Almost every client I see is finding it hard to get a good balance between independence and intimacy in their relationships. Some feel that they are a ‘walk-over ‘ with their partner, their mother or their teenage children, others find it hard to get close, and push others away, usually for fear of getting hurt.
Personal boundaries are the limits we set in our relations with others. They may be too low, in which case, anyone can step over them, or too high, which prevents anyone getting near us. We may have entirely forgotten how to say ‘No’, and feel at the mercy of what everyone, husband or wife, friends, parents, in-laws, thinks we should do. If you feel that you have to please everybody, then it’s probably time to think about your personal boundaries and whether by constantly worrying about what your nearest and dearest want, you are forgetting to look after your own needs.
Good personal boundaries are limits that you set so that you can relate to those you love, and to others, without feeling engulfed by their needs. You make those around you aware that you need to have personal time and thinking space; that you have values and beliefs that are different from theirs; your separateness reflects who you are, it includes all the things about you which make you lovable, and it makes you able to love others in return.
Good boundaries mean not always agreeing to do things immediately, recognising that when you say ‘no’ you won’t always please your friend or partner, but that feeling able to disagree, to not ‘join in’, to change your mind, is essential for your sense of self and is part of what being a healthy adult means. Those who are close to us may react with surprise and displeasure the first time we behave in an ‘out of character’ way, but they will soon get used to you being different and will learn to respect your boundaries. If they don’t, then you can quietly suggest that it’s time they did!
Weak personal boundaries are often the result of needing to please a difficult parent as a child; we learn our habits and our reactions when we are young, but once we understand the roots of our behaviour, we can begin to respond to demands on us like an adult rather than as a dependent, powerless child. Boundaries which are too strong, and push others away, also often begin in childhood and develop to protect us from getting hurt yet again. We also sometimes build a big, high wall around ourselves when we get hurt in an adult relationship, and it can take time to rebuild trust in those we want to love.
A good counsellor can help you look at why you have difficulty setting personal limits, or why you distance yourself from those you love. Understanding where your need to keep everybody happy, or alternatively your fear of intimacy comes from, is the first step in developing a healthy, comfortable adult self, able to love and be close, but also to make independent decisions which protect your mental and physical health. It’s much easier to have good boundaries with a friend, of course, than it is with a partner, and I’ll look at how to negotiate comfortable boundaries with a partner next time.