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Understanding Healthy Boundaries: How to avoid abusive people and build more positive relationships

If there is one thing I find I talk most about in the therapy room it’s the topic of healthy boundaries. So what does this even mean right?

The oxford dictionary states a boundary is “a line of which marks the limits of an area... a dividing line”. If you happen to own land you could draw a line around the perimeter of your land and this boundary would clarify what belongs to you and what belongs to others.

Yet what if we are not dealing with land but a different kind of terrain that being the terrain of emotions. How do we then determine what belongs to us and what belongs to others? How do you avoid people violating your boundaries? How do you assert and maintain healthy boundaries?

How do you start building positive, healthy relationships with people who can respect boundaries and not abuse you physically, verbally and psychologically?

I often like to simplify the topic of understanding healthy boundaries into two types of boundaries:

1. Physical Boundaries and

2. Emotional Boundaries

Physical boundaries

A physical boundary reflects the symbolic, unseen line we have around our body and offers rules and guidance around what is appropriate and acceptable in relation to touch and what is not. In some cultures it might be more acceptable to hug and kiss when we greet or even to stand quite close to each other in a crowd. The culture we are raised in will likely affect how familiar we are when interacting with people.

However, when ones physical boundary is violated it means even with respect to varying cultural norms someone has transgressed the line around your body without your permission and therefore behaved in an unacceptable manner. Perhaps someone has reached out and touched your pregnant belly without seeking permission to do so and it made you feel uncomfortable. Maybe you met someone in a professional setting and they hugged you, rather than offering a formal handshake. Victims of physical and sexual abuse have had their physical boundary violated in the most serious, terrible and often tragic way. Other kinds of physical violations can be more confusing and ambiguous but ultimately when your physical boundary has been transgressed it is likely to leave you feeling uncomfortable.

Emotional Boundaries

Emotional boundaries are about having your own thoughts, ideas and feelings and respecting that others can have their own thoughts, ideas and feelings, different to yours.

If someone has poor emotional boundaries they might only be happy with you if you agree with their thoughts. They might get mad, sulk or withdraw their affection or love from you in an effort to try to pressure you into agreeing with their ideas or behaving the way they want you to.

In relationships with poor emotional boundaries one might feel they need to consult with the other before making any big decisions, worry about being rejected if they have a different point of view, feel afraid of speaking honestly out of fear of being yelled at, belittled or criticised, feel overly responsible for others emotions, especially if the other persons seems down or upset, and tend to blame themselves unnecessarily for relationship tensions or problems.

Healthy relationships involve two people who can do healthy emotional and physical boundaries.

In a healthy relationship your ideas, choices and personal space is respected. You are allowed to have your own feelings and thoughts and make your own choices about your life. You can disagree with each other but still be respectful of the other person’s perspective and behavioural choices.

With people who respect boundaries, relationships do not need to end even if you have differing views on issues. You are both free to live your lives but can enjoy each other’s company when you wish too, and feel comfortable being yourself in the friendship without fear of being controlled or attempting to control the other.

Many people feel confused and struggle with boundaries, especially emotional boundaries. Possibly they can do healthy boundaries most of the time but when they are sick, tired or vulnerable they struggle to do so. Some people can have healthy boundaries with most people but struggle with a particular person in their life like their boss, a friend, a parent, their partner, or even a child.

You may wonder who is more susceptible to poor boundaries.

Sadly being a victim of abuse be it physical, sexual or emotional, places one at a greater risk of having poor boundaries. If someone has violated your boundaries, even doing so repeatedly for months or years, it is easy to feel really confused about what is appropriate and healthy in relationships.

If one of our parents has modelled poor boundaries or if you have a sensitive temperament and thus, already a predisposition towards pleasing people, helping others, and worrying about others you might also be more vulnerable.

If you are reading this and relate to having difficulties with boundaries don’t despair! People can get better at identifying healthy boundaries, moving away from toxic and abusive relationships and creating more positive healthy relationships in their lives.

The first step is often to recognise the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships. Secondly learn how to assert yourself in relationships hence, be clear with others about how you would like to be treated and what behaviour is unacceptable. This might mean standing up to bullies and learning how to not be a magnet for toxic people anymore. Thirdly even if you feel guilty about saying no to others or prioritising your own needs remind yourself you cannot be responsible for making others happy all the time. People need to be responsible for their own happiness. It will get easier to hold your feelings of guilt and you will reap the benefits for looking after your needs more. Finally be brave and willing to risk rejection or disapproval. Sometimes this may mean walking away from toxic friendships and family members, as painful as this can be. However, in doing so you will have more energy and time for more deserving, positive influences in your life.

Remember your integrity and self-worth is important. You are worthy of being treated with respect and when you make this commitment to respect yourself and to respect others you will start to naturally gravitate more towards those who understand healthy emotional boundaries.

If you need any help establishing more healthy boundaries in your relationships please do not hesitate to make contact with our psychology practice Kristy Attwooll & Associates and speak to one of our Clinical Psychologists about starting your journey towards fostering more satisfying, healthy relationships. We are here to help. Good luck!

- Kristy Attwooll

Kristy Attwooll is a Clinical Psychologist practicing at Kristy Attwooll & Associates, a Clinical Psychology Practice with offices in Sydney's North Shore and Northern Beaches at St Leonards and Brookvale, NSW.

Kristy has 16 years of experience providing psychological treatment to adults and couples with a range of psychological difficulties. She is a passionate advocate for mental health issues and is dedicated to helping people improve their emotional wellbeing, pursue their full potential and live more satisfying lives.

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