What Are Boundaries in Relationships and Why Are They Important?

Boundaries are limits put on a relationship in order to establish the safety of an individual. These limits are for the purpose of maintaining the relationship to the degree that is emotionally/physically/sexually safe for the individual. This part is very important because good boundaries are not walls. Walls push people away and shut them out. When you establish certain boundaries in relationships, you are essentially saying to them, “This is what I need to feel safe in this relationship. If you can’t give me that, I can’t feel safe.” Boundaries are about needs not wants or what is convenient for you. Setting a boundary and telling your spouse that you can’t feel safe unless they put the silverware down properly in the dishwasher is not a healthy boundary. However, stating to them that you don’t feel safe having sex with them as long as they are looking and engaging in pornography and not telling you about it is a healthy boundary. Everyone has boundaries even if you don’t realize it (e.g. you probably don’t tell your pharmacist about your sex life). Healthy boundaries are ESSENTIAL to a lasting healthy relationship. When healthy boundaries are not established or respected in a relationship, emotional and relational distress WILL BE created. There are a number of requirements in order to use boundaries in a healthy way.

1) Good Intentions

The intent of the boundary has to be safety and to maintain the relationship on a level where this safety is respected. In other words, you shouldn’t use boundaries to control the behavior of other individuals or to punish them in any way (e.g. “You’re being a jerk today so you can say goodbye to any chance you had with having sex with me tonight!”)

2) Rational Mindset

Never establish boundaries when in a reactive/emotional state. Boundaries should always be established and expressed in a rational thoughtful manner where there has been sufficient time to think out the decision. However, this doesn’t mean that you won’t be feeling fear and worry when you express a boundary to someone. It takes a lot of courage and vulnerability to set healthy boundaries. You have to be willing to take the risks of losing possible connection to get healthier connection for both of you.

3) Follow Through

It is essential you follow through with consequences if your boundaries are not respected. If you are not willing to do this then don’t waste your time in setting the boundary in the first place. For example, if you state to your partner, “Bob, I want to understand how you are feeling, but I don’t feel safe to talk to you if you continue to speak to me with degrading and demeaning language. If you choose to use this language to communicate your feelings then I will have to emotionally protect myself by disengaging in the conversation.” Therefore, it is essential that you follow through with this promise. If you choose to get defensive and use the same language back then you are choosing not to respect your own boundaries and therefore, your partner will not either.

4) Clear and Specific

Boundaries need to be clear and specific. Vague expressions of boundaries can be confusing for your partner and yourself. Spend the time trying to establish specific limits for your safety and the consequences when those limits are broken or not respected by other individuals. What are your non-negotiables in the relationship? Non-negotiable are specific boundaries that will require separation or divorce if ever broken. What are your sexual, physical, and emotional boundaries that you are required to have to keep yourself safe and connected in the relationship? If these boundaries are broken, what would you need to do to continue to create safety for yourself?

5) Expression

Boundaries also need to be expressed when appropriate. We can’t expect people to respect our boundaries if they don’t know what they are. It’s wrong for us to assume people should know how we feel and what we need. This is one of the most common mistakes in relationships.

For more information about boundaries, I suggest reading Boundaries Updated and Expanded Edition: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life by Cloud and Townsend. Sometimes it can be difficult to see what boundaries need to be set in our relationship as well as how we should follow through with them. Seek guidance from an experienced counselor to help direct you in these decisions.

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Three Unhealthy Ways We Deal With Shame

iStock_000016192491LargeShame is something everyone feels on a consistent basis. We have both overt and covert shame. Overt shame is where we recognize the messages our critic tells us in our heads. These are things like, “You will just fail again like you always do” and “You can’t do anything right because you’re not good enough.” Covert shame is where we don’t recognize those messages but they are indeed inside of us and run our behaviors. This type of shame manifests itself more in actions.

In order for shame not to have power over our behaviors and turn the mistakes we make into more healthy emotions such as guilt, we need to be able to recognize it and label it for what it is. Paying attention to the ways we usually respond to shame will help us to see the shame that tries to bury us covertly. Brené Brown talks in her lectures about three ways we primarily deal with shame: 1) Moving away, 2) Moving towards, and 3) Moving against.

Moving Away

The way we move away from shame is by isolating ourselves when something shameful happens. We don’t want to confront people. We just want to hide and keep secrets. A good example of this is when someone makes a passive aggressive comment towards our parenting or even our character and it produces in us a shame response. Someone who is moving away from shame would respond to their comments by moving away from the person or conversation, ignoring them, or pretending like it never happened, but inside they are hurting. Another example is if a child walks in on their parents having sex and the parents pretend like nothing happened. The parents are feeling so much shame about being caught in the act that they are terrified about asking how their child might be feeling about the situation. However, most of the time when people move away from shame they are trying to hide their true selves from the world. They don’t want their loved ones to find out about those things that bring them the most shame.

Moving Towards

The second way we move towards shame is by pleasing people. We do this by trying to be the person others want us to be. We deny authenticity and adapt ourselves to what we think people want from us. We also try to fix whatever mistakes we have made by something we said or did that might have influenced how people view us. A good example of someone moving towards shame is when a child is feeling rejected and unloved by one of the parents and then tries to earn that love by being the “perfect” child. They might try and do this by cleaning the house or doing other things that he or she might feel would please the parent. In the therapy world, the term we often use to describe this type of response towards shame is codependency.

Moving Against

The two most common ways we try to move against shame is blaming and perfectionism. People who respond to shame in this way can immediately go to blaming themselves or others in response to a shameful event, or they just might try to prove the shame wrong by being their most perfect selves. Perfectionism can also show itself in moving towards shame, but perfectionism associated with moving against is about controlling negative emotions such as anger and anxiety by trying to control the environment around you. Addicts fall into this way of shame living quite often. An addict is often going from trying to control their behaviors and fulfill the expectations that they have put on themselves to feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by their failures to the degree of acting out. An example of this would be a wife catching their husband looking at porn and responding by telling her, “I wouldn’t have this problem if you would just give me sex more often!” People who move against shame often try to control their environment. Unfortunately, this can lead to controlling the feelings and actions of people who are in their lives.

It is a normal process of life to respond to shame in these ways. Shame is a self-protective reaction. We do this as a survival mechanism. However, because it’s self-protective it leads to self-consuming perceptions and behaviors. We learn not to see other people’s perceptions and walk into judgment towards ourselves and others. Being too caught up in our shame is a very lonely and isolating road. When shame comes up for me in my daily life, I take a few steps to manage it effectively. First, I label it. Second, I excercise compassion on myself and for what I have been through. Third, I reach out to important attachment figures in my life and heal the shame by bringing it into the light. Although, sometimes we might do all the steps necessary to manage our shame and we still let it take a hold of us. In these situations, therapy can be invaluable. We often need a professional to help us get through the deepest parts of our shame and guide us into managing it more effectively in the future.