3 Fundamentals to Boundaries [+ 20 Q Self-assessment to Boot]

3 fundamentals to boundaries

Orlando Counseling Providing Relationship Therapy

Feeling baffled by your relationship patterns? This blog series on boundaries will shed some light on what has been happening automatically within you. Ready for some clarity? In my last post, Boundaries Deconstructed, I introduced this blog series on boundaries.

As an anxiety and trauma therapist providing counseling in Orlando, I regularly see clients that struggle with setting, understanding, establishing, and following through on healthy boundaries.

When boundaries are functioning appropriately, they empower all parties within the relationship. At the most fundamental level, the purpose of boundaries is provide a sense of self through three primary functions: containment, protection, and screening. Adults that grew up in traumatic or difficult environments often do not have these very basic capabilities. The type of environment you grew up in will determine the effectiveness of your boundaries as a sense of self. Before I jump right in, it is important to say the bulk of my training on boundaries comes from Sensorimotor Psychotherapy , so these ideas are the accumulation of what I learned in my training, what I see in my office, and what I have experienced in my own life.  

Included in my description of each boundary element are a series of questions. These questions are not meant to diagnose or label. It is my intention to get you thinking about any limitations you may have in establishing a healthy sense of self. If answering these questions unearths difficult feelings, I recommend you seek the help of a relationship counselor.

Containment

Boundaries contain our sense of self, who we are at any given point in time. Moment by moment, we have an emotional, physical, and mental experience. It is always changing. When we have the healthy ability to contain our experience, we feel emotions, stay present in our body, and are aware of our preferences, thoughts, and opinions. When containment is going well, we not only tolerate the ebb and flow of our inner world, we enjoy who we are. We understand this is constantly changing and we allow the energy to flow within.  As I am sure you can imagine, if you have a healthy sense of containment, then you are likely to have respect for other's emotions, opinions, thoughts, and experiences.

Below is a list of questions designed to explore your ability to for healthy containment. If you answer yes to one or more of the following questions, you might have difficulties establishing healthy containment.

Do you get swept away by your emotions?.

Do difficult emotions overwhelm you?

Do you avoid difficult emotions?

Do you feel uncomfortable when your emotions and perspective are different than another’s?

Do you feel tingly or numb when you anticipate a difficult emotion?

When containment is skewed, many different things can happen. Emotions can feel threatening, so there could be a tendency to either overreact or the opposite, deny emotions. Staying grounded in the body might be difficult, especially if there is trauma in the past. Even respecting others emotions and thoughts are challenging if the sense of containment is skewed. 

Protection

Protection is the ability to keep oneself safe physically, emotionally, or intellectually.

It’s having the ability to say “no” when appropriate without becoming rigid and defensive.

It’s the ability to keep a safe distance between you and a threat; however, it’s not keeping everything at a distance.

It’s the ability to keep dangerous things out without keeping everything out.

You’ve likely heard something similar to, “He is so guarded. He won’t even let me in.” In this case, “He” is over-guarded or overprotected. When a person becomes overprotected, they are fixed and rigid in their beliefs, routines, behaviors, and responses. This very fixed way of responding is a defense mechanism to keep oneself safe. It’s a conditioned or automatic response and doesn’t allow for new information about a situation to inform the decision. There just seems to be an automatic “no” to most things.

Under-protected

If you answer “yes” to one or more of the following questions, you might not have enough under-protected.

Do you say “yes” when you want to say “no?”

Do you often feel taken advantage of by your friends, family, or co-workers?

Do you often trust people too soon?

Do you often give too much in your relationships?

Do often avoid people or relationships because you can’t say, “no?”

Over-protected

If you answer “yes” to one or more of the following questions, you might be over-protected:

Do you often say “no” because it easier than saying yes?

Are you often rigid and inflexible?

Do you struggle to go outside of your daily routines and ways of doing things?

Do you keep most people at a distance?

Do others experience you as insensitive or abrasive?

Having a healthy sense of protection is being able to take a step back when a stranger approaches too quickly or comes too close. Healthy protection is saying no, but not always saying no. In other words, it’s keeping out harmful things without keeping out everything. Protection is allowing yourself to keep out what doesn't serve your mind, body, and spirit.

Screening

While protection is important for keeping us safe, screening is equally important for allowing nourishment in. If you've had a difficult day, being able to receive support is important, whether it is a hug, a conversation, or help with something physical. Screening is also an important tool for learning when you've had enough, enough affection, food, sex, exercise, work, social stimulation, etc.  When there is a healthy sense of screening, you know what you need, have the ability to take it in, and the where-with-all to know when you are satisfied.

If you answer “yes” to one or more of these questions, you might have difficulty screening.

Do you overextend yourself socially?

Do you have trouble moderating the amount of food, alcohol, sex, or screen time you take in?

Do you have trouble setting limits for yourself?

Do you move quickly in relationships?

Do you resonate with the phrase, “One is too many and a thousand is never enough?” In other words, do you struggle to feel satisfied?

Containment, protection, and screening were implicitly learned in childhood, meaning you picked up on them through your experiences with your caregivers. If you were taught that emotions are normal and healthy and your opinions are valuable, you most likely have a healthy sense of containment. Hopefully, your parents protected you and allowed you to say no, when appropriate. If so, then, as an adult you will have the ability to say, "no," in order to honor your physical and emotional needs. If your parents provided you with limits and modeled moderation, you will likely have the ability to allow the nourishing things in without overindulging. 

Truth be told, y'all, I don't know anyone that made it out of childhood completely unscathed in this arena. Even the most well-intentioned parents have their shortcomings. If you were raised in the '80's, like me, you may have heard some of these off-handed parenting phrases, "Don't tell me no." "When I say 'jump,' you say, 'how high?'" "Children are to be seen and not heard." If you grew up under parenting philosophies such as these, or even worse, you experienced outright abuse or neglect, you will likely have some boundary wires crossed, which will prove challenging when engaging in relationships.

So what happens if you didn't have Ward and June Cleaver as parents growing up? Well, you likely have a limited boundary style, which I will cover in a few weeks.

I encourage you to reflect on the question: What are your boundary strengths and weaknesses? By simply bringing awareness in, you will change your ability to contain, protect, and screen within relationships.

In my my next blog post, 4 Boundaries for a Healthy Relationship and 14 Questions to See How You’re Doing, I discuss the four boundaries that promote a healthy relationship and I even provide some questions to assess how you well you are doing in that area.

In Boundaries: 21 Questions to Uncover Your Style, I discuss a healthy boundary style versus limited boundary styles.

Let's keep this conversation going! Please feel free to comment or ask me questions in the comments section below. 

Want more on boundaries? Check out these posts:

Boundaries Deconstructed

4 Boundaries for a Healthy Relationship and 14 Questions to See How You're Doing

Boundaries: 21 to Questions Uncover Your Style

5 Simple Steps to Setting a Boundary

Boundaries: 3 Reasons You Move the Line


Lauran is an anxiety and trauma therapist providing counseling in Orlando, FL. She also specializes in helping people heal old broken relationship patterns that keep them from finding, creating, and keeping healthy relationships with partners, friends, and family. Lauran uses a down to earth approach infused with cutting-edge therapies that go beyond traditional talking to help clients feel calm in their body and mind and find peace within themselves.