If you’re reading this, I think it’s fair to say that you’re looking to boost your emotional health. Good for you, you’re in the right place. Whether you’re in therapy right now, or considering it for the first time it can be hard to know what to expect. We’ve caught up with qualified therapist, reiki master and soon to be shamanic practitioner Sarah Keena to pick her brains on what you can expect – from the first awkward encounter to the red flags, she’s giving us the inside scoop from the other side of the chair. 

At a time where information about mental health has gone from zero to one hundred in less than a few years it’s easy to get overwhelmed. But we’re gung-ho on digesting psychology speak into something that’s a bit easier on the ear so when we chatted to Dublin based therapist Breda Farrell about personal boundaries we went complete novice on her. A ‘boundaries for dummies’ of sorts this one gives you the basics, without the need for so much as a glance in the dictionary.

What are boundaries?

A boundary is a limit, an edge, a border or a barrier and it describes a place where we are asked to stop and go no further. In everyday life we encounter boundaries that ask us to STOP! on a road marking, we see signs saying No Trespassing on private land and signs warning us to Keep Away from dangerous areas. If we apply a boundary to our personal space then we are saying don’t get too close physically and perhaps don’t expect so much from me. This boundary will in most cases be something that we unconsciously engage with and others will ‘feel’ that they must not abuse or bombard us with their needs. The way we behave towards ourselves and others and our habits and use of language will inform others on a conscious or an unconscious level of our beliefs and level of self-worth. 

Often we have little awareness of the lack of a personal boundary and this can lead us to take on too much and we can feel obliged to say yes to things we may not really want to do. Operating from a lack of awareness can cause problems over time. If we have no boundary in place this may be sensed or felt by others and advantage can be taken. A personal boundary is useful to enable us to say “I don’t want to talk about my pain, hurt or shame etc., this type of boundary offers protection from intrusion.

Our boundaries are helpful when we need protection from harmful expectations. However, they can also be rigid and constricting, which may denote an inability to engage socially, romantically or sexually which overtime may contribute to a loneliness that is difficult to endure. Identifying why our boundaries are rigid or fragile can be done with the help of a professional and this can offer more choice in how we engage with our world.

Why do we need them?

Self- protection from intrusive others is one of the important reasons and benefits of setting boundaries. Vulnerability can be difficult to endure and our boundary allows us to limit the introjection or interrogations of others. Imagine the freedom of saying clearly and kindly “I’d rather not talk about this” or “when you do that I feel uncomfortable”. Many of us were taught as children to be polite and do what we’re told, unfortunately we’re not told during our late teens that we now have a choice. If a fragile or frail boundary is modelled to us by our parents or guardians then we will encounter difficulties in building and maintaining our own boundaries.  

 Having a boundary in place that feels right will gives us a sense of autonomy and allows us to make choices. We have agency over our feelings and we won’t be coerced into over-sharing if there is a risk of criticism or judgement and many of us do not respond well to criticism and judgement! Our sense of self-worth will be a factor in whether we believe we deserve to have boundaries and whether we can maintain those boundaries in a healthy way. The healthy use of boundaries can facilitate choice, allow us to engage rationally with others and not become overwhelmed emotionally.

How do I know if I have boundaries?

If you need to get a message across to someone that says ‘this is a deal breaker’ or that you ‘feel uncomfortable’ talking about something, and you feel that you can do this even with some discomfort, then you have a boundary. When you can say no someone with our without discomfort, you have a boundary. Being confident saying yes or no is a sign of a boundary. When we no longer feel we ‘must’ or ‘should’ do something because of the pressure of others, we have a boundary. Mainly, having an awareness of our own needs and being able to assess situations on an emotional and rational level will help us to maintain firm and safe boundaries. Recognising the feelings that come up for you when someone has ‘gone too far’ or expected too much, is a sign that a boundary is good. A boundary that is breached may have the effect of making you angry (irritated, frustrated, fed up). When you know why you’re saying yes or no and are happy with the decision denotes a boundary.

How do I figure out what my boundaries are?

We show others through our actions where our limits are and this can be where the firm or fragile boundary is evident. Telling others what is good for us is important and we may need help to state this clearly. If you find that at times you get angry at yourself for giving in to the demands of others, this is an area that needs some attention. Boundaries need to be defined in terms of personal space, use of our time, the expectations others have of us, sexual boundaries, our tolerance of attitudes and language of others, our equality in terms of employment and the sharing of responsibilities within the family. To set healthy boundaries requires a firm sense of self as gaining self-awareness is an important part of growth. This growth can be facilitated by starting to assess your self-esteem perhaps through a therapeutic relationship.  

 How can we share these with others in a mindful way?

This is a great question and it may be a difficult area for many to navigate. When we are the one who constantly gets the call to help out, are constantly being asked intrusive personal questions or are being taken advantage of emotionally or physically, then our behaviour may seem irrational to others if we react instead of respond. The difference here is where the reaction denotes a furious backlash and the response denotes a considered answer. Becoming enraged due to constant expectations will leave others wondering what’s wrong, as others may not have the same issues with personal space as we do. Learning to build and maintain a boundary is important and then becoming adept at expressing our needs with the boundaries as the backdrop needs to be practiced. If we were not allowed to do this (from childhood) it will be confusing and difficult to put them in place safely now as adults. Help can be found from psychotherapy. 

What are the benefits of boundaries?

  • Being recognised as an individual with needs
  • Feeling safe to express needs
  • Feeling confident with the choices we make 
  • Conscious awareness of our ‘deal breakers’ and the ability to convey them to others
  • Being kindly considered fully by others