What Are Boundaries And Why Are They So Difficult?

Boundaries are inescapable: they’re the physical, mental, digital, emotional, environmental, spiritual and cultural constructs that create a framework which underpins and influences how we behave, our expectations on how those around us might behave, what we take responsibility for, what others take responsibility for, what we let in and what we keep out, and the relationship we have with ourselves and everything around us.

Everything we do, feel or see, has a boundary linked to it in some way – even if they’re not always so glaringly obvious. There are the clearly defined, mostly man-made boundaries that we can see everywhere we look: the fences, the walls, the hedges, the bridges, the borders, the gates. The homes we live in have doors, walls and windows which determine the boundaries of our residence. Those doors and gates and windows and walls and hedges set limits on who can go where, and when, and how. These physical boundaries can help us to feel safe and protected and they act as limits and guides for others. They’re clear, easily communicated and asserted, and flexible – we can lock a door and unlock a door depending on the circumstances. We can invite people in, and we can shut people out.

If our homes are ever broken into or something happens to compromise these physical boundaries, we might start to feel unsafe in our homes and up the ante on our security. We might build a wall topped with barbed wire, install security alarms, sensors or stronger locks. Anything to decrease the risk of an infringement of those boundaries, and the inherent danger. Fortifying these boundaries might give us a sense of security but they also make it more difficult for the people we love and like to get in. And that’s something we have to bear in mind with all of our boundaries; that they’re not so fortress-y, so inflexible, so rigid, that they prevent the good from getting in.

How we’ve been brought up, the values and cultural habits which are instilled and influenced by our caregivers will affect our boundaries. How we communicate and the language we use, how we conduct our interpersonal relationships, how we deal with conflict, how we view power and authority, the foods we eat and when we eat them, the clothes we wear day-to-day or for occasions, how we respect ourselves, whether we hug, shake hands, nod, wave, or kiss two cheeks as a greeting, whether we have a fixed or growth mindset, the pace and space we apply to areas of our lives such as our attitude to work or family time.

These help make up the boundaries we have with ourselves; a sort of blueprint or internal guidebook that we each hold inside. It contains all sorts of inherited, adopted, and learned information about who we are and what we’d like to do, about where we begin and where we end. A code of self-conduct which includes our likes, our dislikes, our beliefs, our needs, our values, and our identity. When we align our boundaries with our values, we create an environment within which we can thrive.

It stands to reason that the opposite must also make sense; when we’re feeling off-kilter, disconnected, overwhelmed, overcommitted, disrespected and frazzled, as though life is a soap opera with unrelenting drama, there’s a boundary there somewhere that’s misaligned with our values and in need of some negotiation and management. That’s why this boundary stuff is so important; we’re a generation that’s out of sync – being swayed this way and that way by societal pressure, societal shoulds and societal shifts.

According to a study carried out by the Mental Health Foundation, in 2018, 74 per cent felt so stressed that they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope.

The Co-op and British Red Cross carried out a study about loneliness which revealed that over 9 million people in the UK are either always or often lonely.

The World Health Organisation estimates that there are more than 300 million people in the world living with depression right now.

What Does a Healthy Boundary Look Like?

Boundaries can be cast in iron and uncompromising; they can be looser and easily compromised, they can be non-existent and symptomatic of a low sense of self. They set the tone for what we will, and will not, tolerate.

Healthy boundaries are clear, not too constricting or overpowering of others, and designed by us.

When our sense of identity is a strong, self-assured, self-confident one, it’s clearer to us (and to others) how we wish to go about our days and ways; we won’t drink a drink if we don’t like it, we won’t date people we don’t feel connected to, we value our time, our energy, our health and our values, and have no qualms protecting them.

Low self-worth makes this boundary stuff all the trickier. If we tie our self-value in with how happy we make others, how productive we can be, how useful we can be, how many life-creases we can iron out easily for others, if we avoid causing any ripples, at all costs – even when our boundaries are compromised – we’re going to end up all wonky-tonk and out of sync with ourselves.

When Boundaries Go Wonky?

Misaligned and wonky boundaries are interesting because we all have oscillating limits depending on who, where and what we’re dealing with. Our tolerance levels are interchangeable, boundaries fluid. But there will be some boundaries which are absolute, ones we hold steadfast – there will be things we just can’t see ourselves ever doing, no matter what, since to do so would contradict and contravene our core selves, our morals and principles.

There are some behaviours, too, which are always completely unacceptable, whatever the circumstances

Infringed-upon, compromised, or non-existent boundaries can feel like: being manipulated or controlled, excluded or lonely, unsafe, frustrated, angry, backed into a corner, disrespected, stuck, being a puppet on a string, having no autonomy, being overextended, confused, scared of upsetting someone when we speak up, trodden-on, full of resentment, shouldering undue blame, disconnected, trapped, powerless, and beholden to assumptions placed upon us.

Just as the land borders and boundaries around us are ones we readily accept as pertaining to a continent, a country, a town, a home, we must be aware and mindful of the other boundaries we may be readily accepting that don’t serve us. The ones we’ve learned from our parents, our teachers, from society and from those in power.

Boundaries don’t count for much though, unless we communicate them clearly, are willing to assert them when we feel they have been violated and are prepared to uphold the consequences that come into play when our boundaries have been breached despite our assertions.

This stuff is far from easy or simple, and here are some of the reasons why:

We’re Not Always Taught This Stuff

We’re not. We’re taught how to tie our shoelaces, how to read and write, about history, geography, the sciences, how to bake cakes, how to take care of others, and so on, but we’re rarely taught how to take care of our mental and emotional health, or that it’s something to be prioritised. It’s an alien concept to lots of us that we can indeed say no without dire consequences and even if the consequences are undesired, that we can and will get through them. It’s mindboggling to some of us that we have choices and the autonomy to set limits for ourselves and those around us. It’s never occurred to some of us that feeling safe and happy is way more important than feeling nice. And we’re not taught that being kind to ourselves isn’t always the same as being kind to others – sometimes the balance tips too far and we become over-accommodating. If we’re not made aware of this power within, we don’t know it’s there. If we’re not given the opportunity to practice.

Wonky Messaging

The messaging surrounding all of this can be so mixed-up too, often unintentionally. Tell a child often enough to do as they’re told and funnily enough, they will, and they’ll keep doing so, to their detriment. We’re urged not to make a fuss, and so we try our darnedest to be ‘good’ and not rock the boat. We tell girls that when boys are mean to them, it means they like them very much, which teaches both girls and boys that unreasonable behaviour is acceptable in some situations. When we make mistakes, like spilling our Cornflakes or breaking a toy, we’re admonished, teaching us that mistakes absolutely aren’t okay. We’re urged to apologise when we’ve done something or said something wrong but aren’t necessarily apologised to by our parents when they’ve done or said something amiss

In our formative years, we’re always looking to the people around us to learn from, to help us to take ‘form’. If those people around us don’t understand boundaries, don’t align their actions with their words, don’t present examples to us of their limits in a clear and consistent dialogue, then as adults, we have a great deal of unlearning and re-learning to do.

We Fear Rejection

The fear of rejection is a pervasive one and can have a massive impact on our lives. It can prevent us from speaking up and speaking out, from putting ourselves forward for job roles that we’re more than qualified for, negotiating contracts; it can see us turning down dates, bowing to peer pressure, self-sabotaging, getting pro at people-pleasing, and basically, avoiding any situation or conversation where we might be judged, criticised or rejected.

This is all linked to low self-esteem and every time the fear wins out, we’re reinforcing the story we tell ourselves about how we’re unworthy, that we will only be accepted by being ‘good’, by masking our true feelings, or behaving how we believe people want us to be. We often feel inauthentic, as though we’re going to be ‘caught out’, because we are being inauthentic; we’re casting aside our true values and opinions and limits, so that we won’t be cast aside, and we’re fearful of showing our true-ness in case we end up alone.

This doesn’t half lead to cockeyed boundaries though – we end up putting up with things waaay past the point that they became unhealthy for us. It often results in enabling bad behaviour, not taking a stand against wrongdoing against us, experiencing burnout as we rabbit away trying to please others, living reactively and not proactively, ignoring our own needs, and as for those dreams of ours, they were kissed goodbye a long, long time ago.

We might worry that setting a boundary will end up in us being rejected in some way, but if people are scared so easily away just because we’ve identified and set limits for ourselves, then they’re the ones who were most in need of the boundaries in the first place. Our not having boundaries has probably over-served them for far too long and they’ve rather liked it that way.


This piece is an extract from chapter two of our book Making Space: Creating boundaries in an ever-encroaching world, published by Orion Spring, which is available in on Amazon, at Waterstones and at WHSmiths. You can grab copies of our previous two books, from our shop.

P.S. You can find downloadable, PDF versions of the worksheets included in Making Space here.

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