What can protect you from toxic people, keep painful memories in their place, keep you safe and strong, and help you manage your feelings?
Truly, boundaries are amazing. And good ones are a cornerstone of mental health.
When you grow up in a household that has healthy boundaries, you naturally have them yourself as an adult. But unfortunately, many of us don’t start out with that advantage.
If you grew up in a household with Childhood Emotional Neglect (your feelings and emotional needs weren’t met enough), or if you had a parent with a personality disorder, you may be specially challenged in this area.
Without strong but flexible boundaries, you may be overly vulnerable to criticism or insults from others, you may struggle to manage your feelings internally or prone to emotional outbursts, you may find yourself worrying too much, dwelling on the past, or not keeping yourself safe enough.
People with Childhood Emotional Neglect often have an overly rigid Internal Boundary, which blocks off their emotions too completely. So they can come across to others as excessively unflappable, or even emotionally bland.
If one of your parents had a personality disorder, your Internal and External Boundaries may be overly porous, or too flexible, resulting in emotional outbursts and difficulty managing your feelings.
The hallmark of a healthy boundary is strong but flexible.
As adults, one of the best things we can do for ourselves is understand boundaries, and work on building them for ourselves.
Here are The Four Types of Essential Boundaries:
- Physical Boundary: This boundary is the easiest to visualize and understand, and has been the most studied. Research indicates that the average American requires about two feet of personal space in front, and 18” behind them to be comfortable. Jerry Seinfeld made this boundary funny when he featured the “close talker” on his show. But actually the physical boundary is more than just space. It can be violated by people whose touch is unwelcome, or by someone who feels physically threatening to you. Your boundary tells you when to set limits and when to protect yourself, by making you feel uncomfortable.
- External Boundary: This boundary must be strong but flexible. It serves as a filter that protects you from insults and injuries that come from the outside. When you receive criticism at work; when your spouse tells you she’s angry at you; when a driver calls you an obscene name, or when your sister calls you “selfish,” this boundary kicks in. It talks you through what the other person said or did to you, and helps you sort out what’s real feedback that you should take seriously, and what you should reject.
- Internal Boundary: This is the boundary which protects you (and others) from yourself. It serves as a filter between your feelings, and what you do with them. This boundary helps you sort through your intense anger, hurt and pain, and decide whether, and how, to express it.
- Temporal Boundary: We all carry our past experiences within us. And we can often tend to dwell on them in a way that is not helpful. On top of that, old feelings often attach themselves to current experiences, and emerge when we least expect them. This is why people blow up over burnt toast, for example. It’s also easy to give the future too much power over us. Spending too much time thinking about, imagining, worrying about, or dreading the future can cause anxiety and prevent us from living in the moment. Your temporal boundary senses when you’re going too far back or forward, and pulls you back.
I know what you’re thinking: “OK, that’s great. Mine are not so good. How do I make them better?”
Here’s an exercise to help you create and strengthen your boundaries. First, choose one of the above four types that you’re going to build. Then follow these steps:
Six Step Boundary Building Exercise
- Close your eyes, and count to ten in your head, while breathing deeply and calmly.
- Imagine yourself surrounded by a circle. You are in the exact center, surrounded by the exact amount of space that you feel most comfortable with.
- Turn the circle into a visible wall. That wall can be made out of anything you like: clear or opaque plastic, bricks, smooth cement or something else. It can be anything you want, as long as it’s strong.
- Although the wall is strong, you and only you have the power to flex it when you want. You can remove a brick or soften the plastic to allow things inside the wall or out of the wall whenever you need to. You hold all the power. You are safe.
- Stay inside the wall for a minute. Enjoy the feeling of being in control of your world.
- Repeat this exercise once-a-day.
Now there’s one more important key to using your new boundary.
Eventually your boundary will operate naturally. But in the beginning, you will have to consciously use it. It helps, especially in the beginning, to try to anticipate situations in which you will need, and can practice using, your boundary.
Let’s say you’re going to visit your parents and you know that, at some point during the visit, your father will make an offhand comment implying that you have disappointed him (because he always does).
For this challenge, you’ll need primarily your External Boundary, to filter out your father’s comment and disempower it. You may also need your Internal Boundary, if you want to manage your own response to his comment. So right before you go, sit down and follow the above steps to get your External and/or Internal Boundary firmly in place.
At your parents’ house, wait for your dad’s comment to come. If it does, immediately picture your boundary around you, filtering for you. The filter asks,
What part of this is valuable feedback that I should take in, and what part of it says more about the speaker?
Your boundary tells you this:
None of this is valuable. Your father’s comment is all about him, not you.
And there you are. You hold all the power. You are safe.