What are Boundaries?

I think a large issue for clients to be confused about is Boundaries. No surprise really because some don’t know the difference between rules and boundaries. When we begin to talk about boundaries, people say,  ” I don’t like confrontation” and when I say no confrontation required for boundaries, they look confused. When we began to learn things, we were very small children, we had no power of our own, and the incoming information for a child appears to be a one way system. As children we hear things such as, “Do as you’re told”….”do as I say”… “no you can’t do whatever or be whatever, you’ll do what we want”.

There are few choices to fulfil our own needs when we are young children and sometimes we don’t realise, as we grow to become adults, that those sentences don’t apply to us any more. Those sentences are caught within all of the other sentences of what we can and can’t do in life, as if all of the things that are ever said to us as children, are all bungled into one thing that we must follow. As adults we can choose, we can analyse what was relevant then, and what may not be relevant for us as an adult now.

Unless we saw rules in action, and saw boundaries in action, we wouldn’t know the difference and that’s fine, but there’s no reason not to start learning now as an adult with all the inner power and the choices that an adult has.

Boundaries are so important to every part of our lives. Boundaries are tied up in our confidence, our self worth and our values of self and others.

From when we are small, we are told that pain is a bad thing, mostly physical pain, for instance, don’t go near the fire, don’t touch the cooker hob etc. Are we applying that instruction to everything including psychological hurts and pains?  Pain is unpleasant yes, but is it a bad thing? What would make it a bad thing? From all of the other messages we get from our body, why is pain seen as bad, pain holds an important message just as all the other messages from our body do. Some are unpleasant but all are informing us of a truth. If it’s something unpleasant, we tend not to want to have it; and therefore a truth that we should have been informed about is lost. Instead we hold our defences close in the don’t do this and don’t say that and in doing so, compromise ourselves by crushing our own boundaries and let other people place their needs in front of ours.

Boundaries involve how we see ourselves and how valuable we see our time with ourselves and others. Whether we give our time when we didn’t want to, or whether we didn’t join in with something and enjoy that time when we could have done and wanted to. Its our choice to have our time however we want it. It not like someone who has realised they can have boundaries between themselves and the world suddenly turns into a mean and thoughtless person; it just means that you stop being that about yourself. Boundaries come from the inside and we can learn that we have a right to have what we want just as much as everyone else can.

We can learn that how we are, can have an impact on others around us. If we have people around us that don’t value what we want, and we don’t show any signs of boundaries, they start to re-evaluate who they are dealing with,  an example of that is that as people with no boundaries tend to be with people with no boundaries and as you don’t show any, they don’t have to cater for yours. Can you imagine how nice it would be to start getting boundaries and realise that you get new people around you, who are attracted by the boundaries you have because they have them too. Eventually clients change their friends (or how they’re treated by their friends) and they can start enjoying friendships so much more. I mean that those who walk over boundaries, may have needs for themselves but it requires both people to be equal and be seen as equal. For that to happen, both parties need to be seen as equal by the other but most importantly by themselves.

So what stops people feeling equal to another person by the time we are an adult? Well, the reasons can be very long depending on the person’s background. Some of the reasons can be, for example, from a bad school experience, or a bad home experience, whether it be from another person, or how we start to see ourselves from our own inner voice about who we think we are from something that happened. We hold onto experiences, we make defences from any pain and hurt and then we formulate who we can appear to be from then on. Defences are clever, careful and successful most of the time; however we can keep in mind that they are always in service of you in doing the job that they came to help you with. So therefore boundaries may seem like they are about today/the here and now, but mostly, its about something that’s happened previously that influences how your are about yourself today. Bad experiences can sometimes make us forget that we are ok as a person and that we are good and kind, that we are not perfect and are not expected to be (although cruelly, we can expect ourselves to be perfect) and that there is no perfect.

Therapy can be a wonderful place to explore what lays beneath the wonderful defences within a slowly paced, safe environment, where your defences feel ok enough, to feel that slower pace to be able to think and feel, and the safe environment where the defence feels the same thing won’t happen again to your feelings; the feelings that brought those defences to you in the first place.

You don’t have to go to therapy for that safe space, if you have a person that is non judgemental, holds your feelings safe with you and gives you time and space to explore what going on without alerting your defences, then you have found an environment that can help you. Therapist are trained to listen and use experience to maybe see where the situation is going in the moment but a good calm friend/person who you totally trust for this stuff can also be a good talking partner for you. If you feel like you are having feelings that you can’t cope with on your own, talk to someone.

We may feel when our boundaries have been broken by ourselves or another and we get a feeling inside that doesn’t feel nice. When the feeling switches from I’m helping, to I’m being used, it doesn’t go un-noticed by our body, that feeling is something we can learn to read and notice.

If we get to an argument or to confrontation, we can guess that a boundary has already been broken for things to get that far. If I said to you, “present yourself how you want to be treated”, what would that emotionally bring for you? Would that scare you and bring great fear, or would it make you feel all nice and giddy with thoughts or how nice that would be. If my next question was, “what do you think is stopping you doing that?” What would come up for you then? ok so those little questions have gone into your head, lets leave them there to do their own thing. I want to leave them there for now because let’s be careful here, we don’t want to get those big feelings popping up to you all over again so lets distract ourselves for a moment and realise something, if you feel like you have very few boundaries, or indeed you have no boundaries then you are not alone and there is absolutely nothing wrong with you at all. Looking around the world, or your family, or yourself, how many people do you guess have poor boundaries around themselves and others? millions!

Having no boundaries is not something to worry about, however, wouldn’t it be nice if we could feel equal enough with other people to just ask for what we want, or say gently and clearly about things we don’t want. Wouldn’t it be nice to not feel annoyed with ourselves by hearing ourselves say yes when we wanted to say no, or saying no when we wanted to say yes; to feel an equalness from others by how they don’t step on our boundaries. I have to say though, it would take fantasy for them to know what we wanted if we don’t tell them. It would be wonderful if they just didn’t stepover our boundaries but that would be difficult because we haven’t said what they are, and everyone’s boundaries are their own according to what they want. We are accountable for what people know about our needs. If we don’t say, in an adult accountable and calm way, others don’t know. It would be wonderful in an ideal world if we told people nothing but they guessed correctly what we wanted or needed every time, that would be fantastic but we don’t live in an ideal mind-reading world and people will try to guess by what they do see and know of you, hence my question about presenting yourself how you want to be treated. Is presenting yourself how you want to be treated easy?,  well that’s when we go to the next question. So yes, we all feel vulnerable and that’s ok, vulnerability is another message from inside reminding you of how your feeling about that thing and that’s ok too; no outside force, just you listening to you, which is good. No pressure, no rush, just you. You can distract yourself from those feelings or not, you can let a tiny bit of that message come to you, or not; you’re in total control. You can leave it where it is but acknowledge that the feeling is there, all of it is up to you. If you think that there is something there, then yes contact a therapist in a safe environment where you can gently unpack it, or go see that friend to off load some of it, either way, make sure you are looking after yourself and recognising your emotional state for what it is, a message.

This podcast is not therapy, its not a therapist or a good friend, but it may help you know that you are not alone, that you are in the company of millions of people who are maybe influenced about some previous experience or a lack of awareness that we, as adults, can choose, and we are all just people doing our best at the time we need to do something…and that’s ok because actually that’s what everyone else is doing whether it looks like that or not. How those fears and hurts come out and show is boundaries or the lack of them. Its not bad, its just not useful to you. Where that situation emotionally sends you, is not useful to you, not emotionally connecting for you, not generally helpful for you.

Do we have to start immediately having boundaries with everyone after listening to this, no, but we could start by thinking about and gradually practicing, quietly within ourselves about what we could say or do. We can begin to be aware of what our boundaries may be, if we begin with the internal voice, the conversation that we can have with ourselves before we ever put it out there to others. We could start to think about what it may be like to feel differently in that situation. That would be a great start.  Boundaries are choice, choice of how we want to be treated but for that, we don’t need to look at other people, we need to look at ourselves first. Why would we look at another person’s treatment of us when we are not treating ourselves well. It all starts with us. If you think its only courtesy not to plough through a boundary, why are you doing it, to yourself? Boundaries are not so easy when your not doing how you would like to be treated but expect others to. Boundaries are wonderful things, they keep us honest and open with our needs, they are safe for others too as they realise the clarity in which you are gently telling them what you want and don’t want and how nice that is for them to know those needs of yours. When there is no guessing what you may want or not want because you say what you want and don’t want, it’s refreshing for them not to be thinking whether they should be doing this or saying that. Its so surprising for many people to realise that they are not going to get the same reactions that we did as children or even in school, and that when we say what we want, we get answers from adults that are hearing what we are saying, understanding our reasons and are very happy to go along with your clear concise, reasonable request or reply. It can be amazing to learn that these other people fully acknowledge that you have needs and are listening to what they are. When you are with others that have boundaries, it’s easy as they know exactly what you’re talking about.

Boundaries and the lack of them touch our lives in many ways and we can come back to such a huge topic another day but for now, thanks for listening

About Liverpool Therapies

Qualified Psychotherapeutic counsellor. Transactional Analysis/ Integrative Psychotherapy/CBT
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