Setting boundaries is a way of caring for myself. It doesn’t make me mean, selfish, or uncaring (just) because I don’t do things your way. I care about me, too.
– Christine Morgan
Boundaries are important. Ultimately, they help keep us safe. Most people, though, are really taught about only one kind of boundary—physical. Is this you? Thinking back, I know it was me. But, boundaries are much more complex and much more important than just protecting us physically.
Over the years, I’ve had experiences which have left me feeling uncomfortable that had little to nothing to do with physical boundaries. Maybe you can relate to some or all of these experiences:
- At times in my childhood, I was told, “Stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry for!”
- During my teens, I was told things akin to, “You would if you loved me.”
- People I knew have shared something publicly about me that I didn’t really want a large number of people to know;
- Over the phone, someone tried to urge me to espouse their spiritual beliefs;
- There were even times when I heard people make negative comments about a whole race or other groups of people.
Looking back, I can see one commonality to all of these situations for me. They all left me feeling uncomfortable in a way that physical boundary transgressions have felt uncomfortable to me as well. In the above experiences, though, I didn’t have a word for what was happening, because, well, no one was entering my “personal space” in any observable way. So, I often dismissed the discomfort at hand, in spite of having thoughts like, “Well, it seems I already have something to cry for, or else I wouldn’t be crying,” or “I’ve given a lot of thought to my spiritual beliefs, and it’s really none of your business,” or “Really? Every single person in _________ group is like this?”
Maybe you can relate to that feeling of exposure that happens when someone shares something intimate about you that you didn’t want shared. For me, it’s like being caught with my clothes off in public. Yikes! It’s also something that I see happening on social media frequently.
Now, I can look back at these experiences and see that they felt uncomfortable in a way similar to physical boundary transgressions because they were all examples of others crossing my boundaries, only boundaries I hadn’t been taught about and so didn’t know how to set.
Lane Pederson, PsyD, LP, DBTC defines six different types of boundaries in his book The Expanded Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Training Manual: DBT for Self-Help, and Individual and Group Treatment Settings, 2nd Edition that we need to be aware of. Six! Most of us are taught one, in potentially awkward demonstrations, maybe two. Maybe if we want to be really persnickety, we could find even more than six.
The important message here is that there are quite a few ways that we can keep ourselves safe, and we first need to be aware of these so that we can be pro-active—sort of like participating in one of those special self-defense classes designed for women when existing in public.
I will briefly define the boundaries that Lane Pederson discusses so that you, too, can have a place to start from when you’re thinking about your own safety—all aspects of it.
- frequently referred to as “personal space”—individual to each person;
- different kinds of touch and how people shouldn’t touch our “private places” without permission;
- what you eat and drink—anything that affects your physical being.
For me, the last one calls to mind those times if we are pressured to drink alcohol or try mood-altering substances when we’d really rather not. And, it’s more than that, too.
- what you feel;
- how you are able to be manipulated by others through gas-lighting, guilt-trips, and the like;
- whether or not you take on the emotional distress of others, or expect them to take on your distress;
- what and how you share about your feelings to others, as well as to whom you share.
- related to thoughts, beliefs, and values;
- how you share about your internal life to others.
- related to your choice of religion and the extent to which you are free to choose;
- the people with whom you share your spiritual life and how you share it.
- your history and life;
- shares common ground with the above boundaries;
- how and to whom your life story is shared.
This can also be an easily overlooked boundary, especially when we meet someone with whom we believe we immediately “click”; after spending a few hours sharing as much as we possibly can about ourselves to a stranger, we can walk away thinking, “I feel like I’ve known them all my life.” Definitely, an important boundary to be aware of.
- any boundaries that are not listed above;
- geographical boundaries like where you live and work;
- who your family and friends are;
- all those things that set you apart from the “people that you meet when you’re walking down the street, the people that you meet each day!” (Sesame Street shout-out!).
Now that you’re aware of all these boundaries that you never knew existed, you can become aware of how they work for you in interpersonal relationships.
Practice awareness of the number of times in a week or a month, for instance:
- You walk away from a conversation and think: “Man! I wish I hadn’t said that! I don’t even know that person.” (psychological or biographical.)
- You walk away from an outing with friends and say, “I wish I hadn’t had that drink.” (physical)
- You share something that a friend told you in confidence, and they become upset when you share it. (psychological or biographical)
- You find yourself feeling “crazy” because you know that what you’re feeling is valid and someone else has told you it’s wrong. (emotional)
- You try to convince someone that they need to help you by attempting to appeal to their fears in some way. (emotional)
I think it’s important to note that if you’re noticing that you are making boundary transgressions, it’s more than likely because you weren’t taught about boundaries, and maybe you were taught how to make these particular transgressions (usually unwittingly on the part of the environment). While we need to have healthy boundaries modeled for us in order to learn them, we can also be taught in other ways, like having them defined for us. Also, awareness is a pretty powerful tool, as anyone who practices mindfulness regularly can attest. Once we become aware of a particular problematic behavior, it makes it difficult to continue engaging in it, especially when we can make a different choice about it.
There’s hope for us all! Whew!
Let me know what you think about boundaries. I’d love to hear from you!