The Risks of Boundaries

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“Boundaries” is a bit of a buzzword these days…

People like to throw this idea around a lot: when talking about personal space (literal and figurative), when retelling a story of an acquaintance who texts 10 times a day, or when a stranger offers personal and unsolicited advice. You may hear a friend say, “This lady is all up in my business! She has no concept of boundaries!” With the ease that this word seeps out of our mouths, it can feel as though setting healthy boundaries is common sense and effortless. And it may be relatively easy to enforce limits with the random woman in the grocery store: “Ma’am, I appreciate your concern, however, I would appreciate it even more if you wouldn’t tell me how to discipline my child.” There isn’t much risk in this situation because there is no relational tie between us and a stranger.

man in bubble because he does not want his bubble personal space or boundaries cross by other peopleBut what about when we set boundaries within close relationships? The threat of relational fracture is real when you contemplate holding a firm line as your mother asks for a “favor,” or a superior demands more of your time. In such situations, we can often feel backed into a corner. We think, “If I tell Mom ‘No,’ she will be offended; she will tell me that I ‘owe’ her this, that ‘as your mother, I deserve…’” Not to mention the potential fall out if we ever said ‘No’ to a boss. Our job could soon be on the line. The risks are real, and much more challenging. Setting boundaries in these situations can often feel scary and sometimes paralyzing.

What happens when we don’t set boundaries?

Even in our most important relationships? What happens inside of us? Consider boundaries in terms of three glasses of water. One glass contains a single drop of water; the second cup is overflowing with water, forming a large puddle not only on the table, but is spilling onto the floor as well, and the third glass is filled to the brim, no more, no less.

testing boundaries with the water in a cup methodLet’s examine the first glass holding only a droplet: This is what it looks like when we say “yes” to everyone and everything. We’ve given so much of ourselves, so much of our personal resources, that we have nothing left. We have, in a sense, drained who we are as individuals of our own desires, thoughts, and feelings. The second cup depicts the other extreme. This overflowing glass portrays an individual who is spilling over by asking for too much, continuously entering into others’ space without consent, and tends to expect others to fix their messes. Think of the people in your life who feel emotionally drained after being with them for ten minutes; these are second-cup-people. The last glass, the cup filled to the brim, represents an individual who knows and stands by who he or she is. This person knows where he/she begins and ends, what is his/her responsibility, and what is not. This metaphor is a bit of an oversimplification and we can fall anywhere along this spectrum within different relationships. Nonetheless, it provides a telling visual.

Yes, we risk others’ anger and hurt feelings when we choose to say “no.” And it can be challenging to deal with others’ disappointment. I wonder, however, if the risk of losing ourselves is even greater if we choose not to hold firm lines when needed. Resentment can seep in; identity can be lost. If we want to respect ourselves, and also respect those we are in a relationship with, boundaries are a necessity.

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Mara Teal, M.A.

Mara Teal, MA, has been a practicing therapist for over three years. She has a passion for working with female clients struggling with eating disorders, body image, identity development, depression, anxiety, and relationship issues.

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