Healthy Boundaries in Relationships

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Having “Healthy Boundaries” is a concept I hear thrown around a lot by people who’ve had experiences in therapy, my fellow clinicians, and even pop culture/media these days.  It is also, unfortunately, an often misrepresented and misunderstood concept, in my experience.  What exactly is “healthy” about a “boundary”, and how does one diagnose a boundary as healthy or not?  And who is in a position to make this judgment in the first place?  Is it really about keeping a firm distance between yourself and others and why would we even want this?  How can having a “boundary” create closeness with others? What a paradox!

 In the most basic sense, I define a personal boundary in interpersonal relationships as the space that gives you time to think, process, and then act/react to any given interaction.  This space, as it were, is invisible, intangible, and often times intolerable for a person who struggles with issues like anxiety, depression, addiction, and co-dependence.  People who are challenged with mood imbalances, addiction to substances, food, overspending, gambling, negative and toxic relationships, or other compulsive behaviors often have real and understandable difficulties with good decision making when it comes to interpersonal relationships.  Decisions in this arena are often made quickly and impulsively and I feel it has something to do with this whole idea of boundaries.  Whether you keep too much space between yourself and others isolating yourself and/or disregarding the needs of others or are so enmeshed with others that you wear yourself thin trying to meet the apparent ceaseless demands of loved ones and even total strangers, you would do well to consider this whole idea of healthy boundaries and how they impact your life and relationships.

I see people in my practice every day that have a difficult time distinguishing between their own thoughts and feelings and those of their parents, partners, bosses, etc.  It is a subtle shift that happens in therapeutic work when one can become aware of her/his own internal voice and start to tune into it in an active way to identify needs, thoughts, feelings that are coming from within rather than being fed from an external source.  

Example: A woman struggling with chronic anxiety and depression who is having fantasies about either leaving her husband and/or having an affair starts to “tune in” to the reality that she resents having given up a career to stay at home and raise her children.  During the course of treatment, she starts to understand that the choice to leave her career was influenced by her perception that her partner had an expectation that she fulfill a role in the home, though he never explicitly verbalized this idea.  Maybe she doesn’t run right back into the workforce, but she starts to consider the impact of this resentment she now has with her husband on their current lack of physical intimacy and her thoughts of leaving the relationship.  Over time, she can identify the resentment and start to actually feel it, process it, and express it in healthy ways so she can remain in her marriage with the goal of forming a stronger bond with a partner whom she began to consciously and unconsciously blame for her discontent.  Ultimately, she discovers that she can take responsibility for her decision to leave her career, but finds new empowerment to re-discover her career when possible having shared this need with her partner and exploring in a more open way her options given the discovery that her career outside of the home is an important need for her to fulfill in her life.

The therapeutic relationship can serve as the “space” I mentioned earlier where we discover, often for the first time, our truest thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.  As a clinician, I have the privilege of witnessing this process and helping facilitate the type of change that can having lasting effects on a person’s life and well being. 

Posted by Samantha Wright Wakach, LCSW

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