Zach Rawlings, MA, LPC

Licensed Professional Counselor

Three Problems With Boundaries

I worked for a student organization several years ago in which we would teach college students some of the basic principles of mental health. One of the topics we often talked about was personal boundaries.

Everyone knows what boundaries are, or at least is familiar with the word. But what are they really?  Simply put, boundaries are personal limits and guidelines that one identifies to separate oneself from others. They are most commonly used in our closest relationships, including our family members and friends.  People often recognize the need to implement boundaries when they feel their voice is not being heard or when someone is forcing decisions onto them. When we fail to implement boundaries, we can feel controlled, powerless, and resentful.

Boundaries are important because they inform us of where we end and another person begins. However, many people have difficulty implementing boundaries at first, often due to several reasons:

·      They have a tendency to put others’ needs before their own.

·      They do not know themselves well enough to enforce personal boundaries.

·      They don’t feel they have the right to enforce a personal boundary.

·      They are afraid boundaries will jeopardize their relationships.

·      They do not know what healthy boundaries look like (Lancer, n.d.).

As difficult as it can be to create proper boundaries in our relationships and lives, healthy boundaries are necessary for true connection to occur.  Without them, our lives become chaotic and unmanageable.

Although boundaries are good, I have observed their implementation to go horribly wrong at times. Whenever I observed boundaries being taught to college students for the first time, I would often see a light bulb come on for them. These students were beginning to realize they could take control of their lives and not let their other relationships dictate how they operate. It’s a very empowering feeling the first time you realize you have the right and power to set your own emotional and physical limits.

At times, it was interesting to watch these young students begin implementing boundaries for the first time with their peers. Like any new skill, we can go a bit overboard when learning how to manage it. While watching these students, I observed them begin to assert boundaries over everything.

“No, I can’t make that appointment. I want to do something else instead.”

 “No, I don’t want to have a difficult conversation with you about how I hurt your feelings. It’s my decision if I want to have a conversation like that. And, I don’t want to.”

“Sorry, I can’t help you out with that event even though you’re overwhelmed and swamped. I have other things I would prefer to do.”

 Sometimes it was painful to watch and listen as I observed many of these students apply their boundaries with peers and co-workers in our organization for the first time. I was happy they were learning how to be assertive, but I was also troubled at some of the issues I saw arising as a result of expressing such firmness. Many people fail to outgrow such self-centered ways of communicating and expressing personal limits. I encounter such people in my professional and personal life regularly, and you may as well. They really make life a drag.

Boundaries are implemented in relationships to foster stronger connection, intimacy, and growth.  However, if boundaries are incorrectly defined, they can sabotage those very things! During my time as a therapist, I have seen the definition of what is considered “healthy” boundaries change from personal limits to foster more meaningful connection and a greater sense of control over one’s life to a more self-absorbed definition.

When boundaries are implemented correctly, they usually sound something like this:

I really wish I could help you with that, but my plate is already full. Feel free to ask next time.

Or, they can sound like this:

I appreciate you asking about my marriage. However, my marital conflict is something my partner and I are working through together, and I am only sharing our progress with a few close friends.

In both of these cases, the boundaries being asserted are being implemented to foster more meaningful connections. In the first example, if the person had taken on the new project, he or she would most likely not have time to invest adequately into their other personal relationships due to being overscheduled. In the second example, the person was setting a clear limit for the information he or she was willing to share in that particular relationship. This person respectfully set a limit for what he or she felt comfortable sharing about his or her marriage. In both cases, such assertion was intended to foster a more meaningful connection and a healthier relationship.

However, many times I hear incorrectly-defined boundaries being asserted that end up reeking of self-absorption and entitlement. They often sound something like this:

No, I can’t help you with that project. I need my me time, otherwise I get cranky. I don’t like it when I don’t have free time to do things I really want to do.

Or, another example of an incorrectly defined boundary being asserted can sound like this:

I would appreciate it if you don’t ask me about my marriage or other parts of my personal life. That’s none of your business. I value my privacy and don’t like to talk about such things.

Do you see the different motivations between the two versions?  The first example is one built out of a desire to connect meaningfully with other people in a healthy way.  The second example is fostered out of fear and entitlement.

This shift in definitions has opened my eyes to how boundaries can go terribly wrong when their intent and purpose is misunderstood. Here are three problems I have identified that boundaries create when they are incorrectly defined:

1.     Incorrectly defined boundaries prevent meaningful community.

When we adopt the second version of boundaries that is fostered from self-centeredness and fear, we sabotage our ability to connect with those around us in a meaningful way by deeming things private that probably don’t need to be private. By doing so, we wall ourselves off and unintentionally reject the ability to connect with the safe people around us.

We create unnecessary “rules” that make us feel “safe” because they keep others away.

In actuality these “rules” we make under the guise of “healthy boundaries” are driven by fear—not safety.  We implement such rules to feel comfortable. Comfort and safety are two different things. Comfort can rob healthy community because it prevents others from speaking into our lives and seeing our flaws. Community isn’t about what makes us comfortable. It’s about what makes us grow as people.

2.     Incorrectly defined boundaries foster self-absorption and entitlement.

When we use boundaries as an excuse to get out of something we don’t want to do, we are implementing our personal boundaries incorrectly.  Boundaries are not intended to justify avoidance by refusing to partake in something unpleasant.  In fact, helping someone at the expense of our comfort has actually shown to increase the quality of relationships and personal happiness.  However, boundaries can be used as an escape from partaking in such behavior.  And that self-centered behavior is then justified by throwing out the phrase: “I’m just asserting my personal boundary.”

Not really.

You’re asserting your laziness—and trying to justify it.

3.     Incorrectly defined boundaries make you rigid.

Some people often believe boundaries need to be fixed and immovable.  This is understandable if someone has had experience with someone who constantly pushed on his or her boundaries in an attempt to manipulate and control. Sometimes when we have such an experience with a person, we can become forceful with our boundaries in an attempt to protect ourselves from such intrusion.

The problem with this view is that it can make one rigid and inflexible with all people. Relationships are anything but stagnant. And if you find yourself digging in your heels to avoid flexibility with those you love and work with, you might be defining and executing your boundaries incorrectly.

Overall, boundaries are asserted to help you connect more meaningfully with others. They allow you to nourish yourself so you can have more to give to others.  They also help you assert how you want to be treated in your relationships. If you find yourself less connected than you desire with those around you, pay attention to how you are implementing boundaries in your life. Ask yourself how you can redefine what boundaries mean to you in a way that allows you to connect intimately while maintaining your autonomy. Remember: human connection is what gives our lives meaning. Boundaries are designed to help you experience that connection more fully. Don’t allow them to sabotage intimacy in your life by adopting and implementing them incorrectly.

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Lancer, D. (n.d.). The power of personal boundaries. Retrieved from http://www.whatiscodependency.com/the-power-of-personal-boundaries.