Redefining Boundaries

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For all the talk of ‘boundaries’ in therapy, clients often miss the nuances that make boundaries an essential element of healthy living.

More than Wishes

Sometimes people define boundaries as ‘what is fair’ or ‘what is right.’ While good boundaries do align with what is just and morally valid, everything that is just and moral is not automatically a boundary. For others, a boundary is ‘what I want.’ Again, boundaries that help you get your needs met are often good boundaries, but while we may value the golden rule, it is not a given that people can infer in detail how we wish to be treated; nor can we assume that others have our best interests in mind.

Sometimes a client will say “she should respect my boundaries” as if the other person could read her mind. When astronauts first ventured into space, they were struck by the realization that the political boundaries so prominent on world maps failed to appear on the earth itself. In very much the same sense, many people expect their boundaries to be self-evident even when other people fail to notice or respect them.

Not a Negotiation

Occasionally someone will say “I tried to set a boundary with John.” And what this turns out to mean is that the person asked their counterpart questions like “what would be fair?” or “what would you accept?” or “what do you want?” These are all fine questions that help people understand relationships, but when it comes to boundaries, these are not the right questions at all. Boundaries are defined by individuals, by themselves, for themselves.

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People skilled at manipulation often challenge our right or our ability to set boundaries, in service of their own wants. When dealing with such people, doing your own thinking, on your own, well in advance becomes even more essential. Your boundaries have to satisfy your moral code and support you in meeting your needs, not necessarily theirs. That distinction is exactly what a master manipulator wants you to forget in the heat of an argument. The key move here is to resist the temptation to rewrite boundaries on the fly. Boundaries do need to change as circumstances change, but usually not quickly or without substantial reflection.

Boundaries are Defined

‘Setting boundaries’ is a multi-stage process that begins with deciding on boundaries for oneself, but it does not end there. As I stated earlier, good boundaries make references to morals and fairness, as you understand them. Boundaries also support you in meeting your own needs. Your beliefs and needs are different from others’, so don’t hesitate to set a boundary that’s not like your family’s boundaries, or your friends’ boundaries. Yet whatever boundaries you select, you’ll need to inform the relevant people in your life.

Boundaries are Declared

Whatever boundaries you select, you’ll need to declare them to the relevant people in your life. Declaring boundaries usually calls for at least a little boldness. You’re putting people in your life on notice for what you will and won’t stand for. Often this demands changes in their behavior that they may not particularly like. Remember, this is a declaration, not a negotiation. Listening to feedback is fine, but if the temptation to fold arises, at least resolve to put off the decision until you can think it over later, on your own time.

Boundaries are Defended

Just because you define a boundary, and even declare it, doesn’t mean that others will respect it. Just like political boundaries require border guards, fences and walls, personal boundaries require planning out exactly what to do should someone try to violate a boundary. If, for instance, you decide to cut off all contact with your ex, how will you handle incoming calls? What if he writes you a letter or shows up in person on your doorstep? Scripting these moves in advance ensures you can make the boundary stick. In fact, if you set a boundary, but find yourself unable to enforce it on your own, you may need to rethink either the boundary itself, or how far you’re willing to go to protect it. Ultimately, boundaries are only as good as our skills and resolve to define, declare, and defend them.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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