How to Improve Relationships Using Boundaries
By Rex Allison, LPC
An air vent filter. A fence. The speed limit. Food preparation guidelines.
What do all of these things have in common? They are all a form of a boundary, setting a standard and expectation for what will be allowed and what won’t be allowed: air can get through but not dust and debris. The tigers are supposed to stay on this side of the fence and not the other. The cars can go this speed, but not any faster. Meat is okay to be consumed at this temperature, but not below it.
We see the benefits in setting boundaries when it comes to the quality of our air or food or keeping wild animals away from the public, but when it comes to boundaries with parents, spouses, children, or coworkers, it’s easy to miss the role they play in building healthy relationships. And a gap in understanding about boundaries can come from many sources like poor examples from earlier in life, misconceptions, or simply a lack of exposure.
In their book “Boundaries,” Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend share this:
“Misinformation about the Bible's answers to these issues has led to much wrong teaching about boundaries. Not only that, but many clinical psychological symptoms, such as depression, anxiety disorders, guilt problems, shame issues, panic disorders, and marital and relational struggles, find their root in conflicts with boundaries.”
Our lives are built on relationships from our family connections, to friends at church, to the work softball league. We were designed to connect and grow together, and when our relationships suffer, we are suffer. So what steps can you take to pursue wholeness in your relationships? You can start by examining your boundaries.
Why Do You Need Boundaries in Relationships?
We’ve already mentioned that no boundaries/poor boundaries mean everything gets in which leads to lower quality of relationships. I also refer to them as “porous relationships.” All sorts of elements like abuse, enmeshment, codependency, and manipulation can enter into a relationship if there is not some boundary to set the expectation of what will be allowed and what won’t be allowed.
But sometimes we need to start even further back than that. The ability to set expectations and boundaries begins with self-awareness and developing internal monitors to gauge how an event or interaction is affecting how you feel. It means paying attention to your emotions.
Self-Awareness and Boundaries
In the book “Boundaries,” Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend also share this:
“Emotions, or feelings, have a function…they are a signal. Fear tells us to move away from danger, to be careful. Sadness tells us that we’ve lost something—a relationship, an opportunity, or an idea. Anger is also a signal…anger tells us that our boundaries have been violated. Much like a nation's radar defense system, angry feelings serve as an "early warning system" telling us we're in danger of being injured or controlled.”
What have your emotions been trying to tell you? For instance, do you find yourself constantly lashing out in anger at your spouse? Did you ignore the signals of irritation and frustration? The stronger your self-awareness of your feeling and emotions is, the better you will be able to articulate the expectations you have in relationships and set healthy boundaries.
If you don’t know how you are feeling, you can’t set expectations.
When working with clients on addressing boundaries in their relationships, an exercise I often give is for them to name ten separate feelings. Beyond the basic, “happy, mad, sad,” clients at first struggle to differentiate the shades of feelings because they haven’t learned to. But the more they learn to pay attention to their emotions and what they are actually feeling, the better they can articulate expectations and set healthier emotions. It’s just like learning any new skill; the more you practice it, the easier it gets.
Clients can gain great ground in their relationships when they first learn to address feelings and how they feed into expectations of the people in their lives and in turn how to shape healthy boundaries.
Do you struggle with boundaries in your relationships? Not sure where to even start? Reach out to Rex today and schedule an appointment and we can get started on the road that leads to freedom and health.
Interested in reading more on this topic? We recommend these resources:
- “Boundaries” by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend
- “Why You Do the Things You Do” by Tim Clinton and Gary Sibcy
- “Hurt People Hurt People” by Sandra D. Wilson