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How boundaries help build better relationships

Identifying and maintaining boundaries is key to having a happy and healthy relationship. Lounge tells you how you can do it.

To set boundaries is to know and communicate the limits of engagement, whether physical or emotional, tangible or intangible
To set boundaries is to know and communicate the limits of engagement, whether physical or emotional, tangible or intangible (ISTOCKPHOTO)

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All of us want space, especially when we become teenagers. However, all of us are not accustomed to giving the other person ‘space’, despite us wanting it for ourselves. Our culture is such that whenever anyone attempts to set boundaries or restrict access to themselves in any way—emotional, physical, financial—we frown upon it. When anyone asks for their own space, it is perceived as a rejection of love or advice. A hint of healthy separation is perceived as threatening to the family, and the entire family gets offended. If someone is not maintaining constant contact, it is believed that the person doesn’t love you anymore.

And this is the problem with our collective society—misconstruing the idea of what a boundary really is. Against what everyone thinks and believes, boundaries are invisible lines that allow individuals to love and respect themselves. In addition, boundaries help self-preservation: To set boundaries is to know and communicate the limits of engagement, whether physical or emotional, tangible or intangible.

Ankita Choudhury, a consultant psychologist at Mumbai’s Counselling Center Reflective Arena, agrees. “Just like the physical walls of our houses protect us from the environment, similarly setting healthy boundaries fosters a sense of safety and inculcates in us a nature of sensitive recognition and respect for both our own needs and that of others,” she says.

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Healthy boundaries allow us to authentically show up as ourselves and connect to our intuitive voices. They allow us to regulate, meet our needs and expectations and strive for progress, promoting a sense of personal agency, making us more balanced and independent individuals. Boundaries also help individuals protect themselves from other people or systems which are exploitative or manipulative.

Manavi Khurana, founder and counselling psychologist at Karma Center for Counselling & Wellbeing, articulates the idea further. “A boundary is an action or thought practised by individuals to feel secure, safe, heal and grow. To set a boundary could mean—expressing what is needed without apologising, detaching from the desire to control/manage others, sitting with the discomfort of saying no, dis-allowing others to dictate our lives.”

Losing one’s sense of self

Relationships that lack boundaries can feel extremely anxiety-provoking and overwhelming. For instance, an individual may expect his or her partner to meet all their needs, give responsibility for their own well-being and happiness, change fundamentally, understand without communicating or expect their partner to “take their side” in times of conflict. This, in turn, could mean losing a sense of self and becoming highly codependent. Pooja Nair, Consultant Therapist, Mariwala Health Initiative and QACP faculty,believes that most relationships cannot survive the lack of boundaries or even boundaries not being respected by one of the two people.”In some cases, the relationship may last, but it will be a damaging dynamic, and it will be unsupportive,” she says.

Relationships of this sort are likely to cause one or more of the following:

* Make a person feel drained emotionally, mentally and physically 

* Cause unrealistic and unhealthy expectations from oneself

* Result in the inability to assess one’s own needs and to ask for external help

* Lead to the needs of the individual being overlooked, which can cause a sense of hurt, sadness, and even anger u An individual’s personal aspirations are likely to take a backseat

* Result in the need to control other people’s time, energy and resources. This control can be aggressive or even manipulative.

* Cause high co-dependency in a relationships

* The tendency to please and fear of abandonment are both likely to increase.

How to start drawing your lines

“A vast majority of us are unaware of how to set healthy boundaries because we have never been taught how to do so. In addition, traumatic experiences in a person’s life can also contribute to having difficulty with setting healthy boundaries. In such cases, it might be helpful to take it as a journey and focus on taking one step at a time,” believes Ankita Choudhury, adding that assertive communication is key to succeeding with this. “The metaphor I give my clients is that of a sandwich. One of the two bread (slices) represents the other person’s emotions, and the other represents ours. The filling is the content of the message and sometimes includes alternatives.”

Redirecting the focus on filling our inner reservoir of energy through self-care and self-love, and simultaneously working on emotions like guilt and/or shame (that might accompany us while setting boundaries) that we internalised due to past experiences with a mental health professional can over time help make setting healthy boundaries with ease a part of our everyday life.

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Devika Kapoor, the founder of Instrength Counselling, points out that a lot depends on the relationship that you’re trying to work on. “One should create a list of negotiables and non-negotiables and communicate them,” she says. And yes, there needs to be space for evolution and growth with boundaries. “ As long as one can communicate one’s needs and stick to a decision, then it is a successful boundary. One must keep in mind that each situation cannot be perceived as black and white.”

While the steps to setting boundaries differ for each situation, some common ones are as follows:

Knowledge of one’s boundaries and needs

This needs self-awareness to a great degree - knowing one’s capacities, limits, what is acceptable and not, what one wants and doesn’t want

Knowledge of the other person’s needs

Basis what the other person needs, offer alternatives that both parties can be comfortable with and be open to negotiation.

Be assertive

One should be assertive without compromising respect and compassion for the other person. Sometimes, we end up blaming the other person and accusing them of the hurt they’ve caused us. This makes the other person defensive, even escalating into a fight. By being compassionate and using “I” statements, we keep the defences of the other person low, which increases the chances of the other person responding to our needs better.

Conveying boundaries in the right spirit

There are multiple ways - verbal or non-verbal. It depends on the context, situation and person with whom you are trying to communicate the boundaries—pausing for a moment to collect one’s thoughts before the communication might help. This is because when we are overwhelmed with emotions, the message might get displaced by unintentional remarks or tones.

Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based psychotherapist, rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT) and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) counsellor

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