Boundaries

It can take a little while in counselling for a client to acknowledge ‘boundaries’ as an issue relevant to their particular difficulties. But although the subject might not arise until the client is some way into the counselling process it’s nevertheless something that crops up quite often. What follows here can only be a brief consideration of the complex psychology behind boundary issues.

When we talk about boundaries in the more everyday sense we are usually referring to where we say we draw the line, usually between the interests of others and our own, or between our own interests and our sense of what is ‘right’. The personal nature of our boundaries means that each of us is likely to draw our line in a different place, depending on the circumstances and their personal significance to us.

But how much of what we’re doing here is actually fully under our control? Often we are forced to compromise. Sometimes we say we do things ‘against our better judgment’. Also, we might find ourselves unhappily allowing others to encroach beyond our personal boundaries. And of course if we keep doing this other people won’t respect our boundaries – why should they if we don’t?

But perhaps we can still tell ourselves that this is okay provided we are aware of what we are doing and conscious of the sacrifices we might be making – personally, ethically, morally, spiritually, etc. We’re ultimately still in control aren’t we?

A key indicator of how much in control we really are when managing our personal boundaries is how it leaves us feeling. Our feelings are real and significant. They can also be uncomfortable. At some level they tell us something, even if we don’t understand exactly what that something means at the time.

On the other hand the message from our feelings can sometimes be very clear to us, but for some reason we can’t quite take it on board and find ourselves perpetuating situations that we know aren’t in our best interests. Classic instances of this are when we find ourselves drawn into people-pleasing, or when we find ourselves resentfully having to spend more time at work than we should, to the detriment of our home or family life, or when we continue to tolerate relationships in which we are repeatedly being hurt or taken advantage of.

For some reason in situations like these we can feel like we have no choice but to endure what is happening to us. Perhaps we are people pleasing so that somehow we can become more acceptable to others; or we are committing too much time to work because of what we fear it says about us if we don’t do this; or we tolerate oppressive relationships because that is how we understand relationships must work for us. In this last example we might believe that the only alternative would be no relationship at all, which might seem even less bearable to us.

It comes down to our sense of who we are, our sense of self-worth, and how we see ourselves in relation to others. Without a reasonably confident sense of our identity our personal boundaries can become permeable and ill defined. Discovering ways to foster personal growth is key to addressing this.

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