Boundaries: What Are They?
In my practice, I talk a lot about boundaries. They’re an important part of life and relationships, and are the foundation for healthy living. But what are they? This article will give you a brief overview of what boundaries are, including some examples of boundaries, and why they’re important so that you have a better understanding and appreciation for them in your life.
What Are They
Most people think boundaries are as simple as saying “no” to someone else. While they may include this, they are much broader and more complex. Fundamentally, boundaries define who is responsible for what; they determine what is and is not my responsibility. My own thoughts, feelings, choices, actions, attitudes, and consequences are all things that I can and should take control over. I should never attempt to control anyone else because in doing so, I would be violating their boundaries. In other words, when I take ownership for what is not mine, I take that responsibility away from its rightful owner. Results can be devastating, including abuse and control, dependence, irresponsibility, and detachment from reality.
Examples of Boundaries
In their book Boundaries, Drs. Cloud and Townsend give these examples of what boundaries may look like:
- Words: saying “no” to someone, agreeing to something, and expressing my feelings
- Physical Distance: choosing to be geographically apart from someone
- Emotional Distance: creating emotional space from another person for my own safety
- Time: taking time away from something (such as media consumption) to regain control over it
- Other People: seeking and utilizing people as resources to support my growth
- Consequences: setting limits with someone or something as a result of a negative action
Why Boundaries are Important
Without boundaries, we would have no safety and no freedom. Boundaries provide limits that define what is and is not acceptable, which creates emotional and physical safety. For example, my office cubicle determines where my desk space begins and my neighboring co-worker’s ends. They tell me what I have the freedom to do and not do. Boundaries also assign responsibility for behaviors – who is responsible for what, including cause and effect. Consequences may be unwanted and uncomfortable, for example, but they are a part of boundaries because they are the result of actions. If I take ownership of a choice and action, I must also be willing to face the consequences. Finally, boundaries foster responsibility, emotional growth, and maturity. When someone learns to become fully responsible for their actions, including impacts on others, they begin to develop the ability to deal with their emotions and mature as a healthy individual.
The Bottom Line
What it boils down to is this: boundaries are an essential part of being a healthy, responsible, mature individual that is able to then bring that wholeness into relationships in healthy ways. Learning how to become more responsible for yourself is a challenging but rewarding task that will produce greater self-awareness, self-control, self-esteem, and ability to empathize genuinely with others. For more information on boundaries, check out the books by Cloud and Townsend on my Recommended Reading resource page.