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The Protective Factor of Good Boundaries

LukeNotes, Winter 2022
Understanding Boundaries

When people hear the word boundary, they often think of separating, isolating, or dividing lines. Boundaries can keep someone or something separate, but they are also beneficial for bringing people together. Boundaries are defined as real or imagined lines that mark a border or identify the limit of relationships, a subject, or a principle. They can help us communicate our limits in various areas of personal and ministry life as well as what is and is not appropriate in different situations. When appropriately defined and honored, boundaries can be healthy connection points and help us navigate personal and professional relationships.

Healthy boundaries are firm yet flexible and take into account your feelings and those of others. Leadership consultant and bestselling author Henry Cloud states, “Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom.”

The different domains in which we can have boundaries include:

  • Intellectual: thoughts and beliefs about different topics
  • Physical: preferences about physical touch and personal space
  • Sexual: physical intimacy and reproduction
  • Financial and material: money, finances, and possessions
  • Communication: how we listen and/or respond during interactions • Emotional: managing the emotions of others, regulating one’s own emotions
  • Time: how a person uses his/her time and values others’ time

Boundaries can be grouped into two categories based on who they are protecting.

  1. Self-protecting boundaries: boundaries that protect us from other people.
  2. Other-protecting boundaries: boundaries that protect others from us.

An example of a self-protecting boundary is declining to meet with a friend or family member because every time you spend time together the interaction is hostile, or you are asked to do things with which you are uncomfortable. By setting the boundary that you will not meet with them, you are making a decision that is best for you. An example of an other-protecting boundary is a supervisor choosing to have meetings with employees in an open and spacious area, so the interaction feels safe and non-threatening.

Setting Boundaries

Setting boundaries can feel restricting and unnatural. It is often challenging to say no or make a decision that may seem unfavorable to someone else. Boundary setting involves trial and error. You may have to change your approach as you implement this new behavior in different settings. Some general tips for boundary setting:

  • Identify the desired boundary
  • Communicate the need or request
  • Be clear, concise, and avoid overexplaining
  • Name the consequences of violating the boundary

It is important to note that boundary setting is not always an explicit verbalization of a rule or standard. In fact, there are other ways of setting limits around your emotions, time, energy, and ideas. For example, asking someone if they are in a space to listen to you vent is an example of an emotional boundary. By checking in with them first you are acknowledging their emotional boundaries. Coordinating and communicating clearly about travel arrangements with friends or family who are picking you up is a way to be mindful of their time boundaries and other responsibilities. Additionally, the types of boundaries we set vary depending on the environment and circumstances. Boundaries with a colleague will look different than those with a close friend.

Myths about Boundaries

It is not uncommon to avoid setting boundaries out of fear that doing so will negatively impact relationships. This is one of the many myths of boundary setting. The myths and misconceptions about boundaries influence how we manage or enforce boundaries and our willingness to set them. Below are some common myths about boundary setting:

  • Boundaries push people away
  • Setting boundaries is selfish
  • Boundaries are a form of defiance
  • Boundary setting means being rude or mean
  • My boundaries hurt others

Not setting boundaries almost guarantees you will encounter the problems you are worried about creating by setting boundaries. When limits are set around personal space, finances, emotions, and time, you are giving people a gift. You are giving the gift of clear communication and established expectations. By setting boundaries you are also receiving the gifts of safety, optimal emotional and mental health, avoidance of burnout, and personal autonomy and identity. It is important to remember that not everyone will like or understand the boundaries you set, or your reasons for setting them, and that is okay. You do not have to feel guilty for making decisions that protect you.

A. Mechelle Haywood, Psy.D., is a primary therapist at Saint Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland.