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The Beauty of Boundaries by Tamsyn Rippon

Boundaries help define who we are. They can signal to the world what we don’t want, but also what we do need in our lives. So although many think of boundaries  as a point of division, they can actually act as a point of connection. 

What do I mean? 

If I have a strong sense of identity, I can:

  1. Pinpoint what I need
  2. Feel confident about expressing this
  3. Communicate this clearly to others

When I am able to do this, I can reach out to people and include them in my world. Clients who struggle to define and communicate their needs either set hard boundaries that repel, or fail to set boundaries at all. They might be inconsistent and ricochet between setting a boundary and tearing it down before the other person has a chance to understand what they really want.

Why does this happen? 

Unfortunately, many of us either do not really know what we need, or question whether we deserve it or not. 

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Your partner has a habit of cancelling dinner plans at the last minute. They have a busy job and working late is part of it. The last time you fought about it, they accused you of being petty and selfish. 

The conversation/fight revolved around the dinner, the event. But the feelings that kept both of you feeling sad, angry and helpless, went far deeper than that.

This might have been just another in a long list of moments where you felt unseen and cast aside. You were looking forward to connecting, sharing time and feeling like an important part of your partner’s world, but they didn’t get it.

They felt trapped, between meeting the responsibilities of their job and their commitment to you. They want you to understand their difficult situation at work and be more flexible.

Imagine if you could have a conversation like this instead

ClientI know you have a busy job, but when you cancel our plans at the last minute, it makes me feel as though I am not an important part of your life, that you don’t really care if we spend time together and that we won’t find time to connect. How do you feel about this?

PartnerI feel frustrated. Every time I have to cancel, I feel torn between you and my job and that makes me feel guilty and annoyed. I know it puts a burden on you, but it would help so much if I knew you understood and didn’t get angry with me.

Agreement: We agree that it is important to connect. It is likely that plans involving larger chunks of time will be interrupted, so how about we agree to find 20 minutes each day to connect. It doesn’t have to be at a particular time – it could be at breakfast, at bedtime, or even during the day at work – but during our 20 minutes we commit to being fully present with each other.

This example involves a couple, but it could also apply to families, friends and colleagues. If we are able to communicate how we feel and why we need what we are asking for, it shifts the conversation from an accusation to an opportunity for connection. If we are able to focus on the need, rather than the circumstances under which it is met, we’re more likely to be flexible and find a way to compromise so that we both feel seen and heard.

When do boundaries work?

  • When the need at the centre of it is clear
  • When the boundary is communicated from a place of kindness and calm, so other emotions do not cloud the message
  • When we are confident that we deserve what we are asking for
  • When we an recognise that our needs impact others and that sometimes we’ll need to compromise
  • When we recognise that not all boundaries are equal

Selecting a boundary that fits is important

Some boundaries will last forever, some should change with time. Sometimes you will need to set a hard boundary, and sometimes you’ll need to set one that is more flexible.

For example, hard boundaries are appropriate in cases of abuse. Here there is no reason to maintain the connection. Other relationships can be more complicated. You might love a family member who also tends to disappoint or annoy you. Regular meetings might trigger you, so setting a boundary that maintains but also manages your time with them might be more appropriate. For instance, you might choose to see them on special holidays, or arrange to meet them at gatherings with others so your interactions are not too intense. By managing the boundary you can build a sense of safety while still maintaining a connection.

Research shows that relationships are essential to a healthy life. When we know what we want, feel confident in asking for what we need and are ready to be flexible and compromise on the details (not the need), we can build and maintain relationships that work. When this happens, boundaries can be beautiful points of connection.

Article written by Tamsyn Rippon, Relational Therapist

To explore the topic further…

Listen to podcast episode “How to set healthy boundaries in your relationships” 🎧
View the full interview on YouTube 📹

Featured image by mododeolhar via Pexels

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About The Author

Sakura Counselling
Founded by Tamsyn Rippon, a relational therapist in Hong Kong, Sakura Counselling offers online and in-person therapy to adults, teens, parents, and families. She works closely with clients dealing with feelings like sadness, anger, loneliness, anxiety, loss and grief to better understand the map of their experience.
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