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Understanding Boundaries

What do we mean when we use the term, ‘boundary’? Boundaries are essentially a set of rules or expectations that communicate how we expect others to behave when they interact with us on an emotional or physical level. When we learn to set boundaries, we are communicating our limits and expectations related to behavior. Understanding our own expectations of a relationship is essential in this determination, as different types of relationships require different types of boundaries. For example, an intimate relationship will inherently include any boundaries that wouldn’t be appropriate for a relationship with a coworker. As discussed in her blog, parent educator and author Judy H. Wright discusses how “[boundaries] form flexible gates, not stationary walls; It is important to learn about setting healthy boundaries so we can make decisions about what is and what isn’t permissible in all relationships”.The purpose of boundaries is to protect us psychologically by creating emotional safety and communicate more effectively with others.

Now that we understand what boundaries are and why they’re important, how do we learn what works and what doesn’t work for us? Much of the information that guides our development in this area comes from modeling within our family of origin (parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins) throughout childhood but as we progress in our development, our social interactions grow in complexity and our consideration of boundaries must expand similarly. When our interactions with others grow to include peers and eventually romantic relationships, our needs evolve and as such our boundaries must remain flexible so that we can experience personal freedom through self-discovery. Knowing who you are, what you stand for and where you stand with regard to values will allow us to better understand and more effectively communicate these needs.

How do we establish and maintain boundaries? Self-knowledge is an essential factor in establishing boundaries and understanding the appropriateness of such boundaries. Knowledge of one’s self and relationship style helps provide insight into historical information related to what has or hasn’t worked for us in the past regarding relationship quality, duration, and communicative ability. One of the most important aspects of setting boundaries is being able to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy boundaries. Depending upon whether your past experiences have been functional or dysfunctional, you may have difficulty determining between healthy and unhealthy boundaries due to a lack of proper modeling or negative past experiences.   As with many relationship structures, in order to be healthy, boundaries should remain flexible and negotiable as much as possible. Finally, developing the ability to set and maintain healthy boundaries relates to emotional health and stability and can be helpful in developing an effective self-care routine.

Be sure to follow the Mid Cities Psychiatry blog for further posts related to boundaries. Next time, I’ll discuss evaluating whether a boundary is healthy or unhealthy.

-Jeffrey D. Ross, MBS, LPC

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