You hear a lot of talk about boundaries. These mysterious dividing lines between ourselves and others that somehow, if properly maintained, keep us and our relationships healthy. But what are boundaries really? And how can one measure them? How do you know when they are “right”?
There is a great little book that a former supervisor introduced me to many years ago as a young clinician. It’s How to Be and Adult by David Richo. This slim volume, only 122 pages, tells the straight story of what interferes with our ability to mature into well-grounded and autonomous humans. The chapter on boundaries is particularly useful. Richo says “Your personal boundaries protect the inner core of your identity and your right to choices”. In other words, when you are not maintaining appropriate boundaries you start to lose who you truly are and your ability to feel that you have choices. This does not enhance relationships but instead breeds resentment as we feel ourselves losing ourselves and losing the sense of having options. We begin to feel manipulated by people and situations and naturally respond on some level, conscious or unconscious, with anger or despair.
It brings to mind the old adage “good fences make good neighbors”. Any of you who have read my blogs or worked with me knows that I am passionate about connection. I am not the sort of person who feels that we need to learn to be alone. I truly believe that humans are designed to be interconnected. But that does not mean a lack of boundaries. In fact, not having good boundaries is putting your relationships at risk.
Conversely people who have good boundaries have a sense of mutuality that comes from appreciating that both people in the relationship have needs and that truly loving someone is honoring what is best from them while not sacrificing what is also best for yourself. As Richo says, they are able to “be in-touch and intact”. When this process runs afoul you often see people trying to control or manipulate each other, or feeling that they must subjugate themselves to the needs of the other despite feeling over-run. When you “don’t let go of what doesn’t work” and it feels like “[you] can’t let go of what could work” your boundaries are out of balance. “Co-dependency is unconditional love for someone else that has turned against the self”. (Richo)
Rico’s book contains a clever list of symptoms of good versus not-so-good boundaries. I am not going to quote all of them here but have selected a few that I think are especially salient:
|Not Enough Boundaries||Healthy Boundaries|
|You feel unclear about your preferences||You feel clear on preferences and act on that|
|You are so focused on surviving that you often don’t know how you are feeling||You recognize when you are happy/unhappy|
|You do more and more for less and less||You do more when/if that gets you more|
|You are satisfied if you are coping/surviving||You are only satisfied if you are thriving|
|You let other people’s minimal improvement maintain your stalemate||You are encouraged by sincere and ongoing improvement|
|You act out of compliance and compromise||You act out of agreement and negotiation|
|You are enmeshed in a drama and it feels like you have no control over how it unfolds||You are always aware of your choices and feel free to act based on them|
Healthy boundaries, like most relationship skills, are passed down from parents to their children. Many of us did not get blessed with the lessons of good boundaries. We either over-restrict and fail to allow others into our inner lives, fearing their influence and potential loss of autonomy, or we have permeable boundaries that fail to keep our authentic self safe and are too yielding to the needs of others.
Therapy is a great way to work on boundaries and, like most skills in life (driving a car, baking a cake, etc.) they can be learned. If you notice that your boundaries could use some help I hope you consider therapy. I have seen it help many people lead happier, more comfortable and more fulfilled lives.