What are healthy boundaries anyway?
So, what exactly are boundaries? A boundary is a dividing line that defines who you are as a person and how you’ll interact with others. Boundaries can take a variety of forms. They can be physical, emotional, sexual or time related. They define who you are against those around you, define what you are responsible for, what your limits are and they provide emotional and physical safety.
When we have poor boundaries, we often end up feeling depleted, taken for granted or find ourselves in situations which don’t particularly suit us or our needs. In fact, when our boundaries aren’t strong, we often find ourselves meeting other people’s needs before our own.
Poor interpersonal boundaries can have a profoundly negative effect on our mental health. Let’s just take that in for a bit. It’s a big statement. And one worth reflecting on if it is at all true!
For example, sometimes people will come to therapy because they are feeling depressed or anxious, only to discover after some investigation, one of the main issues affecting them are the problems they have with other people, including the inability to assert healthy boundaries.
This may be because healthy boundaries were not modelled in their family throughout childhood.
Research shows that effective parenting is a careful balance of firm boundaries with warmth and love. If this occurs, you are likely to develop the ability to recognise what your boundaries are, when you feel safe and respected, and how to move in the world with the capacity to distinguish between your needs and others so you can find the balance needed for healthy connection.
However, if effective boundaries were not modelled early in life, you are unlikely to have established the ability to recognise what your boundaries are, let alone when they are crossed or violated. This is because you are likely to have learned, especially if your family had a dysfunctional leaning, that it’s not OK to have boundaries.
So, you may have softened your boundaries to keep the peace, or to please a strict or needy parent. This can result in unhealthy enmeshment and a lack of being able to differentiate.
This is not only because our boundaries are closely aligned with our very sense of who we are. They are also needed in all of our relationships, from our most intimate to our most superficial. This is why effective boundaries are essential for our wellbeing.
For some people, it will take a course of therapy with a skilled psychotherapist or counsellor to help discover what their boundaries are. You can think of it like a journey of self-discovery, especially if you weren’t taught good boundaries in the first place. When you embark on this journey, you will discover what feels right and how to apply boundaries in your life so you can heal, move forward and enjoy more satisfying relationships, and a stronger sense of who you are.
Jacqui Snooks is a counsellor and psychotherapist who practises in Melbourne on the Mornington Peninsula. She is the Clinical Director of Haven Counselling and Psychotherapy. Click here for more information.