilty as though they have transgressed, when in fact they have not. Recognition of these guilty feelings when setting true and honest boundaries is a signal that you are moving ahead.
- Practicing Grown-up Nos – setting important limits with difficult people is the fruit of much work and maturing in the preceding steps. The goal here is less living for the day when you can say no to important people than having a character structure in place that has boundaries and limits on self and other at appropriate times.
- Rejoicing in the Absence of Guilty Feelings – in this step, you have moved from listening to your own internal parent (step 6) to responding to your mature values of love, responsibility, and forgiveness.
- Loving the Boundaries of Others – if we expect others to respect our boundaries, we need to respect theirs. Loving others’ boundaries confronts our own selfishness, allowing us to become more other-centered. It also increases our capacity to care about others, teaching us empathy.
- Freeing Your No and Your Yes – when people have undeveloped limit-setting abilities, they say yes to others when unsure about their internal boundaries. Being able to say no when you are unsure is a sign of maturing boundaries.
- Mature Boundaries, Value-Driven Goal Setting – setting boundaries is mature, proactive and initiative taking. It’s being in control of your life. Set goals for yourself and together with your loved-ones based on the values that allow you to protect, nurture and develop your life.
The reward for setting wise boundaries is the joy of desires fulfilled in life. By maintaining boundaries in your life that reflect your values, you will be able to refrain from attacking or punishing others who infringe upon your limits, in the end making life good for you and good for others around you. You will be free to use your time, talents and treasures to benefit yourself and your community.
Are you challenged in your ability to set boundaries? A good place to start is revealing your true feelings in a safe place, like a trusted counselor or support group. For more information on boundaries, read Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life.