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Re-thinking Relationship Boundaries

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

“They Don’t Respect My Boundaries”: The Way You Understand Boundaries May Be the Problem

Personal boundaries are essential to maintaining relationships that feel healthy and safe. In fact, in most cases, when a relationship feels “bad,” the problem can be traced back to some boundary that is not serving your needs.

However, maintaining healthy boundaries can prove challenging for many people for various reasons. Equally frustrating are cases when you advocate for these personal boundaries, but these efforts do not create the change you are hoping for within a relationship.

Do you struggle with setting boundaries with others? Or do you often feel like your boundaries are ignored when you do?

If this feels relatable, this article is for you. Learning to set healthy boundaries is an achievable goal. Still, it may require a complete overhaul in how you think about the concept of "boundaries" itself.

Two crucial elements of developing better boundaries include: 1) Understanding your own barriers to creating boundaries that serve you and 2) recognizing that maintaining boundaries is a responsibility that is entirely yours – meaning you have complete control of whether or not they are effective.

What Are Healthy Boundaries?

Their protective function is typically the focus of our shared understanding of boundaries: the limits we set to define the endpoint of our comfort zone. These boundaries can be physical, emotional, mental, financial, or time-related, to name a few. However, our boundaries serve several other vital functions that are less often considered in the everyday use of this term.

Boundaries define your identity and individuality, marking the limits between you and others. They clarify the extent of your control and agency and where your responsibility lies within relationships. Therefore, healthy boundaries uphold your individuality and limit feelings of guilt for what lies within your locus of control.

Boundary issues can be recognized when these limits are too rigid or loose. When your boundaries do not clearly differentiate you from others or are too entrenched to adapt to changing circumstances, these are not limits that serve your emotional, physical, or mental health. The keyword here is flexibility, as maintaining healthy boundaries requires negotiation and recognition of the need for change.

How Do Unhealthy Boundaries Develop?

Boundary issues usually reflect your inner world and past experience in relationships. In many cases, our boundaries resemble how our families of origin modeled relationships for us.

Beyond that, however, the specific ways our boundaries become problematic can reveal deeper insecurities or emotional needs underlying these unhealthy patterns.

Loose boundaries often stem from low self-esteem or self-worth, which can inspire deep fears of rejection in relationships. As a result, you tend to feel responsible for other people’s feelings and make efforts to “people please” at the expense of your own needs. You may struggle to say “no” or constantly overschedule yourself to assure those around you are satisfied. At their worst, loose boundaries may cause you to stay silent when you feel mistreated or even accept blame for things outside your control.

Rigid boundaries, on the other hand, are likely driven by relationship anxiety that evokes the need for control. You may be highly sensitive to criticism or struggle with taking things personally, causing you to set firm boundaries that protect you from this distress. These protective boundaries could look like strict rules in relationships (“you can’t have same-sex friends”), driven by a belief that other people are responsible for your emotions. You may default to distancing – or completely cutting off – from relationships rather than confronting conflict. Over time, rigid boundaries may lead to your relationships lacking depth or being sparse overall.

Where Do Your Boundary Struggles Originate?

Building insight around the roots of your boundary issues is one of the essential steps in redefining boundaries that promote your health and well-being. How can you fix something when the problem is not fully apparent?

One way to develop more awareness of your barriers to setting boundaries that serve you is to imagine yourself doing it and feeling what comes up for you:

For example: Imagine yourself saying "no" (or a version of "no") to a close friend or partner in a situation where their behavior or request crosses a boundary.

Do you feel anxious? Does it feel uncomfortable? Do you feel frustrated that you need to clarify this limit to someone? What other emotions arise when you imagine enforcing this boundary in this relationship?

You can also ask yourself: what could it mean if I said this? How might I be perceived? What consequences might this have on the relationship? What might be gained by not advocating for this boundary?

Uncovering the feelings at the root of your boundary difficulties and the meaning you make about what is at stake when enforcing boundaries, you gain perspective on what you may need to overcome these barriers.

You Have the Power to Make Boundaries Work!

There are few things more distressing in relationships than feeling your boundaries repeatedly violated, especially if this happens within your romantic partnership. Yet, you should expect that even when you can overcome your barriers to set healthy boundaries, you will experience people overstepping these limits. Testing boundaries is a part of human nature. We all do this!

Changing the way you think about boundaries, however, can help you approach these challenges and empower you to take responsibility for their success:

Boundaries should be understood as only having to do with your behavior.

When you communicate a limit, you are making a request, not setting a boundary. Requests can be honored or disregarded by others, which places the responsibility and control in other people's hands.

So, rather than saying, “Don’t talk to me that way” (request). A boundary might sound like, “I don’t engage in conversations with people who talk to me that way.” Your boundary is about how far you will go rather than how far someone else can push you.

With this framework, you take control of your boundaries and remove the option for others to overstep them. The only person who can challenge your boundaries is YOU!

Granted, this is easy to say and significantly harder to put into practice. Therapy can be a great space to discuss how you relate to your boundaries and what makes it challenging to step into this role of responsibility for maintaining them.

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