Let’s talk about boundaries. Anyone who has worked with me as a client will know that boundaries and values come up quite a lot in the therapeutic work. And they're actually very closely linked to each other.
So values in my mind describe pillars in our lives that we live by, that help define our personalities and our needs. So for example, someone might describe that it is important to them to be reliable, friendly or trustworthy. They might describe that finding joy and creativity is important in life. They might have a strong independent or adventurous streak, and would describe that autonomy, independence, a sense of adventure and spontaneity are important to them. Boundaries sit beautifully alongside values.
Boundaries versus walls Boundaries are essentially theoretical limits and rules that we set for ourselves, within relationships of all kinds. They are essentially the guidelines and divisions that we place around ourselves to keep us safe. Author Pia Mellody, who writes beautifully about codependence, describes both boundaries and walls; and walls are less healthy. They can be barriers to communication; walls can be very strong defences that ultimately are not helpful. For example, not sharing your vulnerability with someone or choosing not to see a person, because they might ask you about something sensitive. A wall is an ultra-protective / avoidant behaviour or action.
You can apply the concept of boundaries to different areas of your life. Commonly these could include work life, relationships including intimate relationships, your social life, your family life and so on.
The wheel of life model The ‘wheel of life’ model describes eight aspects of life, so perhaps there’s an aspect from the following list that warrants closer inspection where boundaries are concerned?
Business and career
Family and friends
Fun and recreation
Internal and external boundaries To give some examples, we have external and internal boundaries - internal boundaries can often relate to self care. For example, going to bed at a time when we would get a good night's sleep, as opposed to scrolling mindlessly on a phone. Internal boundaries might also relate to having that extra slice of cake or being intimate with someone because they wanted to, and you didn't.
External boundaries could be around saying yes to staying late at work when you have already worked your hours; or they could be letting a family member, perhaps a parent, drop in to visit you unplanned. It could be somebody opening your bank statement in your home, or even borrowing money from your purse or wallet without permission.
So one way to put some better boundaries in place is to look at areas of your life where you are experiencing frustration. Let's take the example of the boss who always asks you to work late; probably other people at your workplace are also experiencing the same lack of boundaries. So you feel compelled to go along with the majority. It may be having a physical effect on you; you may be tired, you're probably getting home later… therefore having your own dinner later, and perhaps seeing your family less. There may be an overarching feeling of resentment in you, which may come out, or ‘leak out sideways’, with irritability or even a sense of anxiety.
An exercise for actionable boundaries One exercise that can be useful is to take a piece of paper and make three columns. In the first column, you would identify the area within your life that is bringing you resistance or resentment, and where a boundary could be placed. Let's say for the purposes of this example, you have a relative who insists on demanding a hug or a kiss from you. Although you might be fond of the relative, you might be resistant to them visiting. You might have a sense of irritation or panic when they arrive, especially if you're neurodivergent and are uncomfortable with physical touch when it isn't negotiated.
So here, the boundary that needs to be implemented is around your physical space. So you would write ‘physical boundary’ and the name of the person in column one. In the next column, you will write some resolutions or ideas for improving the situation. Obviously, this takes some courage, and when you set a boundary, especially one for a situation that has been established for a while, people will be resistant. But nevertheless, you are modelling healthy behaviour to them. So in column two, you may put things like, saying to the relative: ‘I've noticed that I'm quite uncomfortable with hugs at the moment. So I'd prefer it if we just shook hands, bumped fists or took some other action that indicates we are pleased to see each other.’ You could write down a compromise, i.e limit the hugs to the outgoing occasion, when you're saying goodbye to the person; this will give you a feeling of control, as you are implementing the boundary. You could be implementing this on behalf of someone else. For example, a child who is always engulfed in a hug from grandparents when the child is uncomfortable with it. So the action in column two will be explaining to the grandparent that it should be the child who initiates the hug when they are ready. And again perhaps there is an alternative, like a fist bump, that could be utilised.
In the third column, you would put the consequence of the other person not adhering to your boundary. Maybe you would need to ask a certain amount of times. So you might say ‘Just to remind you, as I explained last week, I'm quite sensitive to physical touch at the moment,’, and re-state your boundary. A consequence could be that you choose not to see the person unless they are able to meet your needs.
Not telling them the reason why you are choosing not to see them would be somewhat of an easy way out. The braver choice would be to explain to them this consequence, to help them understand, and to model to them more healthy behaviours. So generally, if you are a person with quite permeable or thin boundaries, you will find that this is a personality trait that occurs in lots of areas of your life. So doing the same exercise with the three columns in all of the areas of your life, as detailed in the eight areas above, could be really beneficial to you.
Balancing strength and sensitivity
You can tie in all of this work on boundaries with values. Maybe your values are around being liked, or being friendly or being appreciated. This could conceivably lead to a person who worked late without extra pay, or put up with an infringement of personal space from a relative. Conversely, someone whose values were around autonomy and personal choice would likely have much stronger boundaries around physical touch. For example, only being intimate with someone when they wanted to, and not feeling compelled to meet someone else's needs.
It's unlikely that you could change your personality traits around boundaries overnight. In all likelihood, these will have been built up over many years, and are likely influenced by your family of origin, and the way you relate to other people. So, small steps are advisable to make small changes before you build up to bigger ones. There is a danger if we put in too many harsh or strong boundaries that we might start putting up walls between ourselves and other people. Which is arguably just as unhealthy as very permeable or thin boundaries! So, a balance of strength and independence, as well as vulnerability and sensitivity, is perhaps the ideal scenario.
Check out the latest free training on our study page where I explore this concept in more detail, with some examples. In due course, a podcast version will also be added on this blog section, so you can listen to the audio version of the free training. Visit https://www.arrivetherapy.co.uk/study and click on 'Mnaging internal and external boundaries'.