Do You Set Boundaries Or Barriers? Here's Why The Difference Matters

mbg Contributor By Ilene Smith, M.A.
mbg Contributor
Ilene Smith, M.A., is a somatic experiencing practitioner and author of 'Moving Beyond Trauma.' She has a master's degree in Exercise Physiology from New York University and a master's degree in Mental Health Counseling from Argosy University.
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Early in my marriage, I found myself losing sight of my needs and trying to please my husband. My inability to set boundaries was a result of my lack of core values, low self-esteem, and fear of abandonment. This set the stage for a personal and marital crisis as I was no longer living my life for me. My priority became his happiness over my own. 

As I tried to resolve these issues with myself, my therapist, and my husband, our marriage went into disarray. My husband became confused and angry at my complete change in attitude and actions. As I found my voice and better understood my needs, I became extremely protective of myself. I was drawing hard lines in the sand about scheduling around his busy and successful career and became inflexible once we made a plan. I became unwilling to compromise, as I felt that every compromise fell into the category of me compromising myself.

I was adamant that I had to take care of myself and create boundaries. What I didn't realize until later was that instead of boundaries that served our healthy connection, I had created barriers that cut it off.

Boundaries versus barriers.

Boundaries are guidelines we create to let ourselves and others know our needs, expectations, capacity, and limits. They are essential to our emotional and physical health. Healthy boundaries teach us self-respect and self-love. It is easier to understand boundaries when they are physical, but emotional boundaries are just as important for us to feel safe. There are many types of boundaries, but in general, you can think of a boundary as the line that tells you where another person ends and where you begin. 

Barriers are attempts at creating roadblocks to intimacy and will also create a lack of safety for you and the other party. Sometimes our attempts at self-care in our relationships can backfire because we become so protective of our voice and personal space. The pendulum can easily swing toward barriers before we find the right balance with our boundaries. 

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Why the difference matters.

Many of us enter adulthood with uncertainty as to what defines a healthy boundary. The messages we receive as children will often shape how we define boundaries as adults. If you saw your parents chronically self-sacrificing or refusing to compromise, that will affect your ability to set clear and flexible boundaries. Likewise, when our boundaries are not respected by adults, we are often left believing that we are not worthy of taking care of ourselves. 

For example, as a child I was often told I was "selfish," which left me scared to play freely. As a young adult, each time I had to choose between doing something for myself or what others wanted me to do, I would choose the latter. The times that I did put myself first, I carried with me a sack of guilt and shame. It was a challenge for me to do the things that would nourish my heart and soul.

When a person begins to heal and better understand the importance of boundaries, however, they can easily create barriers.

Instead of boundaries that served our healthy connection, I had created barriers that cut it off.

When I began working with Jenni, a client who is an incest survivor, she was too scared to say no to sex when she was approached by her boyfriend. Because of Jenni's history, she had difficulty setting boundaries around physical intimacy and social situations. She often found herself in situations where she said yes when she really meant no, leaving her constantly in a position where she was compromising herself. For instance, when her boyfriend initiated sex and she wasn't in the mood, she'd emotionally withdraw while "allowing" him to do what he wanted, even though her mind was miles away. 

When we began dealing with her boundary issues, she felt like she couldn't "give in," so she'd shut her boyfriend down by criticizing him or picking a fight. In her effort to set boundaries, she became so rigid that she completely cut off from her boyfriend, sexually and emotionally.

Eventually, Jenni found her footing by learning to use her voice to express her needs. We worked on her ability to put words to her experiences and connect to her emotional state. Soon, she was able to comfortably share her vulnerability around sex with her boyfriend. This newfound emotional freedom even allowed her to feel her desire more deeply, and for the first time, she was able to initiate sex. 

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How to set boundaries without creating barriers.

Fluid and clear boundaries are game-changers. They reduce stress on our relationships and increase our ability for self-care, attunement, and well-being. Learning to set healthy boundaries takes time, patience, consistency, and gentleness—the last of those often being a missing ingredient in people's boundary-setting efforts, at least initially.

When a client of mine named Amanda came to me in distress about her mother-in-law coming over and cleaning her house unsolicited, she was defensive and filled with shame. "I feel my mother-in-law is judging my domestic capabilities," she said. "What gives her the right to come to my house and take over?" I shared with Amanda that it was her responsibility to say no if she felt that this was a violation of a boundary. While Amanda was scared to set a boundary with her mother-in-law because she feared her reaction and hurting her feelings, she reported back to me feeling empowered by her action.

She also shared that she was gentle and kind with her mother-in-law, and they were able to mutually agree that if Amanda needed help, she would ask.  

A relationship with healthy boundaries supports independence and interdependence. We become more capable of recognizing what is our responsibility and what is the responsibility of others. When we have healthy boundaries, we can easily distinguish between our responsibilities in a situation and the contribution of another. We also become clear in our communication and use our voice appropriately.

Eventually, my husband and I were able to understand that compromise didn't have to mean compromising ourselves. We learned how to set clear expectations around our schedules—which also enabled us to each have flexibility while respecting the other's needs. 

Communicating in a kind and gentle way can be the difference between setting boundaries and creating barriers. Sharing your feelings and desires may be difficult at first, and feelings of guilt and shame may arise. But by creating healthy boundaries, you are taking care of not only yourself but also your relationship, which benefits you both.

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