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  • Alethia Winley

Boundaries: What They Look Like and How to Set Them

The word boundary may feel prickly, intense, and anti-social, but in reality good boundaries can bring us closer in connection. In fact, many people already practice some healthy boundaries in their lives unintentionally. For example, you have likely said or heard someone else say, “I don’t bring work home” or “I keep my work life and personal life separate”. This is a perfect example of a boundary. It is a choice, made by you about you, that sets a realistic limit on your participation in a relationship or activity.

Boundaries are not only useful in the workplace or in scheduling your days, but in every aspect of life: in both platonic and romantic relationships, at school, with your family, with strangers, and even with yourself. Lisa Casey, AMFT at Smith Psychotherapy Group says, “Three useful boundaries are external boundaries, psychological boundaries, and containing boundaries.”

External Boundary is the ability to say no. It is easier when you are able to effectively use a Psychological Boundary, which is about knowing where you start and others begin or the conceptual limit between you and another person. This boundary is most effective when we slow down our response to triggers and ask ourselves two questions: ‘Is this information true or not true?’ and ‘If it is true, is it about me or not about me?’.

"When we are able to recognize that maybe it is not about us and is more reflective of someone else’s internal state, it doesn’t hurt our hearts, and we’re able to let it go” (Lisa Casey, AMFT).

Finally, a Containing Boundary is the ability to control our own reactions so that we don’t say something that we will regret. These three boundaries work well when they are utilized together.

When we think about boundaries, we tend to think of what other people are doing or saying. It is important to remember that setting boundaries is about ourselves, not about others. It’s about learning your own limitations and properly adjusting your lifestyle and communication with others appropriately. Boundaries can be as big as cutting a toxic relationship out of your life and as little as taking five minutes in your day to step outside and get some fresh air. It’s all about what is best for you. This may seem selfish, but in reality, when we take small moments of “selfishness” for ourselves, we improve our moods, our self-awareness, and ultimately, our relationships with others.

To help better understand what actually setting a boundary looks like, let’s run through scenario. In this scenario, we’ll see the three types of boundaries mentioned above working together. Meghan and Diana are friends. Meghan likes to party a lot, and usually wants Diana to go with her. Diana likes to have a good time, but only wants to drink and party every once in a while; however, she feels pressured by Meghan to party more than she would like. Here’s what a conversation where Diana sets a boundary with Meghan might look like.

Meghan: Diana! Let’s go out tonight! There’s a new club I want to go to! Let’s get crazy!

Diana: No, Meghan. I don’t want to go out tonight (External Boundary: saying no). I love that you like to have fun and go out a lot, but I don’t enjoy going out as often as you.

Meghan: Why are you being so boring? Do you hate me?

Diana is initially upset that Meghan called her boring. She also feels like she is obligated to prove to Meghan that she doesn’t hate her by changing her mind and continuing to go out often with Meghan. She asks herself, “Is what Meghan said true?” Diana realizes that these things that Meghan is saying are not true. She is not boring and she loves her friend. She recognizes that Meghan feels defensive and hurt because she is scared of losing a friend. Diana knows that is why Meghan reacted the way she did. (Psychological Boundary) She decides to take a deep breath and make her reaction calm and understanding yet clear (Containing Boundary: controlling your reaction)

Diana: Meghan, you know that I do not hate you. I love you very much, but I need to set this boundary for myself. I will absolutely still go out with you every once in a while when I’m feeling up for it, but I’m not going out tonight (repeat External Boundary). I hope you have a really good time tonight and I can’t wait to hear all about it!

Meghan: Okay, I understand. I guess I’ll go with Stacy. We should get lunch sometime this week when you have time!

Diana: That sounds really great! See you later.

Setting boundaries is super important in our lives because it helps us to balance our relationships, work, and social lives with our personal needs. Setting boundaries can help protect us from burnout, overworking ourselves, or putting ourselves in situations that are damaging to our mental or physical health. When we are clear with others about our boundaries, our relationships can significantly improve because there is now mutual understanding about each other’s thoughts, feelings, and needs. Usually, the people who love and care about us want to know our boundaries and want to make us feel good. If someone is not listening to your boundaries, you may need to try some different ways to make them clear or consider distancing yourself from that person.


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