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  • Michele Mulcahy

Boundaries Part One – What They Are and What They Are Not

Updated: Jun 12

There are many tips on how to set boundaries with others, which certainly is a good place to start.  However, boundaries are complex.  As a therapist, I find poor internal and external boundaries to be at the core of a lot of mental health issues, whether it be depression, anxiety, addiction, or conflict with others. Setting boundaries with others, especially those closest to us, can be difficult, but often the most difficult person to set boundaries with is usually us.  As a person, I find myself being mindful of my internal boundaries often throughout the day as well as with others just in handling day-to-day situations.  In this miniseries we will look at some of the ways to examine where we might need to shore up our boundaries to increase peace and satisfaction in our lives.

First let’s talk about what they are not.  They are not walls to keep others out.  Walls are inflexible and while they can give the illusion of keeping us feeling safe, to the extent they seem to keep the bad out, they also keep the good out.  Walls also stone in the bad in – the very fears and negative experiences that motivated us to put the walls up in the first place. 

We cannot heal without letting those things go and allowing good, new experiences to replace and heal the old. Letting go of the old and processing how to move forward is not about letting someone “off the hook” or moving on like nothing happened, but rather accepting what you can and cannot control, what has or hasn’t happened, and figure out how to move forward with healthy boundaries in place to protect ourselves moving forward.  Healthy boundaries have controlled flexibility with the ability to allow for flow in and out based on what is appropriate in the moment. 

Boundaries are also not a means to manipulate, control or get others to change.  Boundaries are about taking control of ourselves and limiting our exposure to other people’s negative behaviors.  The more we learn about boundaries and how to control them, the less fear drives our reactions and the more confidence we have to respond and interact with the world around us.  Sometimes we fear setting boundaries and standing our ground because we think boundaries are selfish or mean and feel guilty at even the thought of trying to set them. Especially with those who don’t seem able to hear ‘no’.  But boundaries are an act of love –

love for ourselves and others.  They are perimeters that allow us the freedom to be intentional with our actions, responses and be the best version of ourselves.  The free us to love others freely rather than out of obligation or compulsion, without guilt or resentment, or simply to avoid negative outcomes. 

Boundaries define us; they define where we end and the other begins.  They define what we are responsible for and what the other is responsible for.  Without them we may either conform to others’ wishes, needs, and demands at our own expense or form inflexible walls to protect ourselves.  We will often give too much and find ourselves hurt or resentful later or give too little, leaving others feeling disconnected from us. We can find ourselves tired, frustrated and potentially feeling used or taken advantage of with little return for our efforts, or anxious, vigilant, and angry.  Usually, these feelings are a result of trying to control things we cannot and not being in control of the things can and should.  Next time, we will explore what are the things we are responsible for and what we are not.

By: Michele Mulcahy, MMFT, LMFT-S

Clear Counseling, LLC

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