Everyone and everything has their limits. It is a completely natural part of life to experience a threshold after which we are uncomfortable moving forward. It seems strange to think that many of us struggle with properly defining those thresholds and communicating them to other people, but it is an extremely common problem.
Yesterday during my therapy session we discussed boundaries: the different types, when they are appropriate, and how to lay them down and stick to them.
The first kind of boundary we identified is the rigid boundary. These are limits that you hold tight and fast to, and don’t budge or compromise on. While they can be harsh, they are perfectly appropriate in certain settings; a professional environment, for example, is a good place to set rigid boundaries. If rigid boundaries are all you keep, however, it is common to become distant, detached, and have few close relationships. If no one is allowed to break down your very sturdy walls, then you will find yourself very much alone.
We also discussed porous boundaries, which are essentially the opposite of rigid. These are boundaries that aren’t defined clearly enough, or are inappropriately open. People with too porous boundaries are often oversharers, unusually dependent, and afraid of rejection or saying “no”.
For most of my life I have held very porous boundaries. I became too attached too quickly to new people in my life, and often trusted untrustworthy people with my personal information. I had many codependent relationships, and I struggled so badly with telling people that I was uncomfortable with something that I often let people walk all over and abuse me.
It’s okay for our boundaries to become somewhat porous in certain situations. Just as it is often smart to maintain rigid boundaries at work, it can make sense to loosen up and become more flexible when you are with someone who has rightfully earned your trust and will not take advantage of you, such as a spouse or close family.
The happy medium and the magic spot we all should aim for is in healthy boundaries. This is when you interact on an appropriate level of intimacy for the situation and relationship while holding firm to your values and self-respect. Just as importantly, healthy boundaries mean you respect other people’s boundaries as well. The key is to remember that a healthy relationship is a two-way street; just as you should hold true to the lines you’ve drawn, so should you observe and respect the rules other’s have laid down for themselves. Just as no means no when you say it, it’s crucial to respect another person’s no as well.
Defining your boundaries takes time and effort. It takes a lot of experience and self-reflection; often, we don’t know what our boundaries are until we become aware that they have been crossed. It’s important to observe the discomfort that someone crossing your boundaries brings you and to remember it for future occasions. Keeping tabs on what you do and don’t find acceptable makes it possible for you to communicate that information to other people, thereby giving them a chance to respect those rules.
Likewise, if you find that maybe your boundaries are a little too strict, it may take some experimentation in relaxing them to find a level of comfort that doesn’t keep people at an unhealthy distance. It’s a very scary thing to let down your walls, but in order to have meaningful relationships it’s important to let the right people in at the right times.
Sharing and enforcing boundaries can be perhaps the most difficult part of the process. If you find that your boundaries are too rigid, it can be hard to open them up and let people closer than you have in the past. If you have porous boundaries like I did, then the potential confrontation of saying no and insisting that your wishes be respected can be very anxiety inducing. If you want to keep your relationships with yourself and with other’s intact, however, it’s very important to establish those healthy boundaries.
It took me a lot of practice to firm up my defenses, and then I overcompensated a bit and had to let them out a little again. Life is a process of trial and error in which we learn a lot about ourselves, including what we are comfortable with and how far we are willing to go for people. Working on my boundaries, however, has given me happier and healthier relationships with essentially everyone in my life. I have an easier time keeping myself protected while not becoming too isolated.
If you find that you have a hard time getting close to people, or that you’ve become something of a doormat for the people around you, then maybe it’s time to closely examine your values and draw up a new draft. A healthy life begins with healthy relationships, and no healthy relationship can thrive on unhealthy boundaries.