Setting and maintaining boundaries is one of the hardest but most important steps to living a full and healthy life with BPD. Many people living with BPD have struggled all their life with boundaries, likely because their boundaries weren’t respected, they weren’t taught how to respect them in others, or how to set them for themselves and in relationships.
So what are boundaries and why are they so important to healthy living? Boundaries are about protecting your self and the space you exist in. There is a lot of trust and vulnerability involved in setting healthy boundaries and if they are not respected the damage done can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms and problem behaviour.
There are 6 types of boundaries:
- Material: Lending, giving or receiving money, gifts, or other objects.
- Physical: Personal space, privacy, bodily sensations. (food, noise, comfort etc.)
- Mental: Thoughts, values and opinions. Knowing oneself and knowing one’s own mind.
- Emotional: The separation of emotional responsibilities between the self and others.
- Sexual: Protecting yourself and your comfort level
- Spiritual: Protecting your beliefs, faith, and values.
The boundaries you set for your life define your values. By exercising boundaries we teach others how to treat us. A high emotional reactivity, angry outbursts or panic attacks when you are triggered or threatened for example, suggests weak emotional boundaries. Boundaries are learned, and maintaining them is a skill that can be practiced and made stronger.
Setting boundaries and protecting them is hard work. For someone who has been taught to be selfless it would be difficult to put your own needs over others by setting a boundary to protect yourself. Society values the virtue of selflessness, but when service to others begins to jeopardise your own health and safety, its time to set boundaries.
For those who were never taught how to set healthy boundaries, they may feel that setting boundaries in relationships will drive their loved ones away. They may feel like they don’t have rights, or don’t even know what their comfort levels are because they haven’t been respected in the past.
Its hard, and it can be painful, especially when you realize some of the boundaries you must put in place are going to involve some sacrifice, but having weak boundaries makes you vulnerable. It would be like leaving an open wound untreated, or not cooking your food properly before eating it. You put yourself at risk of infection unless you take proper precaution to protect yourself. And protecting yourself is your responsibility.
My personal journey in building healthy boundaries has been a long and complex one, and as with all the skills in DBT, it changes according to the evolution of my life and relationships. Some boundaries I set are firm and unmovable, others are more fluid.
As my children grow up my boundaries with them shift and change. Not long ago I would let them climb all over me, even after I had told them to stop. Or I would allow them to take the food off my plate, or I would do things for them that they were perfectly capable of doing themselves. I had to teach them that when mommy says its time to stop pulling my hair, it’s time to stop. I taught them that the food on their plate is for them and the food on my plate is mine. (I have to eat too!) I had to stop myself from completing chores that they’re responsible for so they learn not to rely on me to do all their work for them.
By placing these boundaries for my children not only am I teaching them useful life skills, but I am teaching them how to respect my space and my wishes. I get the space I need to be comfortable and I can live a healthier happier life. Its still a challenge, especially when they’ve left their coats and shoes piled at the front door and it would take two goddam minutes to just pick them the hell up! Nope, I have to step back, remind them of their jobs as members of this household, and let them do it.
Another boundary we teach our kids that is worth mentioning is one that many adults struggle with. When I go to say goodnight to my children, I ask them if they want a hug and a kiss goodnight. Most of the time it’s yes, but sometimes its no, or its just a hug, or a high-five, and that’s okay. If a relative wants to hug, snuggle or tickle my kids, they need reminding sometimes that if my child says ‘no’, or ‘stop’, then that’s a boundary my child is setting up that needs to be respected.
By teaching my kids how to respect their own and others boundaries I hope to set them up to be able to live a safe and happy life. Maybe, if I’m really lucky, they can act as an example to their peers as well about how to respect each other and the world could be a healthier, more comfortable place.