Research Paper By Carol Surban
(Leadership Coach, PHILIPPINES)
Setting Boundaries: What They Are & What Prevents Us From Setting Them
I’d estimate at least half of my frustrations with others are actually frustrations with myself for failing to set clear boundaries and stand by them.- James Clear (Clear, 2020)
People come to coaching for countless reasons, but after more than a year of coaching clients both inside and outside of organizations, I’ve noticed a recurring theme with many of them.
They struggle to identify, set, and hold healthy boundaries in their lives. Setting healthy and sustainable boundaries has also been a recurring challenge in my own life. At different times and in different contexts, I’ve heard trusted people in my life say something to the effect of “You need to set some boundaries around that.” I’ve even admonished myself for letting something happen that I was not happy about just to be able to keep the peace.
What makes setting boundaries so challenging for me and my clients and how can we get better at this vitally important life skill?
Getting to know and understand boundaries, what they are, how they work and the challenges to setting healthy ones are the focus of this paper. I’ll be exploring the various types of boundaries and by looking at other models and theories, explore the barriers to setting healthy boundaries.
What Are Boundaries?
To begin to understand what boundaries are, it’s helpful to define what a boundary is. In general terms, a boundary is “a real or imagined line that marks the limits or edges of something and separates it from other things or places” (Boundary).
In the context of personal development, interpersonal relationships, and coaching, it is an imagined line that creates limits between people. In her book Set Boundaries, Find Peace, therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab defines boundaries as “expectations and needs that help you feel safe and comfortable in your relationships” (Tawwab, 2021, p. 5). Tawwab further explains that boundaries help individuals by creating clarity, defining roles in relationships, communicating what is and is not acceptable in relationships, safeguarding against overextending oneself, and are a way to communicate our needs to others (Tawwab, 2021, p. 7).
The Canadian Mental Health Association’s Building Better Boundaries workbook further expands on the important role that boundaries play in a healthy life. The workbook sees boundaries as being able to help a person define their identity, protect against violators, bring order in regulating things like demands, responsibilities, opportunities, and pleasures, protect yourself from the control of others, preserve your purpose and mission, protect your personal assets such as your knowledge, body, skills, and abilities and also to satisfy your need for self-confirmation by defining you and your personality (The Self Help Alliance, p. 7). In short, boundaries allow individuals to protect themselves and the people and things they care about most.
There are several advantages to maintaining healthy boundaries, such as well mental and emotional health, developed autonomy and identity, the ability to influence others’ behavior, and being able to avoid burnout (Selva, 2021). Conversely, a lack of boundaries can create a negative impact on a person’s life. This impact can include, “loss of respect from self and others, loss of control of the direction of your life, increased chaos, distractions, and guilt, and loss of interest in life” (The Self Help Alliance, p. 7). Over time “unmet goals and the stress of chaos can lead to hopelessness, depression or anxiety” (The Self Help Alliance, p. 7). Not setting healthy boundaries can also mean “the same issues will reappear over and over again, following us from relationship to relationship” (Tawwab, 2021, p. 7).
While relationships are definitely at the heart of most issues with boundaries, it’s important to recognize that there are many areas of our lives where boundaries are needed. The most common ones are family, work, romance, friendships, and technology ((Tawwab, 2021, p. 22). The six most common types of boundaries are physical (personal space and physical touch), sexual, intellectual (thoughts and ideas), emotional (one’s feelings and how you choose to share them), material (one’s possessions), and time (managing one’s time and allowing others to use one’s time) (Tawwab, 2021, p. 67). Of these boundary types, “time is the boundary area that people tend to struggle with the most” (Tawwab, 2021, p. 75).
Boundaries also vary in how strong they are because they exist on a spectrum from porous to rigid. “Porous boundaries are weak or poorly expressed and are unintentionally harmful” while “rigid boundaries involve building walls to keep others out as a way to keep yourself safe.” (Tawwab, 2021 p. 10-11). Healthy boundaries exist somewhere on that spectrum depending on the situation and the individuals involved and “require an awareness of your emotional, mental, and physical capacities, combined with clear communication” (Tawwab, 2021, p. 11-12).
Challenges to Setting Healthy Boundaries: The Change Triangle
The well-intended advice from others that I should “set some boundaries” seems logical and straightforward in many ways. I would just need to ask myself the following questions. What area of my life needs boundaries? What am I protecting by this boundary? How porous or rigid does this boundary need to be healthy? Once those questions are answered, then it is a matter of setting that boundary and getting on with things. Simple, right? It would be if there weren’t challenges. When it comes to setting and holding boundaries, there can be quite a few challenges that surface and complicate the process. The three main reasons we fail to set healthy boundaries are fear, guilt, and not knowing how. A person’s fear can be about the fear of rejection as well as the fear of confrontation (Selva, 2021).
In her book It’s Not Always Depression, Hilary Jacobs Hendel describes a model she calls the Change Triangle. It is “a map of the mind” that “takes you from a distressed state to calm and clarity.” (Hendel, 2018, p. 15). The triangle consists of three corners covering defenses, inhibitory emotions, and core emotions.
When thinking about the barriers to setting boundaries, all three main barriers (fear, guilt, and not knowing) can be found on the Change Triangle. Fear is found in the core emotion corner. Guilt is found in the inhibitory emotions corner. Not knowing how is a result of staying stuck in the defenses, inhibitory emotions, core emotions, or some combination of all three corners. We’ll look next at how these barriers show up in the Change Triangle.
Defenses are ways that we avoid the important work of feeling our emotions. They “cause us to feel trapped, inhibited, limited, and unable to reach our potential. Defenses force us to live in extremes of black and white, good or bad, where life lacks nuance. Too many defenses make it hard to wholeheartedly engage in life. Additionally, defenses swing us into extremes of acting out in self-destructive ways” (Hendel, 2018, p. 21).
Hendel provides a long list of common defenses and many of them are used as a reactive way of dealing with situations where healthy boundaries should be. Those defenses include joking, sarcasm, smiling, laughing, worrying, ruminating, vagueness, eye-rolling, mumbling, not talking, spacing out, criticizing, perfectionism, procrastination, irritability, negative thinking, judging others, judging ourselves, misguided aggression, working too much, numbness, helplessness, overeating, obsessing, and addictions (Hendel, 2018, p. 20). Tawwab also highlights several behaviors we do to avoid setting boundaries that include moving away, gossiping, complaining, avoiding, and cutting off from others (Tawwab, Page 42)
Where defenses help us avoid feeling, inhibitory emotions “are a special set of emotions that block core emotions. Sometimes we block core emotions to get along with others and sometimes we block core emotions because they overwhelm us” (Hendel, 2018, p. 17). The three main inhibitory emotions are anxiety, guilt, and shame.
While guilt is one of the three common barriers to setting boundaries that we discussed above, anxiety and shame can play powerful roles as well and it is not hard to see what role being anxious or feeling ashamed might play in a person deciding to not set a boundary. For example, a person might feel anxious about setting a boundary with a boss around the boss’s expectation that employees should respond to emails during non-work hours. A person’s past behavior of not setting boundaries around spending money may make them feel ashamed and prevent them from acknowledging the issue and setting boundaries going forward. Guilt comes in because “Many people experience guilt for putting their needs before someone else’s” even though “consistently prioritizing the needs of others is not good for our mental health, nor is it good for our relationships, as it breeds resentment” (Hendel, 2018, p. 187).
The third corner of the Change Triangle is core emotions. The seven core emotions are fear, anger, sadness, disgust, joy, excitement, and sexual excitement (Hendel, 2018, p. 5). Fear can be a demotivator for setting boundaries if a person is afraid of rejection or confrontation. On the other hand, anger can be a result of boundaries being violated, whether those boundaries were communicated or not. “Anger is a solid fallback if no one is supporting us. It is a fairly safe and self-protective resource. It cuts short vulnerability and creates boundaries, facilitating survival in difficult situations” (Peyton, 2017, p. 132). Anger is not a single monolithic emotion, but exists on a continuum ranging from dissatisfied to irritated, exasperated, resentful, and aggravated all the way too outraged, irate, furious, enraged, and livid (Peyton, 2017, p. 138).
Anger in all of its varieties can be a powerful tool of self-awareness for starting to recognize when boundaries have been violated. That nagging feeling of dissatisfaction with a service you received or those persistent feelings of irritation towards a coworker is a clear indicator that a boundary, whether set or not, has been crossed. To get the benefits and gifts from our anger, we need to be able to feel it and process it. Hendel sums up well what we get from recognizing, processing, and appropriately using our anger:
“If we cannot feel our anger, we cannot protect ourselves with appropriate and adaptive actions, such as saying no and setting limits and boundaries for how people can treat us. What works best for us is having access to anger and learning how to channel it constructively. We do this by forming a healthy relationship with it. We must confront any fears we have of our anger and learn their origin. We need to work through any conflicts we have with the concept of anger. Lastly, we need to learn how to assert ourselves effectively. This leads to confidence and comfort in taking risks with other people.” (Hendel, 2018, p. 130)
You can forge an intimate relationship with anger. By imagining moving the anger to your backbone, you can assert needs, question others about their intent to cause hurt, and set limits and boundaries. Using the strength and force of assertion, not aggression, you can firmly, yet kindly, communicate your wants and needs with more calm to ensure that you will be heard.” (Hendel, 2018, p. 133)
When core emotions are not expressed, they get channeled through inhibitory emotions or defenses, and the healthy action of setting and communicating boundaries never happens. Learning to recognize and process emotions makes it possible and likely that a person will do the work of setting and holding healthy boundaries.
Challenges to Setting Healthy Boundaries: Lack of Self-Compassion
If unprocessed core emotions get in the way of setting and holding healthy boundaries, how does one process core emotions and move to action? Safety is a big key to being able to process emotions, especially heavier ones like fear and anger. There is the concern of external safety: Is it safe to feel these feelings here and now? There is also the concern of internal safety: Is there enough warmth and resonance within ourselves to be able to experience our emotions without internal criticisms and/or pivoting to inhibitory emotions or defenses on the Change Triangle? This warmth and resonance can best be called self-compassion and our capacity to have self-compassion means we are better able to experience and process our core emotions more effectively.
Compassion for others includes three components. The first is noticing the suffering of others. The second is to feel moved by that suffering so that there is a desire to help in some way. This can also mean offering understanding and kindness instead of judgment and criticism. The last component is recognizing that the suffering, imperfections, and failures of others are part of our shared humanity and experience (self-compassion.org, 2020).
Self-compassion takes compassion and turns those three components inward on ourselves. In Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy: Deepening Mindfulness in Clinical Practice, renowned compassion expert Kristin Neff, describes self-compassion as follows:
“Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than flagellating ourselves with self-criticism. It recognizes that being imperfect and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so we soothe and nurture ourselves when confronting our pain rather than getting angry when life falls short of our ideals. We clearly acknowledge our problems and shortcomings without judgment, so we can do what’s necessary to help ourselves. We can’t always get what we want. We can’t always be who we want to be. When this reality is denied or resisted, suffering arises in the form of stress, frustration, and self-criticism. When this reality is accepted with benevolence, however, we generate positive emotions of kindness and care that help us cope.” (self-compassion.org, 2020)
The three elements of self-compassion are self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness (self-compassion.org, 2020). For those not accustomed to setting healthy boundaries, developing greater compassion and self-compassion is often the first step in the process. Making the shift from the judgment of self and others to kindness and understanding for self and others can open up a greater willingness to engage in the work of creating and setting boundaries to help decrease or alleviate the pain and suffering a person has been experiencing. If the voice inside a person’s head denies the suffering or is critical and judgemental of the suffering, it becomes that much harder to recognize the need for a boundary and to put the effort into creating one. Self-compassion lets people acknowledge that they have pain and feel more positive emotions like kindness and care towards themselves.
That access to those more positive emotions is instrumental in moving from the pain and suffering of not having healthy boundaries to taking the action necessary to set them. This process of feeling more positive emotions and then moving into more positive action is best explained by the broadening and build theory found in positive psychology.
This theory, developed by social psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, suggests that positive emotions like confidence, hope, and anticipation can “broaden one’s awareness and encourage novel, exploratory thoughts and actions” that over time will create a “broadened behavioral repertoire” that “builds useful skills and psychological resources” (Broaden-and-build, 2021). On the other hand, “negative emotions narrow thought-action repertoires” (Celestine, 2021) and can keep a person stuck with behaviors and situations they don’t want in their life.
Experiencing the positive emotions generated by having self-compassion can help create what Fredrickson calls an “upward spiral” of positive emotions that can lead to greater resiliency and coping skills, both of which can aid in the setting of healthy boundaries. Below are some of the benefits of experiencing positive emotions that can directly impact a person’s ability to set healthy boundaries.
- Increased creativity
- Being able to better see the "big picture"
- Improve psychological resilience
- Increase your coping resources
- Put negative emotions in a broader context
- Being able to be more optimistic about the future by noticing the change
- Increase feelings of well-being
- Improve the ability to bounce back from setbacks
- Perceiving yourself as wise and operating from a place of wisdom
- Greater social integration
- Greater tolerance for distress
- Better emotion regulation (Cuncic, A. 2021)
In light of what this research has shown me, I have to chuckle at the well-intentioned advice to “set some boundaries around that.” Like most things in life, boundaries are more complicated than they first appear and what can seem like an easy fix may in fact involve a great deal of personal inner-work first. The ability to meet ourselves with warmth and resonance is often the first skill one needs to learn before effective boundaries can be created. We have to be able to hear our pain and discomfort and feel our emotions for ourselves before we can articulate and express them to others in the form of healthy boundaries. As noted spiritual leader and activist Marianne Williamson has said, “No one will listen to us until we listen to ourselves.”
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