Therapists are fond of referring to “boundaries.” It might sometimes seem like we think that boundaries are at the root of every relationship issue! While obviously good boundaries cannot fix every problem, here are a few examples where they could really help:
- Saying “yes” to an invitation when you would really prefer to say “no.”
- Not telling your spouse that you are annoyed by their behavior because you hate conflict.
- Listening to a friend’s problems past the point where you yourself become triggered or overwhelmed.
- Jumping in to “save” others with time, money, or space that you really can’t afford.
- Expecting people to be available whenever you need them.
- Being annoyed that others cannot read your mind.
- Feeling that your own emotions are not as important as those of family members who are “really” suffering.
Clients often struggle to interpret when their personal boundaries are being violated. One good rule of thumb is to consult your feelings: if you feel resentful, chances are that someone has crossed your boundaries.
Even once people learn to identify boundary violations, however, many still struggle to address them. One barrier that often comes up is the idea that boundaries are “selfish.” We enforce boundaries to protect ourselves, and we may do it at the expense of helping or pleasing others. Isn’t this the definition of selfishness?
Short answer: no.
This is where the discussion becomes philosophical. What does it really mean to be generous? If it simply means giving people as much material or tangible support as you can, then maybe boundaries are selfish. On the other hand, maybe being generous is really about connecting. Maybe it means empathizing with another human and feeling the genuine desire to give or help, then acting on this impulse in a way that not only helps but also strengthens your relationship.
To me, saying that boundaries are selfish implies that people don’t actually like helping each other. Boundaries make space for you to breathe and grow so that you can live into your true feelings and desires. Once you are safe in this way, your authentic generosity, and that of the people around you, will flourish.