Denise Evans, Clinical Counsellor

Establishing Boundaries

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The concept of boundaries has escaped the therapeutic setting and has been captured in everyday life. But what does it mean, when we talk about establishing and enforcing our boundaries?

Our emotional, psychological and physical boundaries are all entwined—when someone crosses the emotional boundary or the psychological, we feel physically uncomfortable. Therefore, the easiest way of learning about ourselves and our boundaries is to play with our understanding of our physical ones.

In our culture we generally need a 3 foot bubble of free space around ourselves to feel comfortable. When people encroach into this space we often feel the need to push back or to step away to re-establish the space. It is possible to play with this, while monitoring our own levels of discomfort. You can step into another’s space and note both how you feel and their reaction. Most people will simply step back from you. You may also note a feeling of tension in your body, which you express through a step back. You may also feel other reactions. Some people may perceive your stepping into their space as a challenge and may respond with aggression. Others could perceive it as a flirtatious gesture and may respond by reaching or stepping towards you.

Note how different your feelings are when people you care about step into your space. You will probably be more comfortable with your partner stepping into your physical space than if an acquaintance or stranger was that close.  Also, you will respond differently depending upon the age of the person. Children don’t have the same sense of boundaries that adults do. Small children will adhere to anyone who cares for them and will tumble about each other like puppies at play. (Boundaries cross species as the young in every species have few if any and acquire them as adults, which we call territorialism.) We learn boundaries through experience. While we all have them, the rules that guide what is felt as normal will vary across different cultures—something else to pay attention to.

As you play with the feelings and concepts you may also notice how much your boundaries vary according to your feelings or even your mood state. If you are feeling over-extended you may need a larger space around you and may be less tolerant of people in it. If you are arguing with someone you may step away to create more space. If you are feeling loving or forgiving you may reach towards them.

You will feel the same physical tension when someone crosses your psychological and emotional boundaries as with your physical. You might feel the need to step back mentally and reassess a situation, or become defensive, creating distance with words and mental labels. However, your play with your physical boundaries will have helped you become aware of your feelings and wants, which you can then tell others to establish clear boundaries with them



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