What are “boundaries” and why do they matter?

You might have heard the word “boundaries” used by therapists or when people talk about counselling and psychological matters. What therapists mean when we use this word is the way in which an individual manages the relatedness between themselves and people around them. In a way, it's a conceptual matter, how a person sees the "edge" of their own self, and the beginning of the other. The boundary may relate to time, space, money or even power dynamics.

For example, a person with poor boundaries might always be late, often lend money to people who don’t repay, or perhaps more serious problems such as always allowing themselves be abused or denigrated. Where as a person with good boundaries is able to communicate their needs and wants and may well speak up before they are taken advantage of.

Poor boundaries might be a product of an unhealthy situation in childhood such as abusive or destructive parenting. Or it may be that a child’s parents had poor boundaries so such behaviour was modelled. Regardless of how poor boundaries manifest, they often lead to difficulties in adult functioning, such as unresolved anger or a sense of frustration when taken advantage of. Poor boundaries also make intimate relationships less likely to form. Someone with poor boundaries may attract the “wrong” sort of partner and end up being treated badly over and again, thus being left to wonder “why do I keep getting it wrong?”.

I’ve often seen clients make great progress toward repairing their boundaries in therapy. There are numerous approaches which can help: from exploring and discovering through talk or drawing, which in turn promotes awareness and conscious decision making around boundaries. There are also in-depth techniques specifically designed to improve boundaries in which many therapists are trained.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing I’ve found, is that when a client improves their boundaries it’s often the case that unhealthy patterns within relationships (partners, family and friends) can also change. In some way, when we work on ourselves we can also work on others.

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