For the second week of Mental Health Month, we're addressing a topic many of us struggle with— boundaries. Just as we have physical boundaries around our properties, for example a fence, it is also important to have physical and emotional boundaries around ourselves. These barriers help define who we are and what we will take responsibility for in our lives and the lives of others. Jerry Davis, Ph.D., clinical programs manager, Parkview Behavioral Health, explains why setting limits is so important for our mental health.
Why boundaries are important for our development
The first important stage in our human development is the need to belong or feel connected to someone. This is often referred to as attachment. When we have secure attachments we are able to:
- Feel understood and connected.
- Begin to understand a sense of our developing self.
- Learn to relate to others at a deep level.
- Develop a secure, safe base for future relationships.
The second significant stage in development is being able to see ourselves as different from others. This is called separation or individuation. This is the boundaries stage. When we learn to separate and set healthy boundaries we learn to:
- Move away from childhood dependency.
- Develop a sense of how we are alike and different from others.
- Develop a sense of self that allows us to be independent.
- Define what we will choose and what we will not choose.
- Define what we will tolerate and what we will not tolerate.
Why boundaries are important in relationships
A visual illustration may be helpful in understanding the importance of boundaries. Imagine yourself as a castle: a beautiful stone structure, well cared for with a moat surrounding your property. The moat is your boundary, your protection. It protects you from potential enemies that may want to harm you. Your castle has a drawbridge that you control. You are in control of who crosses your moat and enters your castle.
Individuals without boundaries allow the drawbridge to always be down and leave the entrance of the castle (their self) open to anyone who wants to enter. When we set healthy boundaries we make decisions about who we let into our properties, what rooms we allow them to enter and how long they are permitted to stay. Below are some examples of unhealthy and healthy boundaries:
- Giving too much time and attention to any one person.
- Going against your values, beliefs and practices to please another person.
- Allowing others to manipulate you through guilt or other means.
- Over-disclosing to someone about a personal area of your life.
- Taking on the responsibility to solve the problem of another person.
- Setting and keeping appropriate limits on your time and attention in relationships.
- Maintaining a lifestyle of honesty and integrity in all of your relationships.
- Being honest with others about their use of guilt while maintaining your boundaries.
- Using appropriate self-disclosure based on the length and depth of the relationship.
- Clearly defining your role in assisting others with their problems.
Setting healthy boundaries does not mean you don’t care about others. The practice of healthy boundaries is one way to care for others as well as yourself. It also helps you and others heal and grow. When we set limits, we can’t expect others to readily accept the changes we are implementing. Remember, it is not your responsibility to make sure others understand them. You simply must speak the truth in love and explain why they are important for you and for them. Setting healthy boundaries is an essential practice for good mental health.