Unhealthy boundaries might be to blame for many unhappy relationships. If you think that might be the case with your relationships, here’s where to start and what to do to improve your boundaries.
We often talk about healthy boundaries during therapy sessions, but what does the term actually mean? Some people mistakenly think of boundaries as walls that disconnect people; however, healthy boundaries really help us to create and maintain functional and satisfying relationships. Dr Charles L Whitfield in one of his books Boundaries and Relationships, Knowing, Protecting and Enjoying the Self (Health Communications 1993) simply describes a boundary as “how far we can go with comfort in a relationship”.
Knowing your own boundaries means that you have a great awareness of your own inner life, such as your thoughts, beliefs, feelings, desires, experiences, decisions and compulsions, and your unfinished business. So your boundaries and limits help you to know who you are.
If our boundaries are unhealthy, such as blurred, co-dependent or enmeshed, we often experience emotional pain, disappointment, resentment, anger and suffering. For example, if you can only be happy if your partner is happy, if you are blamed by your partner for his or her explosive anger, if you feel controlled, manipulated or taken advantage of, or if someone doesn’t respect your privacy and personal space. Just pause for a second now and reflect on your relationship. Do you feel safe? Can you be yourself – do you express your thoughts and feelings freely? Do you feel respected and listened to by your partner?
One of the main benefits of knowing your boundaries is to identify what belongs to you, what you need to take responsibility for dealing with, and what is not yours.
Dr Whitfield highlights three main areas of What is Mine:
- My awareness of my inner life (including thoughts, feelings, beliefs, choices, experiences, wants and needs and my unconscious mind)
- My behaviour
- My responsibility to make my life successful and joyful.
And conversely, What is Not Mine includes:
- Others’ awareness of their inner life (including thoughts, feelings, beliefs, choices, experiences, wants and needs and their unconscious mind)
- Their behaviour
- The responsibility to make their life successful and joyful.
Healthy boundary between Mine and Yours include others not trying to fix your life, or rescue you, or feel responsible for your success in life. Of course, you can support your partner, but their inner world, behaviour and success in life is still up to them. When you feel that you can be yourself, when you feel powerful, creative and alive, then you are on the right track. However, if you are in a conflict, feel ashamed, manipulated and have to hide your true self then you might need to do some work to help yourself, to give yourself a chance at success and to be responsible for your own wellbeing, life and healthy relationships.