Boundaries are an important part of life. They help us see where we end and others begin. They define and protect us. They let good things in and keep trouble away. In a way, they are like a fence around someone’s house or property. Sound pretty good, don’t they? Think about every person you care about. Do you want them to have boundaries?
What about you?
Many people struggle with their own boundaries. In fact, as you read the first sentence of this article, did you notice a knot forming in your stomach? Were you tempted to stop and read something else “more pleasant”? If so, it’s understandable. Boundaries require us to say “no” and to ask for things we need. “Isn’t that weakness?” is a common question. Would you consider a “City Limits” sign a weakness? Or, a property line or state or country border? These are simply “lines of demarcation” – they are not weaknesses.
The following are other common examples of common things people say about boundaries:
“I don’t want to hurt anyone.” This is a frequent and understandable concern. Most of us have had the experience of saying no and upsetting another person. Imagine you have to tell your sibling you will not lend them money anymore. This may truly cause them discomfort – they will have to do the work to figure things out another way. In some cases, people we know have been intolerant of our boundaries and our “no” has ended in broken relationships. It is easy to believe it was the “no” that caused the breach. However, the truth is the person took it as a rejection rather than a boundary. In such cases, it was not the “no” but the other person’s understanding of it that was the issue. Remember, people will see you again in multiple situations. If they choose to be patient and accepting of our limits, they will learn that we don’t say “no” to everything. This will help them learn to tolerate our “no” better over time. At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we understand this and help people learn that drawing the line may be difficult for others or cause inconvenience, but healthy boundaries are not harmful. Setting boundaries can be particularly important when we treat anxiety and anxiety coupled with other co-occurring disorders.
“Drawing Boundaries is selfish.” This is another common myth about boundaries. Many messages in our world indicate that we must “pour ourselves out for others” and to do anything for ourselves is wrong. At The Center, we say to think of “selfish” as “me first” and “self-centered” as “me only”. It may not be the Webster’s definition, but it proves a point. There are times we need to focus on ourselves (when we are sick, for example), but as a general rule, “Me only” is destructive to relationships. However, “me first” is necessary. Think about how you are feeling right now. What are you thinking about? Are you sad? Lonely? Angry? Hungry? Bored? Have you ever said, “I’m fine!” when asked how you feel, but truthfully, you felt terrible? You see? Whatever terms you use, boundaries and self-care has to start with you!
“I don’t have boundaries because I don’t know who I am.” Some people have grown up with others who have strong personalities. Many of us have been subject to constant, external messages that cause us to feel bad or unsure about our own likes, dislikes, wishes, and needs. When this is not addressed, a person can lose a sense of themselves. They never say no to anything so they don’t really learn who they are. People who feel this way often feel a lot of sadness or resentment. At The Center, we help people go on a quest to find themselves so they can see and learn that each person’s unique take on life is a blessing to others.
Implementing and enforcing boundaries when we have not had them previously is tricky. It takes time, support, and exploration – but it is worth the effort. Next time you struggle with boundaries, remember they are not selfish, mean, or weak. Boundaries help us know where it is safe to tread. Imagine streets with no lines, zoos with no cages, and houses with no doors. Drawing the lines we need brings freedom both to ourselves and others. They are a gift.
Authored by Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP, Group Therapy Program Coordinator, she is a Neuroscience-informed, Licensed Therapist and International Board Certified Group Psychotherapist at The Center • A Place of HOPE, The Center is located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, and creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, co-occurring disorders and more.