Saturday, August 11, 2018

Boundaries Are Essential Self-Care

by Jen Perry, MSEd, MA, LPC

Boundaries are a natural part of life and relationships. There are physical boundaries like our skin and personal space, boundaries on our time, financial boundaries, interpersonal boundaries. Dr. BrenĂ© Brown simply defines boundaries as what’s ok and what’s not ok ~  “Yes” and “No.” Being aware of and becoming skillful at communicating clearly our boundaries is well worth the effort and can save us from much stress and bewilderment in our relationships.

Unfortunately, most of us are not taught to be thoughtful and communicative about our boundaries, nor aware and respectful of others’ boundaries. Boundaries seem to be largely taken for granted, and this is fine when things are going smoothly. There is an underlying assumption that we should know other people’s boundaries and they should know ours (mind-reading, anyone?). However, when an unspoken boundary has been breached, there is usually an emotional flare that alerts us to the need to speak up and assert a boundary. This can be difficult if we are not trained to think of boundaries in this way ~ as something that we need to maintain and make others aware of. Instead, we often get upset that others don’t know our boundaries and don’t observe them. As Dr. Brown says, we believe that “people are sucking on purpose just to piss us off.” There is another way.  What if we assume that people have a low awareness of boundaries in general - and that, therefore, it is up to us to firmly let others know what’s okay and what’s not okay? And what if we also assume that we may not know their boundaries either - not until they tell us. Whew ~ can you feel the generosity of spirit in that? That people, us included, are generally doing the best they can, and a lack of clarity about boundaries (not bad intentions)  may be at the root of much misunderstanding.

The ability to know and state our boundaries clearly is an essential part of taking care of ourselves and lowering our stress levels. Instead of getting all muddled in the emotional fallout and confusion interpersonally, we can assert and observe our stated boundary. It clarifies things, takes away the complicated guessing and shadow-boxing we get ourselves into when things are unclear and bewildering. Essentially, our boundaries take care of us. Being able to clearly and without guilt assert our boundaries can drastically lower our stress levels.

A word about guilt in this situation. We desperately need a new word in the English language. For example, let’s say my mother really, really wants me to attend a family reunion. Something happened and communication faltered somewhere and I promised my kids and husband that we would go out of town that same weekend. Someone is going to be let down. There is a space/time/energy/can’t-be-two-places-at-once boundary at play here. Ugh, but I. Feel. So. Guilty. “Guilty” is the word commonly used in this situation. I haven’t done anything wrong. I have not done something for which guilt is appropriate. The word we need is more about the feeling we get when we disappoint someone because we we are constrained by a personal boundary. In this case, I want to follow through on what I promised my kids and I need to let my mom down. If I am afraid to tell my mom (or friend, sister, co-worker, etc) because I feel guilty and am confused about and unskilled at communicating boundaries, it leaves so much room for confusion and stress. If I’m avoiding the situation, my mom will start wondering why I won’t answer her calls, let her know when I’m coming, or tell her if I’ll bring the broccoli salad. She will start to get irritated. I’ll get irritated too: “Doesn’t she know I’m busy and overwhelmed?” No, actually, she isn’t thinking about that. She can’t read my mind, and I’m being sketchy because I’m avoiding feeling guilty and letting her down. Instead, I could offer her empathy and sit in the discomfort of disappointing her. I could let her know my boundary. Accepting that boundaries are a normal and natural part of life relieves us ~ not of our obligation to communicate early and often, but of feeling guilty and confused and bewildered by our own boundaries and others’.

Some thoughts about how to increase your skillfulness around sensing and communicating your boundaries clearly:

Seek your truth so you can speak your truth: Check in with yourself, get a sense moment to moment of what is okay with you and what’s not okay. What does your inner compass say? Yes? No? Remember, many (not all) boundaries are fluid and flexible. Sometimes we need to live our way into answers about our boundaries ~ it is important to continue to ask ourselves what is alive for us in the moment as we are figuring out our boundaries. Ask for time if you need it as you are figuring out what works for you and what doesn’t. Dare to ask yourself, “What do I truly want to do in this situation?”

Assume that the other person is doing the best they can. They most likely have a low awareness of your boundaries and other constraints on your energy and time. Remind yourself that boundaries are a natural and normal part of life and you, too, are doing the best you can. Remember we need a new word ~ it is normal and okay for our boundaries to disappoint others sometimes. We can offer empathy for this without resentment, guilt, or beating ourselves up.

Try your best to separate the boundary from your feelings about it. This can be a little tricky to understand. An emotion, particularly a strong, negative emotion is often a signal, a flare, that a boundary needs to be stated and maintained. Take care of your feelings separately from maintaining and communicating about your boundary. They are two separate things. Accept the fact that in our society humans are pretty confused about boundaries in general, violations will happen, and clear, consistent reminders may be necessary.

Kindly but firmly state your boundaries. Repeat as necessary.

Please keep in mind that this article focused on addressing boundaries between people on the level of preferences and negotiating things like time, energy, and other finite resources that are a part of everyday living - NOT on instances that are abusive or toxic. Boundary violations that are harmful or hurtful need to be dealt with far more strongly to ensure safety. Please reach out if you are experiencing more complex and toxic boundary violations. Your safety is essential.

Jen Perry, MSEd, MA, LPC has been a psychotherapist for over 18 years. She specializes in helping highly sensitive people thrive in love, work, and parenting highly sensitive children. Jen is passionate about using mindfulness and compassion-based approaches to ameliorate human suffering. She can be reached at  or 215-292-5056. Learn more at

1 comment:

  1. Jen Perry, I thought this was a well-written and helpful essay. I especially liked you addressing guilty feelings when one does set a boundary with a close other.