One thing I've come to realize over the years is that, contrary to popular belief, everyone has boundaries. Stick with me - I know it's so common to feel that if you're a people pleaser, it means you have "no boundaries". So let's get really clear. Boundaries are your own unique sense of what’s okay for you and what isn’t. It’s your internal understanding of what nourishes you and what doesn’t. We all have that understanding inside of us. We all have limits. What commonly happens is that over the years that we lose touch with our boundaries, or we learn that they're not important. So, with that in mind, when you start working on your own boundaries, what you're really doing is learning to listen to and respect your own limits.
You may find as you work on boundaries that you've been acting out of sync with your internal sense of what's best for you. For example, if you find yourself acting very rigidly and walled off from situation to situation despite wanting closeness, or you find yourself unable to say no and put yourself as a priority in a way that's leading to burnout, this may be an indicator its time to work on your relationship with your own boundaries.
Boundaries seem to land on a continuum. On the one end there are boundaries that are open (meaning you let quite a lot in), and on the other end are boundaries that are closed (meaning not much gets in at all).
The more “open” side of the continuum is characterized by taking on other people’s opinions of you and allowing that to alter how you feel about yourself. It also involves taking on other people’s feelings, so that their anxiety becomes your anxiety, their disappointment becomes your disappointment, and so on. People on this side may have a harder time standing up for themselves even when they’re feeling uncomfortable. It also might mean sharing a lot of personal information without the foundation of a trusting relationship within which to do that.
The more “closed” side of the continuum involves being protected, but not influence-able –nothing comes in. Walls can protect you at times, but when overused, tend to keep you isolated from others and closed to the healing potential of vulnerability. There are several types of walls, including walls of anger, words, preoccupation, silence, worry, depression, humor, pleasantry, and seduction. This allows you to feel safer but the consequence is that you become cut off from yourself and ultimately cut off from life. Walls may be appropriate for everyday interactions at work or in new social situations. However, walls do not allow for self-awareness or intimacy, and so the barriers you initially put up to protect yourself, when overused, can start to feel like a prison.
Where you land on the continuum is likely to be different depending on context - for example, what's appropriate at work isn't going to be the same as what's appropriate within a loving, respectful relationship. Take a moment to think about where you land in the following categories: work, school, intimate relationship, close friends, acquaintances, strangers, volunteer work, and family. Once you've mapped out how open or closed your boundaries are in each situation, you can ask yourself if there's anything you'd like to change. You may want to invite more intimacy in certain situations, and you may want more of a protective barrier in others. It's up to you to choose what's best for you. Just remember - even nice people have limits.
Nicole Perry is a Registered Psychologist and writer with a private practice in Edmonton. Her approach is collaborative and feminist at its heart. She specializes in healing trauma, building shame resilience, and setting boundaries.
About the Blog
This space will provide information, stories, and answers to big questions about some of my favorite topics - boundaries, burnout, trauma, self compassion, and shame resilience - all from a feminist counselling perspective. It's also a space I'm exploring and refining new ideas.