I have been a counselor educator and a therapist in private practice for 40 years. Like many beginning counselors I wanted people to feel better and to solve their own dilemmas. I followed the mantra, “I’m not happy until you’re happy.”
That may have been fine except that I had relatively poor boundaries. I got caught up in other people’s problems and treated them as if they were my own. I was not protecting myself from being manipulated and used. I was not recognizing that I had a right to my own personal boundaries. I ignored the fact that boundaries filter out what is acceptable in my life and what is not.
The reason I ignored my boundaries is complex. It had to do with my belief about being accommodating, helpful, unable to say no, and wanting to be liked.
Learning about self:
First, I had to affirm my own needs. I knew that people with weak boundaries tend to have a low awareness of their own needs. So, I made an inventory of my needs and beliefs. I discovered that I had put my own needs further back on the shelf than the needs of other people.
If you want to assess your own boundaries I suggest you affirm your needs. It will help you set “a line in the sand,” as it were. Begin by looking at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For example, evaluate your need for belonging and acceptance. Examine how well you have satisfied your need to love and be loved as well as be respected and have self-respect. The question is to what extent are your boundaries helping or hindering the satisfaction of your needs.
So why is it important to have boundaries? It’s important because healthy personal boundaries help maintain a positive self-concept. It’s important because I can take better care of myself and not allow other people to define who I am.
Types of personal boundaries:
Personal boundaries come in three brackets. Boundaries can be rigid, porous or healthy. In reality, healthy boundaries can be a little rigid and porous depending upon the context.
Healthy: You have healthy boundaries if you: (1) value your own opinion, (2) don’t compromise your values for other people, (3) appropriately share personal information, (4) are accepting of others when they say no to you.
Rigid: You have rigid boundaries if you: (1) avoid intimacy and close relationships, (2) usually don’t ask for help, (3) have few close relationships, (4) may seem detached, (5) distance yourself to avoid rejection.
Porous: You have porous boundaries if you: (1) over-share personal information, (2) have difficulty saying no to the requests of others, (3) get overinvolved with other’s problems, (4) tolerate abuse or disrespect.
You need to keep in mind that the appropriateness of boundaries depends heavily on the setting. What is appropriate when you are out with friends may not be appropriate when you’re at work. Cultures have different expectations of boundaries. For example, some cultures do not express emotions publicly while others cultures do.
Establishing healthy personal boundaries:
I decided that setting healthy boundaries was important especially since I continued being a counselor educator and a therapist. I had to maintain the boundary between myself, my students, and my clients.
Trust and believe in myself. I had to recognize that I was the highest authority on myself. I knew what I needed, wanted, and valued. I recognized that healthy boundaries allowed me to take better care of myself – emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually.
My needs and feelings are as important as other people’s needs and feelings. This was a difficult lesson for me to learn for two reasons. First, the spiritual lessons in my youth expected me to put other people first. Second, modeling from my parents supported the belief that we should care for our fellow man. I didn’t go so far as to believe that my life should be sacrificed, however, I thought whenever possible I should try to put other people first.
Learn to say no. Unfortunately, I have been a people pleaser which early on in my career put me at a disadvantage. I had put my personal needs on the back burner. I learned that a certain amount of “selfishness” is necessary for healthy personal boundaries.
I have a right to personal boundaries. I need to take responsibility for how I allow others to treat me. I recognize that boundaries are filters that permit what is acceptable in life and what is not acceptable. My boundaries protect and define me. I need to set clear and decisive limits that others can respect.
Signs of unhealthy boundaries:
Here are some brief statements that reflect unhealthy boundaries.
Give as much as you can for the sake of giving; Take as much as you can for the sake of taking; Feel guilty when you say no; Don’t speak up when you are treated poorly; and Touch a person without asking.
It’s important for all of us to have personal boundaries. They dictate how we approach relationships with friends and acquaintances. Our boundaries help us live in-tune with our desires, needs, and feelings. We can say no to the things that we don’t want to do and yes to the things that we want to do.
Clearly established boundaries help us to take care of ourselves emotionally, physically and spiritually. Our boundaries help us to become less concerned about how we are viewed and more satisfied with the perceptions we have of ourselves.
I am professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Kearney where for 30 years I taught classes in counseling theories, counseling methods, group counseling, practicum, and psychodrama. In addition to my current book, One Hand Clapping (2015) I wrote Counseling and Drama: Psychodrama A’ Deux in (2009) which was translated into Mandarin and published in Taiwan in 2013. I welcome your comments.