"The question is also debated, whether a man should love himself most, or someone else?" -Aristotle
The Greek philosopher Aristotle pointed out the importance of taking care of yourself in order to take care of others. Keeping good boundaries is a critical element of that process. Unfortunately, many people don't set up good boundaries in their family or friendships simply because they don't know how. Over time, this can lead to serious problems.
Boundaries are healthy decisions and standards designed to keep the "good" in and the "bad" out.
Think about the skin on an apple, and how it keeps harmful things outside of the apple while also keeping the sweetness and flavor inside. The boundaries we set in our everyday lives keep the 'sweetness' inside while rejecting the poison and toxin on the outside. Here are some examples:
"Hey I'm sorry but I can't go out tonight. I know you really wanted me to come to the movie but I need to get some sleep for work tomorrow."
"I don't really want to talk about that. I'm sorry I'm just not comfortable yet talking to you about that issue in my life."
These examples above are people using their “no” to protect and care for their own needs, rather than allowing someone else to tell them what to do. Now, two types of boundaries exist: external and internal. While external boundaries deal with the relationships between two people, internal boundaries are those we set on our own hearts and minds. We'll talk a little bit about both.
External boundaries are those that deal with the relationship between you and someone else. The first one every child learns is "NO!" where they openly express their resistance to their parents. While no child should control their parents, this is a healthy stage of development that must be honored and respected.
You might struggle with external boundaries if:
- You have difficulty with conflict/standing up to people
- You tend to always put others before yourself
- You never talk about your problems
- You find it's difficult to 'open up' to others
If you'll look closely, the first and last two bullet points are oddly similar. That's because the first two characteristics refer to people who's boundaries are too small ("Compliants"), while the latter two reference a person who's boundaries are too large ("Avoidants"). Either extreme is unhealthy and will lead to relational turbulence with others, which causes conflict and stress in the relationship.
Having healthy external boundaries starts by affirming the truth that you and your needs matter. Each person is uniquely crafted by God with certain needs that require a specific set of boundaries. Some examples of external boundaries include words, time, emotional distance, physical distance, and truth. As you begin to build different types of boundaries, remember...
Not everyone is going to respect you and your boundaries.
Some people will respect your boundaries, while others will not. This is a critical part of choosing the right relationships to invest in. When someone doesn't respect your boundary, try to help them understand why you are setting it. If they continually display disrespect, it may be time to evaluate if they are someone worth continuing a relationship with.
While external boundaries deal with the relationship between you and others, internal boundaries are those you set on yourself. When I first learned about the concept of internal boundaries, I immediately discovered areas of my own life where I would allow emotions to fester and grow by giving them too much time and headspace.
You might struggle with internal boundaries if:
- You tend to have poor self-control
- You tend to obsess about things/people
- Your schedule never allows for exceptions
- You have trouble feeling your emotions
As with the discussion on external boundaries, the first and last two bullet points go together, the first two highlighting issues with poor internal boundaries and the second two referencing rigid internal boundaries.
Having healthy internal boundaries starts with understanding that we all make poor decisions out of our own wounding. Preventing unhealthy decisions starts with setting internal boundaries to guard our inner child and keep him or her from having too much freedom. Having internal boundaries typically guards against these unhealthy actions by having standards or rules we choose to follow that we know are crucial to our self-care.
In my own life, internal boundaries greatly help me to abstain from indulging in a particular toxic emotion I might be processing. If I am sad and depressed about being left out, or angry with someone for hurting me, I tend to sit and stew in emotions for a long time. Having strong internal boundaries is what allows me to avoid this process by saying: “Hey, Tuck. You’ve felt this for a while. Now we need to go do something different.”
Ultimately, internal boundaries are a way of governing yourself and being true to what you know is right and wise.
Boundaries in friendships and family
This all might seem a bit overwhelming at first, especially if this is your very first time learning about boundaries. It’s quite a bit to take in. Furthermore, as we begin to set internal boundaries with ourselves and external boundaries with others, it can sometimes cause tension and turbulence in current unhealthy relationships.
However, setting healthy boundaries allows healthy patterns to replace previous unhealthy ones. Just yesterday a close friend of mine and I were talking about how to rebuild our somewhat tattered friendship, and agreed to only deal with disagreements over the phone, not text. We established that boundary to protect us both from hurt feelings and miscommunication.
In the family, healthy boundaries keep members from overindulging in relationships, or being too distant. My family had to learn about healthy boundaries when I set them up with my mom, and when I realized I had too many with my dad. I wasn’t letting his love in and I wasn’t protecting myself from some of her issues that were hurting me. Through a gradual construction process, I began to share with both of my parents what my limits were with each of them, and over time we began to grow into a healthier family unit.
Setting both types of boundaries can be challenging. Though this process may seem overwhelming at first, it all happens one step at a time. It begins by understanding the need for restraint and limits, choosing to stand up to others (and yourself), and pursuing standards and rules that will better help to keep the good in, and the bad out.
If you find you may need help in this area, click here for more information on our year-long parents course that begins October 16, where you can uncover specific areas where new boundaries in your family may be required.
"Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership." -Boundaries
To read more about boundaries, check out Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend's book, "Boundaries: when to say yes, when to say no, to take control of your life".
Robert Tucker is the Director of Outreach and Communication at the Institute for Healthy Families. Graduating with an M.A. in Communication from Liberty University, Robert is passionate about using effective communication to help families better understand how be healthy and whole.