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How to Set Personal Boundaries

Posted on 2019-02-03 By Joanna


Have you ever been in a troubling situation that could be easily avoided if you only said 'no'? Or have you ever had a sensation that you are losing yourself in a relationship? Or perhaps you sometimes feel guilty for wanting to do something that conflicts with people's expectations?

These are just a few examples of problems we might encounter when working on developing our boundaries. Setting up boundaries is essentially a negotiation process which aims to resolve any conflicts (internal or between yourself and your environment) that might arise as a result of simply you trying to be you.

But what are boundaries? Houses have fences, boxes have walls, and people have boundaries. Fritz Perls put an equal sign between an ego and boundaries because boundaries are dynamic, can be chosen and modified by ourselves, and act as a censor or a negotiator between different aspects of our organism (instincts, needs, conscience) and the external world – other people, institutions, various social groups.

We set personal boundaries not only in relation to others, but also in relation to different aspects of ourselves. For example, we might have an urge to eat the whole cake but we set a boundary and eat only a piece.

Boundaries have two functions: approach and resist. We can either allow something in by simply inviting it or we can resist it by avoiding it. Thus, for example, a person with poor boundaries will not know when to allow something in or when to resist something that comes their way. As a consequence, they will end up in situations they don't want to be in or resist something at the expense of internal harmony by blocking a part of themselves that is driven to express itself.

Knowing the process of boundary setting is only a half work that we can do in order to resolve our conflicts surrounding the subject. The other half relates to the ability of perceiving what our boundaries are enclosing and what is outside of them. Without this perception or knowledge, the whole process of boundary setting might be quite difficult or even fruitless because we simply don't know what are we protecting, resisting or allowing in.

Personal boundaries are created through identification. For example, I identify with a desire to be healthy and so I have set a boundary around this drive and as I result, I quit smoking. Smoking is now outside the boundary which I have set, and so I will resist it and avoid it. Or I might identify with my need to seek the company of people who display X, Y and Z characteristics, and so I put a boundary around this drive and stay away from becoming intimate with people who don't possess these characteristics (keep them outside my boundary).

Whatever is enclosed in the boundary becomes a figure against a background. Whatever is outside the figure becomes a background that is perceived as being unimportant as it mergers with the rest of field of our perception that we are currently not paying attention to.

Personal boundaries, thus, become an overall Gestalt which allows us to perceive where our organism starts and ends – what belongs to our private world (composed of parts of the Gestalt called 'Me' or 'Self', as well as further Gestalts enclosed in inner boundaries associated with different aspects of ourselves arising in each moment, such as 'my needs', or 'my preferences'). The more flexible our boundaries are, the wider our perception will become because we will be able to switch easily between the figure and the background. As a result, we will then be able to perceive more aspects of ourselves, options and opportunities that we have, as well as things which are unhealthy for us.

Flexibility of our boundaries is about being able to adapt to our circumstances. For instance, I might have a boundary in relation to not letting strangers in to my house, but if I won't be flexible with this resistance, I might suffocate in my burning house because I didn't let the stranger to come in and put the fire down. Similarly, I might identify with the beliefs of a social group I seem to belong to, therefore having a boundary between beliefs of that group I agree with and what other groups represent, but if I won't be flexible enough I might fail to notice that this group is leading me towards embracing destructive philosophy.

We can therefore see a process of expansion and contraction – we expand through identifying with what we perceive, approaching it and including it inside our boundaries (figure against a background; against what we can't perceive 'wholly' and which is not important). And we contract when we tighten our boundaries, dis-identify from the Gestalts that we perceive and put up a resistance against them.

The process of setting up personal boundaries is very dynamic – we expand and contract accordingly to the situation we encounter. This process depends on what we perceive within that specific situation and our understanding and interpretation of it. If we decide to use only one 'template' serving as our personal boundaries, we might become rigid and end up setting up too tight boundaries or identify with aspects of our experience that are incongruent with our goals and drives.

Finally, to illustrate a process of setting up boundaries let's use a simple example: I might have a friend that seem to be overly dependent on me and often contacts me for advice. The situation is complex – I feel the pressure from my conscience to help my friend no matter what, but I also feel the pressure from my needs telling me I can't manage to help my friend constantly as I have my own needs to attend to. At this point, I resist both the conscience and my needs (setting up a boundary) until I make a decision. At this point, I perceive various parts or elements of my experience and the situation I am in (choices):

  • I can set a boundary with my friend and my conscience that could be achieved by for example, talking to her openly, stating my needs, showing empathy for her and negotiating solution so that both of us are happy (flexible; various Gestalts emerge as I negotiate the process; more options become possible for me as I loosen my boundaries without breaking them)
  • I can also resist the whole process all together and stay away from that friend, therefore setting up a very tight boundary around my needs (the dominant Gestalt here is 'my needs'; I can perceive the situation mostly in regard to whether it meet my needs or not, whereas my conscience becomes a background I find insignificant)
  • Or I can tighten the boundary around my conscience, allow the situation to continue as it has been – by neglecting my needs and helping my friend as much as she demands of me (the dominant Gestalt here become 'what is right' and 'what my friend needs', whilst my needs become a background I stop paying attention to)

In the described process, we can see how being able to perceive different aspects of the situation we find ourselves in enables us to set up boundaries. The decision we make on how to set our personal boundaries depends on which Gestalt or which aspects of the situation that we perceive we choose to identify with. The Gestalt we perceive as the most important is made so because we put a boundary around it. Being unable to make a decision or feeling conflicted equals not being being able to perceive whole Gestalts and thus, not being able to put boundaries around what we might find important.

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