Sitting in her office at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma Ramotswe reflected on how easy it was to find oneself committed to a course of action simply because one lacked the courage to say no.
Difficulties with boundaries is something I encounter a lot with the people who come to see me for counselling in Fremantle, Mundaring and online.
If we grew up in a home where healthy boundaries were not role modelled for us, we may have picked up some less-than-empowering beliefs about how to set healthy, adaptive boundaries.
This article will look at:
• What is a boundary?
• Types of boundaries
• Your body always knows your boundaries
• When we override our body signals
• Why is it so difficult?
• How to have healthy boundaries
• Brene Brown on boundaries
• Cool boundary experiment
What is a Boundary?
Brene Brown describes a boundary as simply “what’s okay and what’s not okay” for us.
Healthy boundaries allow us to protect ourselves. When we don’t have great boundaries, we may feel we are constantly bending to the wishes of others. This usually leads to exhaustion, stress, resentment and an overall sense of disempowerment.
If we are unable to assert our boundaries in a healthy manner, most of us will eventually become either aggressive or withdrawn as a way of protecting ourselves. Compromising ourselves in these ways can lead to anxiety and depression.
A boundary may be rigid, porous or flexible. The nature of our boundaries will change depending on who we are with and the context of the situation.
When our boundary is rigid, we tend to keep ourselves at a distance from others – this can be emotional, physical, social, or any number of other ways. For example, we may struggle to rely on others, or to let others rely on us. We may have difficulty opening up to others, or we may avoid spending time with others. These behaviours can lead to us feeling isolated and unsupported.
Porous boundaries often look like: having difficulty saying no, feeling over-responsible for others, accepting abusive behaviour from others, or being unable to respect the needs and wishes of others. An example of this may be that when we are asked to do a favour, and we are feeling run-down, we say yes anyway, then feel overwhelmed with both exhaustion and resentment. We have put another’s needs before our own.
Having flexible – or healthy – boundaries, involves responding afresh to a situation, rather than from past conditioning. This means that in certain situations, it may feel appropriate for us to hold a rigid boundary, whereas in other situations, it may feel completely okay to open up and get close to someone.
When we have healthy boundaries, we are able to respond in-the-moment, in a way that both gets our own needs met, and also respects the needs of others. For example, if someone asks us to do a favour and we are feeling run-down and in need of a rest, an appropriate response would be to calmly and openly communicate that we are unable to help.
Types of Boundaries
Sensorimotor Psychotherapists Pat Ogden & Janina Fisher, split boundaries into physical boundaries and internal boundaries.
A physical boundary describes what distance between you and another person feels okay and not okay for you. This will depend on the person and the context. For example, you might feel comfortable squeezing up on the couch with your best friend, but if a stranger sits too close to you on the train, you may feel very uncomfortable.
The other physical boundary Ogden & Fisher describe, is that of touch. There are certain parts of our bodies that we may feel more or less okay about someone else touching. Again, it also depends on who the person is, where we are at the time and how we’re feeling. For example, we might feel comfortable with being touched on the neck by our partner at home, but not if we are at a business function; or it might feel okay for our sister to grab our arm, but not someone we just met.
Ogden & Fisher describe internal boundaries as our thoughts and feelings, “with healthy internal boundaries, we can separate our opinions, thoughts, and feelings from those of other people.”
When we have healthy internal boundaries, we are able to acknowledge and own our thoughts and feelings even when they are different to those of others. We can accept differences of opinion even if we don’t agree with them.
Having healthy internal boundaries means we take responsibility for how we feel, rather than blaming others; and we can acknowledge the feelings of another, without feeling we are responsible for how they feel.
Other Boundary Types
There are many kinds of boundaries.
Some additional boundaries not mentioned above are:
• Our sense of personal space – the space around our body that feels almost like an extension of ourselves.
• Our possessions – how do you feel about other people using your possessions? How do you communicate what is, and isn’t okay for you?
• Our finances – are your finances shared, or separate? Do other people have a say in how you spend your money?
• Intellectual boundaries – do you feel solid in what you believe? Are you easily swayed by the opinions of others? Or are you rigid in your thinking and not open to considering other points of view?
• Time boundaries – are about how we choose to use our time in relation to the needs of ourselves and others.
• Behavioural boundaries – are you always doing for others and not yourself? Are you always saying yes/no to others? Or do you have a more flexible approach?
• Sexual boundaries – this is about what is and isn’t okay for you sexually, and how you communicate that to the other.
Your Body Always Knows Your Boundaries
Pay attention to your body.
You know that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when the person or animal you love most snuggles in to you? That’s your body letting you know you feel okay with such closeness. Your heart rate may slow a little, your breath may become deeper and your muscles might relax a little.
In contrast, when you experience a tight feeling in your stomach/throat/chest and your breathing becomes shallow whenever that particular person drops around without notice, or asks you to do something unreasonable, this is your body telling you that you are not okay with the situation.
When We Override Our Body Signals
Most of us have become very good at overriding our body signals, by paying more attention to our heads. We may feel unwell or incredibly tired, which is our body signalling we need rest. However, often we will ignore these physical indications, and push ourselves to continue on with what our head wants to do.
I know of many examples where women have been in a situation where they have felt not right – without fully understanding, or being able to explain themselves at the time – and have later discovered that it was their instinct, or body-response, letting them know they were in an unsafe situation.
Sometimes when we notice our body signals, we may feel silly, or unjustified in taking those messages seriously, however, I say they are as important as how we think – often more so. Our bodies do not have the ability to edit their responses, whereas our minds do.
Listen to your body people.
Why is it so Difficult?
Why is it so difficult for some of us to assert healthy boundaries for ourselves? The answer usually goes back to the way we experienced boundaries as children. Both what we observed in the adults in our lives and the way our own boundaries were or were not respected.
Some of us may not be clear on where are boundaries lie, or we may feel we don’t have the right to assert our boundaries. For others, past experiences may have lead us to feel it is unsafe to be more flexible with our boundaries. In these cases, we have not yet learned that the present is a different place to the past. That what held true then is not necessarily how things are now.
As a child, it may have felt unsafe to speak up when something was not okay for us; now as an adult, under a different circumstance, we may find we are still unable to speak up. On a bodily and unconscious level, it has become ingrained in us that speaking up is unsafe.
How to have Healthy Boundaries
The key to having healthy boundaries, is to take notice of what feels right for us. This may involve regularly giving ourselves a little time and space to notice how we feel. If this is unfamiliar, we may need practice.
A simple way to do this is to find somewhere quiet for 5-10 minutes, sit comfortably, close your eyes, take 3 long, slow, deep breaths and ask yourself, “how are you?” Then really listen to the answer. Keep asking and keep listening. Notice your body. How do you feel in your body? Any tiredness? Aches? Tingling? Numbness? Tightness? Notice all of this – take in as much information as you can. This is how you feel. It may be inline with what you think; or you may be surprised to discover that you feel differently to what your head says. Once we know how we feel, we are in a better position to clearly and respectfully communicate our needs to others.
If this is not something we learned to do as a child, spending some time understanding our relationship with boundaries can be an empowering experience. Journaling, reading about boundaries, or seeing a counsellor or psychotherapist are additional ways to become more familiar with our boundaries.
Brene Brown has described that she often practices how she will communicate her boundaries to others. When she’s alone, Brene will practice saying aloud such things as “I can’t take that on” and “My plate is full right now.” Click here to watch a short video where Brene discusses boundaries.
String Boundary Experiment
I have come across various different versions of this exercise. Eating disorders expert, Geneen Roth uses one she calls The Red String, Ogden & Fisher have one called the Tangible Boundary Exercise
and I use one I learned through Sensorimotor Psychotherapist Andy Harkin.
Essentially, you need a piece of string or yarn, about 5.5m in length.
• Use your string to create a circle on the floor, with the ends touching or overlapping.
• Now stand or sit inside your circle and notice how that feels.
• How do you feel about the size of your circle? Is it big enough? Too big? Make whatever adjustments feel right for you.
• Once your string feels right, take some time to fully experience being inside your circle. How do you feel in there? How is your body responding – in terms of breath, posture, heart rate and muscle tension?
• Try stepping outside your circle and notice how that feels.
• Now step back inside and notice if it feels different. If so, how?
• You may have just learned a little more about your own boundaries and what feels okay and not okay for you.
Resources & References
‘Self Compassion’ by Kristin Neff.
Boundaries Info Sheet – from the Therapist Aid.
‘Sensorimotor Psychotherapy: Interventions for Trauma and Attachment’ by Pat Ogden & Janina Fisher
‘Tears of the Giraffe’ by Alexander McCall Smith
To work with Toni on your boundaries:
I am a Psychotherapist and Counsellor in Fremantle, Western Australia. I also work in Mundaring, Perth, Western Australia. In addition, I provide online counselling sessions and I have a special interest in working with clients in rural and remote Western Australia – particularly the Kimberley, Pilbara and Gascoyne regions.
I specialise in working with women around the issues of self-worth, anxiety, trauma, body image and personal power. I am a certified Gestalt Therapist, with a BA Psychology and a Grad. Dip. Women’s Studies. I am a verified HAES practitioner.
I have a strong interest in trauma therapy, and use body awareness and sometimes art therapy in my work.
If you would like to book an appointment, please contact Toni Jackson.
Phone: 0439 995 302
(c) Can Stock Photo / peshkova