THE ROLE OF BOUNDARIES
It is often said that “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.” This old saying suggests that the chance of being able to be good neighbors is enhanced by the presence of a physical boundary. In relationships, healthy boundries are spoken and unspoken guidelines that help a relationship thrive, and help minimize hurt. Boundaries are protective lines that separate us from other things. You’ve heard the phrase, “A Line in the Sand,” or “Crossing the Line.” The first refers to a boundary being set and the latter refers to a boundary being violated. Boundaries are always protective in intent but are not always healthy.
Some boundaries are too weak while others are too strong. For example, in a family unit, parents who have healthy boundaries with their children have some authority with their children, but there is also a safe and secure connection in which the children feel respected and have some say. If those boundaries were too strong, the parents and children might be disconnected; or the children might be afraid of their parents. If those boundaries were too weak, children might not feel their parents are in charge and this can cause a child anxiety. There might be a lack of respect for the parent as a leader.
Boundaries that are poor quality can lead to a lot of discontent. We might not speak our minds, and find ourselves “going along” with things that don’t ultimately make us happy. Contrarily, if our boundaries with others are rigid or thick, we might be cut off, isolated, or otherwise have difficulty forming or sustaining connection with others.
Follow me down a side street, called “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need.”
Many people are already familiar with Maslow’s Hierarch of Need. If not, visit http://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html. It is a very wise concept and goes like this: people move from the lowest, most basic, level of need up to more complex areas of need as they improve themselves and their quality of life.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need suggests that here are 5 important areas of need in most people’s lives. In my training as a therapist, I’ve been taught to identify in which level of need people are operating. This model helps us to focus on the areas that are most relevant, and postpone or ignore the areas that are not. If someone is having trouble making ends meet and isn’t sure how to feed their family adequately in the next week, it would not be appropriate to talk to them about their friendships or taking up a new hobby.
Most of the people I currently work with are struggling with issues that are social or internal, and so they fall in the categories of Love/Belonging or Esteem. Some dip into Safety with issues of anxiety; however, this is often Perceived Safety, rather than Actual Safety. In helping people resolve difficulties that are social or internal, the concept of Boundaries arises often.
Boundaries help us feel comfortable. Boundaries protect us from hurt. Boundaries protect us from stress. Boundaries give us feelings of control and balance.
Sometimes we need to set and enforce boundaries in order to restore our balance. Other times, it would be better to loosen our boundaries, allow them to be crossed. In order to nurture growth, we sometimes have to allow our balance to be upset. Then we recalibrate with a new set of circumstances. This would be the process of letting go.
ARE YOUR BOUNDARIES IN NEED OF SOME ATTENTION?
How would you know?
Your body and your behavior equip you with signals that can help gauge your sense of balance and let you know when something is off. It takes some practice to listen to our bodies and our behaviors, but they have been there the whole time and are an incredible way to know and respond to our needs.
Ask yourself the following questions:
1.) Have I been resentful?
2.) Have I been losing sleep?
3.) Have I felt on the verge of tears or cried with little provocation?
4.) Have I been avoiding others? Certain people? Or people in general?
5.) Do I long to escape?
6.) Do I have fantasies of doing something drastically different with my life?
7.) Do I often feel disappointed in others’ behavior?
8.) Do I feel taken advantage of?
9.) Have I been overreactive?
10.) Am I experiencing tightness in my body, headaches, or stomach upset?
If you could relate to many of the above questions, you are likely experiencing a need to strengthen your boundaries. You might be feeling demanded-upon or pulled in several directions, or perhaps just stepped on. Establishing better boundaries (more on this later) could protect you (and those around you!) from resentment and strong and uncomfortable emotion.
Now consider this next set of questions.
1.) Am I lonely?
2.) Am I angry or resentful a lot of the time?
3.) Do I have trouble giving and receiving touch?
4.) Do I spend a lot of my time alone?
5.) Do I feel sorry for myself?
6.) Do I see others having a good time and feel angry or sad?
7.) Do I doubt myself a lot?
8.) Do I have trouble trusting others?
9.) Are there very few people who really know me?
10.) Do I tend to stay in my comfort zone more than others seem to?
If you can relate to this second set of questions, your boundaries might be too strong. You have protected yourself to the point of being isolated and you might be missing out on some meaningful connection.
BUILDING FENCES AND CONTRUCTING GATES
This is the first in a three-part series about Boundaries. In this first part, I hope you can understand and respect the purpose of boundaries, and begin an informal assessment of the role of boundaries in your life. After reading this, you might be more likely to spot boundaries in your life, or recognize their absence. In Part Two, I will address how to strengthen boundaries so that we can feel more peace and balance. Part Three will address the importance of connection and the loosening of boundaries to allow it.