Think of personal boundaries as the barriers we set with others to demarcate which of their behaviors towards us are permissible and which are not. Personal boundaries can encompass the following categories: intellectual, physical, emotional, social, and spiritual. My patients who have difficulty knowing and setting their personal boundaries usually lack self-worth or adequate role models from whom to learn these skills. Some lack both.
I lacked both. Growing up, my father crossed boundaries with me and my mother couldn’t maintain any for herself or me. This became my blueprint for life. I was an object that existed first to please my father and later to please others. I did not see any inherent value in myself. It set me up to live and repeat the torturous cycle of poor self-worth, inability to set boundaries, bad decisions, poor self-worth, and on and on.
Fortunately, this is no longer the case for me. These days, my self-worth is strong. I know my boundaries. I set my boundaries. No exceptions. My decisions are better. I can take care of myself and others.
It took much pain and practice to get to this point. And now that I’m here, I want nothing more than to help my patients on their journeys towards healthy self-worth and boundaries.
It takes time, I tell my patients. Generally, we start by identifying family patterns that may have contributed to their ongoing struggles. Then we see how they might be repeating these patterns in their current lives. Next we figure out what their boundaries should be and how they might begin to set them. Setting the boundaries requires assertiveness (being able to verbalize their true thoughts, feelings, wishes, and decisions) and the ability to tolerate the negative feelings that initially accompany not doing what they think other people want. We discuss how they can practice these skills in the here and now of their lives.
There are times when my patients can grasp the theories we discuss, but have a difficult time stopping their own cycles of poor self-worth, inability to set boundaries, and bad decisions. In these cases, involving their families or significant others can be helpful. Sometimes the patients end up repeating their cycles in their therapeutic relationship with me, and on some of those occasions I may have to set strong boundaries with them to role model appropriate behavior. And in order to avoid enabling the cycles that keep them stuck, I might even have to stop treating them. During our final session, I remind them that they are worthy and that it is imperative that they work on knowing and setting limits with others so that they can nurture their own self-worth and sustain and nurture their most important relationships.