Boundaries keep us safe. They are the things that help us say “no” when other people are taking advantage of us. They allow us to assert our own space and remind others that we have needs too. Boundaries let us stand up for ourselves and tell friends when they treat you without respect. They also allow us to ask for a clarification of priorities when a boss piles on too much work for you to realistically get done.
Our boundaries may be different from person to person. We might be fine saying no to most people, but there are one or two that take advantage.
We also have our own boundaries – that rule that says only one coffee a cake a week, or that we do our homework before we switch on the Xbox.
However, they are also notoriously difficult to set and uphold, for many. This can stem from a need to be liked, or an avoidance of conflict. It may be that we were never taught about boundaries, or we spent a childhood looking after others and so our own needs came last.
Another way to look at boundaries is to notice energy. Perhaps there are people in your life who sap your energy. There may be others who actively steal it. This goes for activities too as there may be things you do that sap your energy, and putting a boundary in may help with this. Likewise, we may not look after our own energy ourselves, indulging in unhelpful or harmful habits or behaviours.
It’s not unusual to do some boundary work in therapy, and it can be the most rewarding work you’ll do. Boundary work can change the way other people treat you. It can boost your self-esteem, free up time and make the world a much easier and simpler place to navigate. If we are looking at boundaries we might be practising some behaviour changes as well as investigating where your boundary issues stem from to see what’s going on.
A common scenario is a parent who, with the best of motives, has given their everything to their children and family. It then takes one crisis – a bereavement or looking after a parent – and they are no longer able to carry on in the same way. In cases like this, boundary work can involve re-education others on what they can expect from us. Unfortunately, scenarios like this can bring up feelings of guilt, and therapy can help you sort through this.