Another article from our archive:
We develop boundaries in our relationships to define and protect us. While we each have our own unique style, healthy boundaries will help us feel balanced, centered and grounded as we open to connection with others. Learning how to set healthy boundaries is an important skill in developing intimacy and handling conflict.

We can define ourselves and our relationships in many ways. When we set our boundaries and our limits, we are defining who we are. A boundary separates us from other people. Our skin marks the limit of our physical selves, but we have another boundary that extends beyond our skin. We notice that when someone stands too close to us. It’s like we have a comfort zone around us. An intimate partner may come very close. A friend may stand closer than a stranger. But someone who is hostile or unfriendly, we want physically far from us. Boundaries are not just physical. They are also emotional, spiritual, sexual and relational. We define those boundaries by what is safe and right for us. We have our own set of feelings, reactions and beliefs. We can use boundaries to define and protect ourselves. It is important to know we have a right to set boundaries and have them respected. When we are young, we are dependent on our parents and caretakers to protect us and create a safe environment. If our boundaries were violated at an early age, we can have a distorted sense of what is acceptable and what is not. If there was an expectation growing up that we conform to the needs and feelings of our parents, then we can feel we don’t have a right to our own unique beliefs, feelings and desires. We might have trouble as an adult defining ourselves as separate from others. Expressing oneself, asserting one’s will and individual needs, having separate thoughts, opinions and feelings are all part of healthy child development. Parents are meant to support that growing individuality by providing safety and encouragement. Yet many parents lack the knowledge, skills and patience to do that coming from their own wounded backgrounds.

Boundaries can bring order into our lives and a sense of empowerment. Without healthy boundaries, one can feel out of control and stuck in situations that hurt us. A common problem can be not knowing what our limits are and an inability to say no to what we don’t really want to do. An example of this is being a workaholic – someone who is constantly working or helping others leaving little time for herself. In some cases, people are not aware of what they are doing until they get sick, very angry, or burned out. Low self esteem, a wish to please others and a compulsion to feel needed can compound the problem. This is a boundary dysfunction that can be corrected. You can learn to set clearer boundaries and take better care of yourself . It is a process of putting the attention to identify your needs and feelings as well as developing the skills to truly express yourself.

Our ways of setting boundaries are certainly affected by what we learned in our families. We develop various survival strategies to define ourselves, creating boundaries any way we can to feel protection and safety. Boundaries can be expressed in a general energetic style or more specifically in setting limits with others around a particular issue. On one end of the spectrum, boundaries can be hard and rigid like cast-iron gates with a defensive, hard stance. Behavior that goes along with that might be an angry demeanor with a blaming, distant or hyper-independent style. This is a stance that says “Don’t mess with me – I’m tough.” On the other extreme, boundaries can be soft, permeable and thin with a passive, placating demeanor. In this position, one becomes overly diffuse, soft and passive with a refusal to define oneself and a general tone of being very merged, accommodating and mushy. This stance says “I’m too nice to have a conflict. I’m just going along.” We each have our own individual style of boundary setting. You can take a minute to consider where you would place yourself on this continuum – consider how you react when under stress and also what kind of environment you grew up in which may have fostered a particular style.

Healthy boundaries can be developed and learned. Characteristics of health in limit setting include flexibility, safety, relaxation and protection. The ability to set healthy boundaries can make us feel balanced, centered and grounded. People who react from more of a hard, defensive manner need to learn how to be softer, more connected to other people and more able to compromise, listen and be receptive. On the other extreme, those with very soft boundaries need to learn how to be more assertive, independent and defined. With both styles, it is important to be able to adjust to different situations in a grounded way that honors yourself but is still connected to others. Learning how to set healthy boundaries is an important part of the skills in developing intimacy and handling conflict.

Marlena Kushner, MFT provides guidance about creating better boundaries through self-awareness and expression. These issues are addressed in both individual and couples counseling. She has over 25 years of psychotherapy experience with offices in San Francisco and San Rafael.


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