Why Boundaries?

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard have been making regular appearances in my counselling room over the last few weeks. Their multi layered defamation case has played out spectacularly in a very public way, highlighting many aspects of relationship dynamics and clients have all had an opinion!

I was curious to know what my clients were focusing on and as often happens, a theme emerged, as they talked about the case and what it was bringing to the surface for them…. Boundaries.

I discovered a consensus about the word itself and the fact that it is used so frequently, it had become a “buzzword” and had pretty much lost meaning to them. It is true, there is so much written and spoken about “boundaries”, but it seemed worth revisiting a basic definition and clarification.   

What is a Boundary?
In The Dance of Intimacy, Harriet Lerner states; “A boundary is a clarification of the limits of what is acceptable and tolerable to us in a relationship” (Harper & Rowe, NY, 1989, p.3).

From the above, we can conclude that a boundary is a system of limit setting, helping to control the impact of someone else’s reality on us. So a boundary enhances our ability to have and maintain a sense of self protection from someone else, by showing us where we end and another begins.

The 3 most basic types of boundaries are;

Mental – These refer to our thought processes, opinions, needs, wants, beliefs and values. It’s not possible to always agree with another as we all have different experiences, but we each have the right to our own individual thoughts and ways of seeing and being in the world.  In relationships with healthy boundaries people give and receive respect for these differences.
Physical – These relate to personal space and include 
privacy, our bodies and our expectations concerning sex and intimacy. If someone crosses our physical boundary they might stand too close,  or barge into our room without knocking, or inflict physical or sexual abuse.

Emotional – This includes feelings, choices and decisions. These boundaries involve separating our feelings from another’s. These can be crossed when we take responsibility for someone else’s feelings, or let another person dictate our feelings. It can be when we sacrifice our own needs to please another, or blame them for our problems.

Personal and Professional Boundaries
There are Personal and Professional boundaries. The latter are legal, ethical and organisational frameworks that protect clients and workers. In the context of a counselling relationship, they allow therapists to maintain psychological safety for themselves and their clients, so that they can make objective decisions about the most effective therapeutic process to support a client.

Personal boundaries are employed within a professional boundary. Physical, emotional and mental boundaries are the limits therapists use to protect themselves from becoming too involved in a client’s issues and wanting to “rescue” them instead of supporting them. Without these, misuse of power and a betrayal of trust and respect can result. They protect the space between a therapist’s professional power and their client’s vulnerability.  

What is the Purpose of Boundaries?
So now we know that boundaries are a measure of the health of a relationship, helping us draw the line and state how much we are willing to give or take. They influence what we allow ourselves to give and receive and, as such, contribute to our relationships in positive or negative ways.
When clear and well-established, boundaries let others know that we respect ourselves and we expect to be respected. When unclear they can lead to increased levels of stress and anxiety.
Even though they are a measure of how close we let people get to us, they are not about keeping others at arm’s length, in fact it is the opposite. With healthy boundaries we can more easily allow others to get close because we won’t have the stress of others not respecting our needs. So they enable us to be independent and interdependent at the same time and help us maintain balance in our life by better protecting our time and energy.

“In a nutshell, it’s knowing how to separate your feelings or ‘stuff’ from someone else’s,” says U.K.-based psychologist, Dr. Tara Quinn-Cirillo. “As human beings we have our own thoughts, memories, and lived experiences, and sometimes that can become very blurred with someone else’s. Boundaries are healthy for helping you identify and keep that space. Boundaries promote a sense of autonomy in that you are in control as far as possible in what you want and don’t want. They can also keep you safe in relationships at work, home, and with partners, and that’s really important.”

How can we recognise when our boundaries have been crossed?
If we feel that the give and take in a relationship is out of balance and we feel resentful and being taken advantage of, it is likely that our boundaries have been crossed. This might result in us putting up walls to protect ourselves, such as anger, using humour to laugh things off, or sarcasm, silence, withdrawal and eventual closing off and pulling away.

A healthy alternative would be to ask ourselves if we are going against a personal value to please others.

“Healthy boundaries help individuals attain a sense of their own identity yet allow for a sense of belongingness”. (Corey, G.; Theory and Practice of Counselling and Psychotherapy. Wadsworth Brooks Cole 6th ed; 2001, p.418).

How can we re/establish boundaries?
One way of re-establishing boundaries is to bring awareness to what we are feeling and thinking, what we want and need and what our options and the consequences of them are. This can bring us into a space of realising that we have choices. The questions below can be useful to navigate this space and reset our boundaries.

  • If nobody in this situation would be disappointed, would you prefer to say yes or no?
  • Looking at the pros and cons of the situation, is it worth the effort to say yes?
  • Would you feel comfortable asking the same request of someone else?
  • If you said no and people are upset, do you feel they are being respectful and reasonable?
  • Is this a precedent you want to set? If not, where does it feel reasonable to draw the line?
  • Thinking of someone you respect with healthy boundaries. How do you think they would respond in this situation?

Once we have answers to the above, we will have more idea about where our personal comfort zones lie and whether we want to create a boundary, or indeed continue the relationship. If a relationship is toxic we may decide that the healthy decision is to end it. If we decide to continue the relationship and establish a boundary, we then need to communicate that so the boundary can be set. This can be tricky because, of course, others have their own boundaries which might be quite different from ours, so boundary-setting can involve negotiation. As challenging as this can be, it is a worthwhile process as it means our relationships will involve greater levels of mutual respect, will meet our needs and those of the other and will be free of stress and anxiety.

The above highlights how we can develop healthy, reasonable boundaries through identifying our personal beliefs, values, wants and needs. Once we know these, we can then think about which boundaries reflect our core values and which we are prepared to negotiate with greater flexibility.

It is perhaps not so difficult to see why there has been so much “buzz” around the word “boundaries”. They are one more way of caring for ourselves and although it might take time to clarify which are important to us, it is worth taking the time as our wellbeing depends on it.  

Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others”. Bene Brown,

Lorraine Sinnett