To be in relationship is to be human. Our most basic drive, attachment theory tells us, is to form close relationships that give us the psychological sustenance to grow emotionally. And like the food that feeds our body, the need for relationships never diminishes.
But like all phenomena that offer gifts, relationships can also bring us considerable stress and pain. We don’t just magically fall into a relationship that simply works for us. They require ongoing effort. Frictions develop that need to be addressed; misunderstandings abound; painful differences emerge.
An important part of the relational work is the co-creation of boundaries that define a particular relationship.
“I’ve overextended myself again. I just can’t say ‘no.’ I get so mad at myself when this happens.”
“He had a few drinks and started flirting with me. It made me really uncomfortable so I excused myself and kept my distance from him the rest of the party.”
“I know my pattern. I get really excited about a guy and I open up quickly and make myself vulnerable right away. Then the guy gets scared off and everything screeches to a halt.”
“It felt good to help her out. I usually say no when people ask me for help, but saying yes felt like the right thing to do.”
Boundaries are a part of all relationships. They are the psychological dividing lines that influence our accessibility, communication, and emotional openness with others. They dictate what we give to others and what we allow in.
These boundaries cannot be seen or touched, and when the relationship is proceeding smoothly, they often recede into the background. They enter the foreground when a relationship is new or when a boundary in an established relationship is pushed against or tested in some way.
In short, boundaries are the rules of engagement between two people.
It’s easy to see the role that boundaries play in our relationships. To varying degrees, all relationships come with certain freedoms and restrictions. For example, we may feel comfortable expressing our affections and feelings to certain people but not others; only a select few may know about our personal struggles; certain relationships are more formal, involving little personal sharing.
What shapes our psychological boundaries?
We inhabit numerous roles in our lives: Boss, coworker/colleague, parent, spouse/partner, sibling, friend, acquaintance… And the rules of engagement (and therefore the boundaries formed) for each of these relationships differ considerably. These rules shape the focus and objectives of conversation, the level of personal self-disclosure, for instance.
How do the different roles you play throughout the day impact what you share about yourself?
The values we hold are our guiding principles, the ideals of how we want to live and engage with others. If, for instance, acts of service are a prioritized value, then your accessibility to others will be heightened. You might be less likely to say “no” to requests for help than someone whose boundary-setting isn’t shaped by this value.
What values are at work in shaping the boundaries of the important relationships in your life?
While context is made up of the external conditions that shape relationships, intentions (both conscious and unconscious) are the internal directionals that impact how we are with others. For instance, you might have the intention to “win over” a new colleague because you see her/him as an asset to your own advancement. Or if you value intelligence, you might be motivated to appear smart or engage in conversations that feed this part of you.
Our intentions are shaped by our values, but just as importantly, they can arise from our deepest insecurities and emotional conflicts. In the example above, the desire to appear intellectually savvy might drive someone who feels inadequate. In this example, the underlying intention is to boost one’s self-esteem by being perceived as intelligent, even if this type of overt behavior is off-putting and alienates others. (Few people have patience, long-term, for a watch-me-prove-how-smart-I-am! persona.)
Are you aware of your motives (what your intentions are) and how they influence your behaviors?
Relationship boundaries are also shaped by our comfort with emotional closeness and the topic of discussion. Feelings of discomfort may be an indication that one of your core values is being violated. For instance, if you value respect and justice, you might become uncomfortable and disengage from someone whose sense of humor you find offensive.
It’s not uncommon for us to remain silent or change the topic of discussion when someone is saying or doing something that makes us feel uneasy; this subtle (or maybe not so subtle) interpersonal maneuver helps to establish boundaries that demarcate what is allowed and what is off-limits in a particular relationship.
How do you use your feelings of comfort-discomfort to establish limits in a relationship?
Boundaries aren’t arbitrary. They are a reflection of our values, our commitment to self and others, and what feels right at any given moment. It is empowering to set boundaries that represent us. And it can be unsettling when we fail to do so.
Those of us who have difficulty setting boundaries (i.e., you always say “yes” even when it’s in your best interest to say “no”) can feel emotionally depleted, resentful of those who request things from us and angry with ourselves for failing to advocate for ourselves.
And just like having boundaries that are too porous, the opposite, having boundaries that are inflexible and rigid can also cost us emotionally. Boundaries that close us off from genuine emotional contact can make us feel deeply alone, no matter how many people we have in our lives.
If your goal is to be more empowered in co-creating relational boundaries, understanding how context/role, values, intention and emotional comfort impact this process is a good place to start.
Until next time,
Rich Nicastro, Ph.D.
Psychologist, Georgetown, Texas