Understanding Healthy Boundaries

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Kim Buck, LPC, CSAT, CSS

Boundaries are limits established to keep yourself and others safe. Learning to set and maintain effective boundaries is an important part of the healing process. Individuals who experience painful boundary violations in their life generally lack effective boundaries of their own. Please understand that establishing effective boundaries is not an attempt to push others away, it’s an attempt to bring them closer in a safe way.

Because relationships that involve an addiction or some other serious struggle often have damaged, ineffective, or non-existent boundary systems, the need for healthy, effective boundaries is of paramount importance. Secure and stable attachments with others is not possible without boundaries that help to identify what is and what is not OK within the relationship. Boundaries communicate respect for oneself and for the other person because they clarify the needs and wants of each individual. Having appropriate boundaries helps clear a path for authentic and steady connection.

As you work to establish healthy and effective boundaries, you will probably find that your ability to give others the benefit of the doubt about their intentions and actions is strengthened. When boundaries are present, it is easier to stand in someone else’s reality without having to change or fix them. This work might also help you feel more confident and trusting in yourself.

There are many areas of life that require boundaries:

  • Physical: The ability to protect personal space, belongings, and your body as you see fit.
  • Emotional: The ability to experience and express feelings and emotions openly.
  • Relational: The ability to connect and nurture important relationships.
  • Sexual: The ability to experience sexuality only as you feel comfortable.
  • Thinking: The ability to have and express beliefs, reality, and understanding.
  • Spiritual: The ability to express your own understanding of what personal spirituality means.

Internal vs. External Boundaries

The two basic types of boundaries are internal and external. Internal boundaries are those that you establish for yourself. Generally, internal boundaries need to be established and maintained before you can effectively create external boundaries. External boundaries are those that you establish with others. Establishing healthy external boundaries helps you maintain the space you need to heal without completely detaching from the people around you. In fact, healthy boundaries actually provide safety in your relationships as you navigate through tumultuous waters.

Some Boundary Guidelines

  • Boundaries are always for personal safety and well-being, and not for controlling the behavior of others. Boundaries relate to your self-protection and personal needs, and not to controlling the actions of others.
  • Effective boundaries require consequences when violated. However, those consequences should be as natural as possible and include the steps the boundary setter will take, rather than requiring the boundary-crosser to take some action. Your boundaries are about you, not other people.
  • Both of the individuals in any relationship require the establishment and enforcement of boundaries to produce the best outcomes.
  • Boundaries are not barriers or separation. Rather, they communicate clearly what is OK and what is not OK.
  • Boundaries are fluid and need constant reconsideration and revision. A useful boundary today might not be a useful boundary tomorrow.
  • Boundaries are non-negotiable, as they set a standard for important needs to be met.
  • Boundary consequences rarely require complete detachment from the relationship. It is important that healthy elements of the relationship are preserved and maintained if possible.

What to Expect

Although healthy living requires boundaries, that does not necessarily mean those with whom the boundaries are set will be appreciative or thankful for them. In fact, the boundary setter is often left feeling alone and rejected if the system is not used. Worst still, when you set boundaries, you might be told that you are angry, controlling, or selfish. This is because family and relational systems that do not have effective boundaries will not know how to support them when they are established by any member of that system. Over time, however, you and your loved ones will grow accustomed to the new guidelines, and even learn to appreciate them. As Brené Brown so eloquently puts it, “You may not be as sweet as you used to be, but you will be far more loving.”

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This article was written by Kim Buck as part of her PhD dissertation on Applied Prodependence. It is posted here with her permission.