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Personal Boundaries

In the world, boundaries surround us. When driving a car, we drive in our lane defined by yellow and white lines, and when we approach a red light, we have to stop. There are fences between our yards, and there are walls between our apartments. The hotel doesn’t allow us in the pool after 10:00 pm. If we drive too far north, we find ourselves no longer in the United States, but in Canada. Examples are everywhere.

However, our personal boundaries are not always so clear. Recently, a prospective client recently asked to schedule an appointment on an evening that I don’t typically work. I was torn. On the one hand, I want to be available for clients, and I also want my private practice to thrive, which sometimes means I have to be flexible. On the other, I purposely reserve some evenings so that I have balance in my life and so that I am able to spend several evenings throughout the week spending quality time with my wife. I had a difficult decision to make.

Personal boundaries can change from moment to moment and from relationship to relationship. We may feel conflicted when setting a boundary to protect one need impacts our ability to fulfill other needs (for instance, when the prospective client requested the appointment, my professional needs came into conflict with my personal needs). Additionally, if we hold boundaries too loosely, we can merge with others in our lives and lose our identities and deny our own needs as individuals. If we hold boundaries too tightly, we can push people away and lose contact and closeness with those we love.

While it’s fairly easy to know if we’re driving between the lines, sometimes it’s hard to tell if we are keeping healthy personal boundaries. Take some time to consider the following questions:

  • What does it feel like to say “No” to someone you love?

  • Do you ever say “Yes” when you’d prefer to say “No”? In what instances and with whom? Is there a way you could say “No” without damaging the relationship?

  • When a loved one says “No” to you, are your feelings hurt? How about with someone you don’t know very well?

  • How do you react when someone encroaches on your personal space?

  • When others invite you to do something, do you find yourself always saying “Yes” or always saying “No” or struggling to decide?

  • Do you “go with the flow” when making decisions with others?

  • Do you consistently find yourself meeting others’ needs, leaving you feeling exhausted? In what circumstances?

There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers to these questions – they are simply questions that can help you reflect and gain insight into how you keep boundaries. Also, as you might have experienced in answering these questions, when others’ needs have to be considered, especially the needs of those close to us, setting boundaries can be challenging.

In the situation with the prospective client, I decided, with input from my wife, Kelsey, that, because the client needed to schedule at that time for only two weeks and then would be able to switch to a time that worked better for both of us, I would schedule the appointment. Kelsey said she looked forward to a little time on her own, and she planned to go for a run or to go have dinner with a friend. Kelsey and I both agreed that we would go on a special date on the weekend to make up for the time together that we missed.

With careful attention to our needs and feelings and communication with those we love, it is possible to maintain healthy boundaries.

How do know when your boundaries are too rigid or too loose? Join the conversation on Facebook.

To learn more about how therapy can help improve your skills at keeping healthy boundaries (and even improve your relationships), please contact me.

Illustrations by Samanth Land. For inquiries regarding her work, please complete the On Solid Ground Counseling Service's contact form.

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