The Importance of Forming And Maintaining Good Boundaries
A therapist explains the importance of forming and maintaining good boundaries and what to do when people push back against your boundaries.
In my previous essay on homeostasis, I discussed why it can be so difficult to hold our boundaries with family members, friends, and people who we share a history with.
The purpose of that entry was to help readers gain insight into a behavior that might confuse them.
I find it always feels a little better to have a why; it helps us combat self-criticism, at the very least. Insight, however, is not the entire equation.
There are many subtle changes that happen in therapy, and if insight is half the solution then skill development is its match.
There are many psychological skills that we can develop (and everyone, no matter how successful, has a few that lag behind the rest), such as frustration tolerance, memory management, emotional regulation, and cognitive flexibility.
I hold the formation and maintenance of appropriate boundaries as one of the most important.
What does “a boundary” mean?
When I use the term “boundary” in therapy sessions, I am referring to a large and complex set of behaviors and beliefs that allow us to differentiate between our own sense of self and our understanding of others.
Diffuse boundaries cause confusion, leading to feelings of not knowing one’s self.
People with loose boundaries often have trouble vocalizing preferences and identifying needs.
They feel overwhelmed by the needs of others, partially because they can’t say “no” to anything from a request for physical help to taking responsibility for someone else’s emotions.
Rigid boundaries often cause feelings of isolation and frustration.
When our boundaries are rigid, we can often feel alone and left out even when surrounded by others.
Even simple requests can feel invasive and offensive, leading people to lash out at others without fully understanding why.
Given these simple concepts, it could seem strange that people could be confused, but part of being human is being dynamic.
As a result, our boundaries change depending on our mood, where we are, and who we are talking to.
You may have great boundaries at work, where you are flexible enough to be part of the team but firm enough to keep from going unnoticed or taken advantage of.
Once home or with family, the homeostasis kicks in, and boundaries swing to the extremes.
I never fault a client for their initial boundaries.
Our style of managing relationships often comes out of the necessity of navigating childhood.
It is no surprise that clients who tend towards diffuse boundaries typically come from homes where that was the norm.
These strategies are often passed down from generation to generation, and there is more often or not a historic trauma at the root of it all. You may have unknowingly learned behaviors to cope with difficulties that were passed down to you before you were born.
That is the power of homeostasis to keep things the same, not just in one lifetime, but across many.
Why do people challenge my boundaries?
When faced with the challenge of forming a boundary that is new to a family, there is more often than not push back.
Change is scary, and we can defend behaviors even if they aren’t helpful to us.
This “testing” of new boundaries comes in many forms.
People can respond with anger, confusion, and sadness, but the one strategy I hear more than anything is for the family to act as if the boundary doesn’t even exist.
You will state your expectation as clearly as can be, people can even agree and promise to adapt.
Then, when the time comes, everyone just keeps doing the same thing as they did before. Change is hard.
What do I do if people keep pushing back on my boundaries?
I feel for everyone in these situations.
The client is frustrated and the family is scared. I hear clients respond in similar ways, often feeling like they need to find a new way to explain themselves.
After exhausting the applicable euphemisms for the boundary (which could be as simple as “I don’t like that”), resentment can set in, leaving the relationship even more strained.
It is in these situations that I share an idiom that came to me one day during a session: Just because the floor gets dirty again does not mean your broom is broken.
Way back at the top of this essay, I referred to the skill of forming and maintaining boundaries.
Even in the best of relationships, boundaries will need to be reaffirmed from time to time in order to be established.
This is especially true in situations where boundaries can change.
We may become more flexible during times of loss in order to give and receive support and empathy; only to restore firmer boundaries around money or time.
Just like keeping a floor clean, there is no shame in having to repeat oneself, especially when the floor is littered with the dust of ineffective boundary holding.
It will always be better to calmly and firmly restate your boundary as you originally stated it rather than ruminating how you can invent a new way to express yourself.
Most people will continue to test for a while before adjusting to your new expectation.
Some, sadly, will not; requiring consideration of how rigid your boundary must be in order to protect yourself. In the end, that decision is always up to the client.
We all get to decide how often we want to sweep our floor. Too much, and we feel like we live in a museum. Too little, we feel surrounded by chaos.
As life often requires, it is best to find what works for us for now, and be open to change in the future.
If you would like help exploring your personal boundaries and learning how to assert (or maybe re-assert them), please reach out to me for individual support. You can book a complimentary 20-minute consult call on my calendar here. I’d be honored to be of support to you and will look forward to hearing from you.