Most people think of a boundary as something you say out loud to let another person know they have done something that’s not ok with you. But boundaries are so much more than that.
Part of the human experience is to grow, develop and individuate ourselves, and to evolve into whole, functioning, and happy individuals. This is where our boundaries can play an invaluable role, and really impact the quality of our lives.
We have physical boundaries and psychological boundaries. A physical boundary is an invisible line that outlines the space between one’s body and the space around it from another person’s body and space. On the other hand, an emotional boundary delineates the area between one’s emotions and responsibilities from those of another person’s emotions and responsibilities. I will focus on this type of boundary in this article.
When your emotional boundaries are weak or hazy, you are prone to take on other people’s emotions as if they were yours. This causes confusion and can lead to taking on the responsibility of “fixing” things for others or helping them to feel better.
There are some clear telltale signs of disordered emotional boundaries.
- One of the more common ones is over-functioning or trying to fix or heal what isn’t yours to mend. Often this is evident in codependent relationships where one partner feels responsible for what the other is feeling, thinking, experiencing, and doing. It’s a sense that you must do something to make things better for another person, even though the results are direct consequences of their actions or non-actions. In certain cases, the responsible party even anticipates what could be needed to help others. This takes a lot of energy.
- Another sign of challenged boundaries is offering advice to others about how they are “doing their life”. It is normal to have an opinion about how others are conducting themselves. But is it up to you to tell others how they should live their lives or what decisions they should make? Probably not! That is the prerogative of each individual. You may be truly concerned for them, and you may want to help them. However, giving unsolicited advice is dysfunctional.
The converse is true as well i.e., those who are on the other end of the two examples above:
- Anyone that looks to others to take responsibility for them.
- Somebody who finds themselves in situations where others tell them what to do and how to live their life.
So, is it possible to have healthy and organized emotional boundaries? And does it really matter?
The good news is that yes, it is possible over time to develop healthy boundaries through awareness and self-reflection.
This is as simple as noticing when you are experiencing one of the signs outlined above. Awareness is the first step in making a change.
It is important to note that our current patterns and actions around boundaries were not created overnight. Often, they are in response to our childhood experiences.
Those of us who over-function likely learned this at a young age. From my experience, this happens as a result of managing a parent who couldn’t handle their emotions and gave the child the responsibility of making life work for them and to make them happy.
Children in these circumstances may have become the responsible child, the loving child, the perfect child, the quiet child, the golden child, or even a protégé. It doesn’t mean that a child can’t be some of those things naturally, but it’s unhealthy if the child had to become this way in response to the expectation placed on them by a parent. This is misplaced responsibility; it is a boundary rupture and frankly it is way too much mental and emotional responsibility for a child to have.
But, of course, the child doesn’t know that. Children are highly adaptive; they just do what needs to be done to get love and approval, or avoid pain and punishment. They are even willing to take on a role, an alternate identity, a mask.
Behind the mask of an overdoing adult is a young, scared child. Scared of being left, scared of being hurt, scared of not doing it good enough.
So, the invitation is to look at your personal situation to better understand why you have the boundaries that you do.
With more regular awareness and self-reflection, we can open up to having healthier boundaries.
And why is this important?
Having healthy emotional boundaries will give you back more life energy and the opportunity for more equitable, peaceful, and loving relationships. You get to have more energy to take care of you and what is important to you. You can allow yourself space to breathe and feel good about yourself.
Imagine being more settled in your body, and not having to be tense or vigilant. For the over-functioning, what could it be like to not have that demanding voice in your head, or that relentless drive to have to do and to know it all?
Having healthy boundaries means you may have to give up certain ways of being such as:
- Being the center of someone’s universe and using that as a way of feeling good about yourself
- Being right and in control of another person or other people (or at least the illusion of control)
- Living in chaotic circumstances, or over-managed ones
- Focusing on everyone else; fixing them or making them happy
With healthy boundaries, we can focus on taking care of ourselves, on cultivating our own happiness, and being the best us. We may have to learn to experience our own emotions and feelings. We may be called upon to learn new ways of being and communicating.
We can be more present, vulnerable and authentic, and to live from our hearts. This enhances the quality of our relationships. Ultimately, healthy boundaries can move us into thriving instead of merely surviving.
I’ve been studying human potential for over 25 years and coaching my clients on all matters related to relationships, including self-love and boundaries. You can learn more about me and my work at Anarah.com . I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org so please feel free to reach out if this article spoke to you and if you’d like to have an exploratory conversation with me. I look forward to connecting with you.