Building Boundaries

When we leave our homes as young adults, one of the very first things that I think most of us relish in is the new-found freedom to break free of the boundaries that our parents asked us to respect. It is not always a case of not agreeing with their boundaries, as much as perhaps not fully understanding why they needed them in the first place…

Fast forward a few years and you are a new parent yourself –  navigating this tiring job as well as building a career and perhaps still laying a solid foundation of a young marriage. Suddenly you feel anxious, frustrated or even depressed and you’re not really sure why. The very boundaries you wanted to break free from could be the answer.

Tanya van Zyl, accredited life coach and published writer (, recently described personal boundaries using the most vivid analogy. Imagine crossing a high-bridge over a beautiful gorge, but the bridge has no side-rails. You will walk very slowly, quite scared of tripping and falling, or even being blown off by a strong wind, and you will never dare to approach the edge to look over at the stunning view – it just isn’t safe.

Then, imagine crossing the same bridge but this time it has side-rails. Now you can walk confidently, skipping along even, and approach the sides to look left, right, and all around you in comfort and with confidence that you are safe and protected.

This analogy describes a life without boundaries versus a life with boundaries. The same boundaries that once made you feel captive in your parent’s home now give you freedom to be confident, feel safe and explore the bridge that represents your personal journey.  

The benefits of boundaries

If the analogy was not enough to instantly create an image in your mind of how important boundaries are, then here are a few more benefits to consider.
Boundaries enable you to release emotional energy instead of being constantly drained by fear, worry and insecurities. You are able to really ‘skip along that bridge’ instead of stammering along the centre, afraid of making a mistake or falling or being hurt.
Instead of creating conflict, boundaries actually help to create less conflict because there are fewer instances where you are left feeling as though you’ve been taken advantage of, or that you are so drained that the smallest thing will set you off on a tangent.
Also contrary to popular belief, boundaries actually make you more emotionally accessible. Instead of holding up a protective shield and constantly being ‘on guard’ because you’re not sure what is coming next, you are actually able to be more open with your emotions within the safety of your personal boundaries.
Probably the most important benefit is the way in which you will react to challenges. A person with no boundaries will be reactive, often feeling victimised and almost attacked by life coming at them from all angles. While the person with boundaries is more proactive – they see challenges as places to put up future boundaries and even suss out situations beforehand to ensure that their boundaries are sufficient – this makes them more empowered. 
What if you had no boundaries?
Boundaries are not only important for the world ‘out there’, abounding with all sorts of strangers and dangers alike. Most importantly, boundaries are for family too – because without them you will never be truly relaxed enough to have an open relationship, even with your children.
A person who lacks boundaries is setting the stage to become abused. Dr Phil famously coined the phrases “You teach people how to treat you” and “The best predictor of past behaviour is future behaviour.”
Both phrases cover important aspects of boundaries. Firstly, you set the tone and quite literally teach people how to treat you. If you walk into a beautiful garden only to be bitten by a vicious dog, you are certainly the victim of a terrible tragedy the first time. The next time you walk into that garden knowingly – you are your own abuser.
Secondly, and leading off the paragraph above, people show you who they are and what they do. They are actually quite honest, if you’ll just take their word for it. The dog has honestly shown that he will bite you, and he’s not joking or lying.
So, if your friend has a habit of fetching her child from your house well after the agreed collecting time over and over again, then you will need to build in extra time (and a healthy dose of acceptance), or refuse to have her child over to your house again. The point is that the choice is yours, and you are empowered.
Without boundaries in place, your image of yourself breaks down as you subconsciously begin to realise that you are not very good at protecting your precious self, and so perhaps you just aren’t that precious after all…
On the flip side of a coin, a person with boundaries exudes confidence because they are empowered and they have come to accept that they may be judged or even rejected because their boundaries do not make everyone happy all of the time. There is no room for people-pleasers when it comes to building healthy boundaries. 

Why boundaries are important in families

It is vitally important to show your children what healthy boundaries are, because children do not do as they’re told, but rather do as they see. Boundaries do not need to result in selfishness, on the contrary, to have a home with healthy boundaries means creating an environment where the rights and responsibilities of every person are celebrated.
According to Adri Vos, a counselling therapist on the West Rand, children who grow up in families where boundaries are uncertain simply don’t learn to deal with disappointment. They become so used to getting their own way that they soon feel very uncomfortable with getting ‘no’ as an answer from anyone. As adults, they typically get into the negative cycle of taking any refusal or negative response from another person as a sign of personal rejection. “And,” says Adri Vos, “they typically reach a point where they themselves find it very difficult to say ‘no’ to other people without experiencing feelings of intense quilt and self-doubt.” Clearly, this is not a pretty picture.

Where do we need to draw lines in the sand?

There are certain True North guiding principles that apply to family boundaries. These rights and responsibilities are universal, regardless of culture and personal preferences. 

For example:

·  Everyone in the family has the right to recharge their batteries and fill their tanks – mommies and daddies too.

·  Everyone has the right to feel safe within a predictable routine.

·  Everyone’s needs are important, but no more important that anyone else’s needs.

·  Everyone’s physical needs should be met.

·  Everyone should be able to have fun in their home.

·  Every family should benefit from good parental relationships – which means that it’s in everyone’s best interest when mom and dad invest time and energy in their relationship.

·  Every family should have a healthy and consistent hierarchy.

Five steps to creating lasting boundaries

There are five important steps to creating lasting boundaries. Like weight-loss or beating an addiction, creating and maintaining boundaries is not easy.
1.       What is your motivation?
Why are boundaries important to you? Your convictions will be what keep you going. Do you truly believe you deserve to have time to recharge, are your needs for being spoken to in a respectful way ultimately important, etc.?
2.       Get over your fears of rejection
When you create boundaries you will certainly not please everyone, especially those closest to you. They may become frustrated and annoyed and you will need to make peace with this fact.
3.       Act quickly
Boundaries are not something that ‘grow’ in a kind of inverted weight-loss scenario. No… you need to set a boundary and it is either there or not there. And even by not having a boundary you are sending a message and setting a ‘non-boundary’ area where anything is acceptable.
4.       Your home is your haven
You need to be especially firm when it comes to your home and your personal space.
5.       React confidently
Finally, when your boundaries are pushed and pulled (as they will be), you need to act quickly and decisively to make sure there is no misunderstanding. It could be as simple as, “I am sorry that you got stuck in traffic, and next time Amy comes to visit please pack her pyjamas so that she can bath along with the rest of the children.” 

It’s in our nature

To look at a child is to understand that boundaries are part of our nature from the very beginning. A child is programmed to look for the routine – the sameness – in their environment in order to feel that sense of security and belonging. And as they get older and are allowed more freedom, they will push at every boundary, not to break it down but to ensure that it is there and strong… keeping them safe and secure inside.


The Practica Team
parents who know better, do better

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