Looking back through an old journal, I read a reflection on the function of boundaries during a time I was feeling the impact of a lack of them in my life. Our boundaries exist in us. Even if we aren’t aware of them, we feel when they are crossed. There’s an emotional cost that, over time, can become detrimental to our well-being and our relationships. In my journal, I wrote:
Boundaries are the carving of the riverbed
so water can flow, otherwise
water will dam and spill over
or spread into a thin, lost layer over the earth
In simple terms, I like to think of boundaries as where we end, and someone else begins. If we have a clear sense of our boundaries and we protect them, life feels more like it’s flowing. If we let people into our space beyond what we are comfortable with, we can feel blocked, flooded, and overwhelmed. If we give too much of ourselves away, whether it’s with oversharing, over-giving, or generally overdoing, we are spread into a thin layer – we don’t feel like ourselves because so much of ourselves has gotten away from us.
Thus, the need to find and define our riverbed. Our boundaries may shift depending on our life circumstances or particular relationships. Since I’ve had a child, I’m more aware of the boundaries that need to get created around my time and the way I want to use my energy. For people in my life that I know feel more draining – that spread me into a thin layer of myself – I have firmer boundaries.
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Ways to create stronger boundaries for me include limiting what I share, and how often and how long I speak to or see someone. It’s not really about the other person, it’s about taking care of me. It requires attuning to yourself, noticing what’s happening in your body and mind in different circumstances and around certain people. This applies to counseling as well.
There are people who fill me up; who I can spend hours talking to and still feel contained within myself – perhaps even expanded, but in a nice way. Due to my time and energy limitations, I may not talk to these people as often, but this boundary again is not related to the person – it’s related to noticing how it feels when I put pressure on myself to reach out when I don’t have the emotional or time resources to do so. I’m attuning to myself.
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New York City Therapist Carolyn Ehrlich focuses on learning how we share space with each other. In therapy, both parties are given the opportunity to speak, guided by a therapist. And most importantly, both will be heard. For a “therapist near me” 56 Leonard Street, Apt 17AE, New York, NY 10013
Boundaries are fluid like water
Though this description of boundaries is not comprehensive, one thing I would like to highlight is that our boundaries are fluid – like water. Boundaries are a process of being oriented toward ourselves in a caring and compassionate way. When we commit to finding and honoring our boundaries, we discover so much about ourselves – our needs, what lights us up, what helps us flow, what kind of people we are drawn to, how much alone time we need, what our limits are.
Boundaries aren’t just for relationships. Like I mentioned above, we can protect our time and energy with boundaries, but boundaries also apply to areas including finances, our physical space, our sexuality, and our spirituality. Attuning to ourselves so we can set healthy boundaries can feel really challenging at first, especially if we struggle with asserting ourselves or connecting to ourselves, but over time, the process can start to be a natural and invaluable resource.
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Types of boundaries
Building healthy boundaries — whether you’re at work, at home, or hanging out with friends — hinges on understanding the types of boundaries.
There are five different types:
Physical. This refers to your personal space, your privacy, and your body. You might be someone who is comfortable with public displays of affection (hugs, kisses, and hand-holding), or you might be someone who prefers not to be touched in public.
Sexual. These are your expectations concerning intimacy. Sexual comments and touches might be uncomfortable for you.
Intellectual. These boundaries concern your thoughts and beliefs. Intellectual boundaries are not respected when someone dismisses another person’s ideas and opinions.
Emotional. This refers to a person’s feelings. You might not feel comfortable sharing your feelings about everything with a friend or partner. Instead, you prefer to share gradually over time.
Financial. This one, as you guessed, is all about money. If you like to save money — not spend it on trendy fashions — you might not want to loan money to a friend who does.
When you get ready to establish your boundaries, be sure to take each one into account.
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Boundaries are essential
For various reasons and look different to everyone. You might be concerned that they will make you seem unfriendly or confrontational, but as this Inside Mental Health podcast from Psych Central reveals, it is possible to maintain them without upsetting those you care about.
Don’t feel guilty about setting boundaries. They’re essentially a form of self-care, and we actively look to incorporate other elements of this into our lives daily — from eating a balanced diet to exercising. This is no different!
It might take some time and consideration to decipher the boundaries most important to you and the best ways to implement them, but your mental well-being will appreciate the effort in the long run.
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