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Healthy Boundaries

Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries are vitally important to our mental wellbeing. However, most of us have great difficulty with this. Some of us may have built very strong walls in order to keep everyone else out, and some of us may not understand the need for boundaries at all. It is probably a good idea to relook at the personal limits you do (or don't) set as it often holds the key to improving your mental health, and even your relationships!

Why are boundaries so important?

Boundaries play a major role in our mental health as they go hand-in-hand with a range of important factors. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • self-worth,

  • autonomy,

  • identity,

  • level of self-care,

  • communication, and most significantly,

  • our connections with others. T

What are boundaries?

They are probably best defined as the personal guidelines or limits that we establish to communicate what we are comfortable with (or not) or what we find permissible (or not). Furthermore, personal boundaries are what keep us safe and what helps us differentiate between what is ours and what is not. Boundaries are therefore at play in nearly every single situation we find ourselves in. Boundaries in our relationships with others are probably those that we deal with most commonly and that can be the trickiest to navigate. Prentis Hemphil describes beautifully what healthy boundaries are in relation to others:

"Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.”

Different types of boundaries

There are several different categories of boundaries. The most prominent ones are emotional, intellectual, physical, and material boundaries.

Emotional boundaries have mostly to do with our internal worlds. For example, you may only open up about your feelings to a therapist, or to your best friend, but feel less comfortable doing so with a stranger you met at a party. Intellectual boundaries are similar but involve your opinions, beliefs, and cognitions. You may for instance, have very set convictions and not allow new, more accurate information to alter previously existing beliefs about a topic.

Physical and sexual boundaries refer to your own personal space and your body. You may be a person who enjoys hugs with your partner in public but may be uncomfortable with a kiss when others are close by.

Material boundaries are those that concern your finances or personal property. You may be a person who shares your money with whoever asks, or a person who does not spare any cash even for a friend who is in desperate need. In all of these examples, boundaries are at play and it is important to re-evaluate whether they are healthy or need some reconsideration.

It is also important to mention that our boundaries are very dependent on the situation and context and will therefore not all be exactly the same.

Are boundaries rigid or flexible?

We can view these boundaries as existing on a spectrum of sorts. On the one extreme, they can be rigid and inflexible. You may find yourself always keeping other people out. You may avoid friendships, only build a few connections, or be detached if you do have intimate relationships. On the other extreme, boundaries can be open or even non-existent. You may constantly seek approval from others or notice that you get enmeshed very quickly. You may be a significant people-pleaser, share too many personal things, rarely say no or be assertive, or you may get involved with things that have nothing to do with you. Generally speaking, healthy boundaries fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, where they are not too rigid, but also not too open. It requires of us to know very well how we separate that which is ours, from that which is not, or that we are very clear with what we find safe and permissible and what we don't.

Where do I start with boundaries?

One way to identify this better is to reflect on specific areas in your life that you currently find distressing or where you are experiencing significant challenges. You can ask yourself if you feel exhausted, uncomfortable, angry, or resentful towards anyone or anything, and whether you are struggling to maintain a comfortable balance.

If you are finding yourself at this point in the article having identified a few areas of concern, you may be wondering how one goes about setting and maintaining healthy boundaries. Just remember to be gentle with yourself, and to remind yourself that it may take some time to figure out.

Here are some important steps you can take in the meantime:

- Explore and understand your current boundaries (or lack thereof). Are they too rigid? Too flexible? Or perhaps completely blurred? What trouble have you run into because of this? You may want to then reflect on why it is important for you to have healthy boundaries, or what the benefits or changes may be that you could experience if you introduced healthier ones. Try to be as honest with yourself as possible.

- Decide what is important to you. We all have our own needs and core values that help guide us when it comes to who we are or what we are or aren't okay with. Explore what matters to you most, and what you would like to prioritize. Be careful not to invalidate yourself by minimizing or being dismissive of your own feelings.

- Don't take responsibility for others. We cannot change other people, and neither should we. Boundaries are what can keep us safe from letting our sense of responsibility be skewed. Remember that you can only ever be truly responsible for yourself, and therefore it is important to make this distinction from as early on as you can.

- Be clear about your boundaries. Communicating your needs for healthy interaction with others may not be the easiest thing to do, but it is important that you are clear and consistent about it. You definitely don't owe anyone an elaborate explanation, but you can also not expect others to know intuitively what you are thinking.

- Consider that the changes you make might receive criticism. It is important to know that just because other people may not agree with your boundaries, doesn't mean that your boundaries are wrong. Re-evaluate whether it is worth it to keep people in your life who cannot respect your healthy boundaries. For most of us, change is not easy. But try to stay focused on the long-term benefits of the healthy changes you are trying to implement.

- Recognize and respect other's boundaries too. Try not to forget that every person needs healthy boundaries in order to thrive. Make sure to remain cognizant and respectful in the same way that you would come to expect from others. Communication is a great way to achieve this, and it may set a healthy trend in a relationship if you remain mutually open and transparent about how you can honour and respect one another.

As you set on this journey (which is a constantly evolving one) keep in mind this quote from Brené Brown:

"Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others".

Many of us struggle with significant discomfort, fear, or even guilt, as we try to establish better boundaries. Try to remember that although this can at times be tough, it is probably one of the most rewarding things you can do for yourself. Once you've found a more comfortable balance, you will feel at greater equilibrium with yourself and others, and your sense of safety (and healthy connection) will not be compromised. We tend to be quite intuitive as human beings, so don't forget to trust yourself in the process, and to consider eliciting support from a mental health professional if you need some additional input and framework for your journey.

Your wellbeing will thank you in the long run!

Lauré Coulter

Clinical Psychologist

Psych Central Rivonia

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