WE HEAR ABOUT BOUNDARIES ALL THE TIME.
WE KNOW WE HAVE TO HAVE THEM.
WE KNOW WE HAVE TO RESPECT THEM.
BUT DO WE ACTUALLY KNOW WHAT BOUNDARIES ARE?
In our relationships, boundaries are the lines that separate “us” from “other”. If these invisible lines are weak, we put ourselves at risk for taking on too much stress from other people. This can lead to anxiety and burnout. If our boundaries are too rigid, we can feel disconnected and out of touch with the people we love. By taking a look at the boundaries in our relationships, we can decide whether we’re letting people in too much or not enough.
Let’s Make This a Little Clearer
When I talk with clients about interpersonal boundaries, I like to use the the metaphor of backyard fences. Imagine that interpersonal boundaries are the kind of fences that we would put between our own backyard and the backyard of someone in our lives.
Here are a few examples:
- When I meet a stranger on the street, the kind of fence I would have with this person is a 10-foot brick wall. I don’t know what’s happening on their side of the wall, and they don’t know what’s happening on my side. If a dog fight broke out in their backyard, I would not be at risk in any way and I probably wouldn’t even know about it.
- With a coworker, I might have a 6-foot board on board fence. We can see through the fence if we get up close but we also have a good amount of privacy. If a dog fight breaks out in their backyard, I might hear it and I can call for help but my safety is not at risk.
- With a close friend or a family member, I might have a 3-foot picket fence. I can see what’s going on in their backyard and they can see what’s going on in mine. If a dog fight breaks out in their backyard, I’m going to see it and hear it. The picket fence might provide a little protection, but there’s a chance those dogs can jump over to my side, so I’m definitely not going to feel relaxed.
- With my husband, I’d say that I probably have one of those 1-foot tall decorative wire fences that you’d see in a garden. It’s a clear dividing line between his backyard and mine, but if a dog fight breaks out in his backyard, I’m absolutely going to be impacted.
This may be a silly metaphor, but the visual representation of boundaries can actually be pretty helpful. If you’re finding yourself losing sleep at night because your coworker is getting a divorce and your college friend is going through a bad breakup, you might need to evaluate whether the fences in your life are adequate. On the flip side, if you’re feeling lonely and disconnected from the people in your life and you’re not able to communicate, you might need to think about whether the fences in your life are excessive.
Be sure to check our next post where we'll discuss healthy boundaries in romantic relationships.
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