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Good Fences (Boundaries)

“Good fences make good neighbors.” It’s an old saying and one we’ve likely all heard at some point in our lives. In a few simple words it describes a clear need for physical boundaries to be in place around our physical property. These boundaries, when well-delineated, keep neighbors from overstepping in some way. In turn, this keeps the peace and allows relationships among neighbors to grow amicably.

Physical property boundaries are one thing, but the more difficult boundaries to come up with and set are the unseen ones that protect us in relation to other people. Why is it so difficult for us to establish and maintain those boundary lines ? Often we know we would prefer to be treated differently and more positively by people around us, yet we explain away and make excuses for their behavior. Sometimes we fall back on “that’s just how they are.” Other times there are deep-seated patterns, passed down from generations that get in the way. These are problematic ways of interacting with one another that get modeled to us and accepted as how relationships should be.

Setting healthy and clear boundaries on how we are to be treated, especially when there are oversteps, allows other people to see that we put our own mental health and wellbeing first. As we all know, putting ourselves first can seem selfish; we may have been told this very thing by family or friends. A lack of healthy boundaries in your life, however, can leave you feeling angry, resentful, sad, or “insert negative emotion here”. It’s anything but selfish to want boundaries that keep you from feeling that way.

For many, starting with a good rule of thumb when interacting with friends, family, or general acquaintances can help. If interacting with that person leaves you questioning “Why does this person treat me this way?”, feeling anger and resentment toward them, or questioning “Why did I allow this to happen again?”, you probably need to set a healthy boundary.

Even with a guideline to help, many still find setting boundaries to be very difficult. Why? The short answer is, setting healthy boundaries often makes a significant change to the dynamics of a relationship. Social pressures likely pushed you to allow a negative relationship to go on in the way that it has for days, months, or years. Often these outside forces make us question if setting a boundary would be worthwhile.

Internally, thoughts might go through your mind downplaying the need for setting a boundary. This typically takes the form of making excuses for that person’s poor behavior. You may worry what that other person will think, say, or do about your newfound desire to have rules in place for what’s okay versus what’s not. The fact of the matter is, if we allow those things to stop us from setting healthy boundaries with others, we are letting others know they can interact with us in whatever way THEY choose. We give away our power to protect us.

To say or do nothing here comes at the expense of yourself. For many, it’s easier to have a relationship and have it be unhealthy than it is to stand up for self because that feels safer. We get to play the martyr every time we interact with that person or people please in an effort to protect them from uncomfortable feelings and the potential that they will sever ties with us.

Every human brain is wired for connection with others. From the time we arrive as babies, our brains are picking up information we receive from caregivers and we are learning how to be in a relationship with others. Parents teach us how to regulate our emotions via these early connections. That early modeling helps establish the neural connections we make in the brain and quite literally “wires us” to have beliefs and expectations about relationships with other people. In professional settings, this is termed “attachment style”. So while we can’t entirely get away from people (and it very often feels safer to run from conflict), we are left with the choice to either establish and set healthy boundaries with others OR go along to get along like we always have. The work of healing is never easy, it’s filled with ups and downs, wins and losses.

If you’d like to read more about the science behind connection:

So how do we set healthy boundaries? My recommendation as a therapist would be to start soul-searching and developing awareness of the relationships in your life that are bothersome to you. Spend some quiet time to really try and figure out what exactly the other person is doing that bothers you and why. Digging into the depths of why their actions bother you is critical to a deeper understanding of the issues in the relationship. That deeper awareness is key to figuring out how to approach the issue and what boundaries you want to set to improve the relationship you have. It may be helpful to also do some reading on boundaries. Here’s a website with links to articles based on boundaries:

This website includes free downloadable worksheets to give you more information and get you started on the process to setting healthy boundaries:

From the Positive Psychology website, this 60 page document includes tons of information on boundaries and how to set them:

After you’ve developed awareness of the areas you’d like to improve and attempted to do some boundary setting with others, I’d highly recommend counseling as a way to get an unbiased perspective to help you along in your journey toward mental wellness. Always remember that “No.” is a complete sentence. We don’t have to explain every course of action we choose to take, especially when that boundary leads us to taking better care of ourselves.

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