The term ‘boundaries’ play a very important role in the field of counseling and psychology. We spend hours examining, whether directly or indirectly, our clients’ boundaries with themselves and others. We listen to their stories and observe areas where their boundaries give them stressors, pain, hurt, negativity, and make their lives more difficult. We encourage clients to build their self-esteem and self-worth which are also indirectly – and sometimes directly – tied to the changes clients make with their boundaries with themselves and others. These changes can include changes in self-talk, changes in the language clients use with themselves and others, and behaviors clients tolerate or cutoff.
Boundaries help us to define our interactions with the world. They help us identify the things we are comfortable with and the things that make us feel unsafe. Boundary discussions in counseling are essential. However, they have to be carefully actioned, clients have to be open to these discussions, and the clinicians have to be very sensitive to the cues the clients present. Great and powerful work can be done in this area which can be mightily impactful in the clients’ lives. As clients learn that they possess internal strengths to understand and know what they want for themselves, as they gain courage to voice those things and to say no to the things they do not want, and as they grow and adapt to asserting themselves and their boundary lines, this work has the potential to have lasting impacts and powerful changes in their lives.
Because of the powerful changes that can occur, it is essential to note that boundary work is scary and painful for clients, and clients may try to delay making these profound changes because they will create dramatic shifts in their lives. Additionally, if trauma and childhood trauma is present, then boundary work becomes significantly harder and more painful for clients.
We have to be very careful about the boundaries we set in our lives. Setting appropriate boundaries takes a lot of work and energy. That is only the beginning. We have to then be vigilant and continue to do the work to maintain and modify our boundaries as our needs change. It is not a one-stop fix. Boundaries applies to more than just relationships with others. We have to be vigilant about boundaries in our lives as it has a direct impact on the way we feel about ourselves, our lives, and our relationships.
We can apply the concept of boundaries to many areas of our lives. Effective boundary management comes down to small, minute issues that we neglect. We sometimes forget that we practice boundary management on a daily basis. When our boundaries are permeable, we feel the consequences in our anxieties, worries, feelings and emotions, thoughts, behaviors, bodies, relationships, stresses, and our overall health.
The concept of creating effective boundaries can be applied to:
- The way we think about ourselves
- The language we use to describe ourselves and others
- The attitudes we have towards ourselves and others
- The behaviors we exhibit to ourselves and others
- The coping mechanisms we utilize
- The diets we consume
- The content we consume (music, art, books, articles, etc)
- The regimen we practice (movement, habits, hobbies)
- The relationships we create and maintain
- The relationships we let go of (whether by choice or force)
- The connections we establish with others
- The ways in which we choose to live our daily lives
- The ways we approach mistakes and errors
- The ways in which we seek perfection
- The values we hold
- The spiritual connections we hold onto
- The ways in which we view discomfort
- The ways in which we approach change
- The mentality we maintain
- The ways in which we approach the world
- The worldviews that we hold onto
The use of effective boundaries can be used in all areas of our lives. These are just some examples of the most common areas that we experience a lot of pain and negative emotions in that impact our lives. The decisions we make in areas such as these can unconsciously rule our lives. When our attention is being diverted to many places – including our daily routines of working, feeding our families, etc – it is very easy to miss the places that originate our pain and discomfort.
Mental Health Impacts
We have to understand the value of creating and maintaining healthy boundaries. Boundaries simply implies the limits we set for ourselves. These limits can be for any areas of our lives, for anyone, and for anything. Our goals should be to develop and maintain healthy relationships with ourselves, our families and friends, and also with things/possessions. It is necessary to recognize that the way we interact with all these areas demonstrate how we feel about ourselves and the things we are using to comfort ourselves, to pacify ourselves, and to boost our egos. These interactions and feelings have direct impacts on our self-esteem and self-worth.
When we do not set appropriate boundaries, we are then left to deal with the repetition of the situations or issues we struggle with. When these situations and issues continue to wear down our feelings and defenses, we can become desensitized to the issues as they become the norm for us in our lives. Inappropriate boundaries is an issue that bleeds into all areas of our lives. However, we may not recognize the underlying boundary issues across areas in our lives. Although the term ‘desensitized’ is usually related to behavioral therapy, it can be linked to maladaptive emotional patterns. As we are continuously exposed to emotional trauma, and our boundaries breakdown, we can become desensitized to the trauma, maybe even to the point of numbness. This eradicates our self-esteem, our self-worth, and our self-love.
We are now living in a culture that is highly individualistic and self-focused. Combined with the instant gratification mind-set that permeates our society, boundaries are eroded daily. We have to practice, and teach ourselves the importance of practicing emotional self-care. Emotional self-care reinforces our values and the worthiness of ourselves. It empowers us to be willing to create boundaries that motivate, achieve, and maintain our emotional and mental health. It is the basic practice of self-love, not from an arrogant or narcissistic mindset, but from a place of love that encourages us to recognize our own needs and to take control of meeting those needs for ourselves. The way in which we treat ourselves will define the ways in which we allow others to treat us. Therefore, if we are unwilling to meet our own emotional needs, who should we then expect to do this service for us? This will only force us to develop unhealthy relationships and boundaries as we chase the things we should find in ourselves, in others.
Charmaine Perry is a counselor who works mostly with adults and couples in central New Jersey. Her passion is mental health and writing and finding ways to incorporate these two fields to advocate for mental health services for African and Caribbean Americans.