By Kristin Snowden, MA, LMFT
In the field of intimacy disorders, we find ourselves talking a lot about intimacy. What, exactly, is intimacy? Many use the following soundbite to explain it:
INTIMACY = INTO ME YOU SEE
In other words, authentic intimacy with another person is the courageous and vulnerable act of allowing that person to “see” you and “know” you — all of you, in spite of your flaws. The good, the bad, the light, the dark. In return, they are supposed to accept you and love you, warts and all, and you are supposed to extend to them the same sentiment and grace. Obviously, it almost never works out that way because we are all imperfect and fallible. Thus, it’s imperative that when we are practicing physical, emotional, and intellectual intimacy with others, we must also use boundaries.
An interpersonal boundary is generally defined as a guideline, rule, or limit that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe, and permissible ways for others to behave toward them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits.
Before I explain how to develop and practice boundaries, I first want you to understand why establishing and maintaining boundaries is so important.
Boundaries Help You Practice Self-Love
Boundaries are so much more than just a line of delineation between what’s OK and what’s not OK. Identifying and establishing personal boundaries is an act of self-love and self-respect. Think about it: When you let another person know that you are not OK with something or you say “no” to a request, you are rumbling with a deep fear that the other person may not accept you with the boundaries and needs you’ve set forth. That is why so many people struggle with the “disease to please” others, even at the cost of their own values, worth, and sanity.
As a consequence, your initial reaction may be to ignore boundaries altogether in exchange for being the “sweet, fun loving, giving, flexible” friend or family member. You might tell yourself that you’re being polite and making other’s needs and happiness a priority (admirable traits, to some). However, in reality, opting out of maintaining healthy boundaries with others will drain your emotional resources, cause you to feel like a martyr, and contribute to resentment and passive aggression toward others. Therefore, the kindest, most loving thing you can do for yourself (and others) is to explore and identify your personal values, goals, strengths, weaknesses, needs, and limits. Those are authentic, real pieces of you that should be seen, heard, and respected by yourself and others.
Boundaries Help You and Others Feel Safe
Similar to a protective fence around a home or a locked door at night, personal boundaries can help you and others feel safe and more at ease. They do this by providing a well-defined layer of protection from the uncertainty and chaos of the world.
Many child-development experts assert that children flourish when they are in an environment with well-defined (but flexible) rules and limits (boundaries). Adults are no different. When we understand our own boundaries along with others’ boundaries, we tend to feel more comfortable, more willing to be vulnerable, and safer overall. Remember, feeling safe is always a prerequisite to practicing authentic, vulnerable intimacy.
Terrence Real sums this up very well in his book, The New Rules of Marriage, stating, “When you are boundaryless, you are connected but not protected. When you are behind a wall, you are protected but not connected. Neither is intimacy.” The answer lies somewhere in between.
Boundaries Can Increase Empathy, Compassion, and Love
Some people believe that boundaries create obstacles to loving and giving to others. However, Brené Brown, in her book Daring Greatly, asserts that the most compassionate and empathetic people she knows have very strong boundaries. She further states that compassion, empathy, and love are unsustainable without boundaries.
How can you accept and love others if their needs and your giving are limitless? If you are giving your time, attention, love, and compassion in a boundaryless capacity, it is a recipe for hurt and feeling like others are taking advantage of you. You cannot care more about people-pleasing than your own boundaries and needs. If you do, the end result will be emotional exhaustion and resentment.
Boundaries Can Help You Heal from Betrayal Trauma
When we are betrayed by trusted loved ones, physically and/or emotionally, there is a long path to healing and recovery. Suffering betrayal and hurt in a relationship leaves us feeling deep pain from disconnection and fears of unworthiness (i.e., shame). This makes it difficult to trust and connect intimately with others. Plus, the gaslighting that often occurs with betrayal makes identifying and setting healthy boundaries even more confusing. Nonetheless, practicing boundary-setting is a cornerstone to healing and rebuilding real intimacy within a relationship.
Practicing self-love and self-respect through boundary-setting is the antidote to shame and disconnection. It can also help you feel safe enough to courageously and honestly show up every day in your relationships. Betrayal trauma recovery requires a daily practice of vulnerability, authenticity, accountability, and shame resilience. None of these characteristics are possible without boundaries.
In her book Back from Betrayal, Jennifer Schneider says, “Many partners recognize the need to work towards establishing and holding boundaries. They need to learn how to pay attention to their needs and their feelings, to be assertive about their wants and needs, and to deal constructively with situations that make them feel bad. In order to do this, they must first develop enough self-esteem to be willing to risk another person’s displeasure by asserting their rights.” In my next post to this site, I will discuss the process of actually doing that.