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Whayne Herriford: Establishing and maintaining boundaries in relationships is key to mental health

For many of my clients, one of the sources of both depression and anxiety is their ability to establish and maintain boundaries with other people.

In therapy, boundaries are the limits or rules we set for ourselves and others in relationships. It’s based on our understanding what we want or need in our lives and how we are willing to allow people to help us fulfill them.

Boundaries often are developed during childhood by watching adults in our lives and how they handle things. For example, if children see that their parents or other adult figures in their lives are constantly upset or stressed because they allow other people to interrupt or interfere with their happiness they are likely to assume that is the way to live and will often display similar boundaries with others.

Boundaries are also affected by culture, that is some cultures are more open to displays of emotion than other ones are.

Whayne Herriford

Personal boundaries are almost always affected by substance abuse because of the impact that has on self-esteem and self-care. I have also found that ineffective or to stringent boundaries are often present when there is conflict in a marital or other intimate relationship.

I have also observed an interesting correlation between boundaries and age. Veterans and Baby Boomers (people born before 1965) tend to be more formal and have more boundaries around what they openly share or accept from others. As we move forward in Generation X, Millennials and Generation Z there is a great deal more openness about sharing personal information and expecting it in return. I imagine the availability of information through social media has something to do with that.

Boundaries exist along a scale from very rigid (e.g. we don’t ask for help, don’t trust anyone, don’t have close relationships) to very porous (we can’t say no to people, we overshare or over-involve ourselves in other people’s issues, or we accept abuse from others.) The ideal is somewhere in the middle where we are open to others input and seek to communicate and have relationships, but we also value ourselves and our needs and don’t compromise what we want for other people unless it’s very important.

We also tend to have different boundaries in different situations. For example we may have a job where we are required to be strict about rules and to not allow for any exceptions. But at home we are very open and sharing with our spouse or children.

Appropriateness of boundaries has a lot to do with the setting you’re in: what’s ok to say or do when we’re out with friends may not be the same when we’re interacting in a more formal setting.

There are also several types of boundaries that can be established: personal boundaries relating to personal space or physical tough; emotional boundaries relating to our feelings; sexual boundaries that relate to how we expect or accept sexual intimacy; material boundaries relating to money and possessions and boundaries related to time.

Whayne Herriford, MS, LPCC is a licensed professional clinical counselor in the state of Kentucky and practices in both NKY and Cincinnati. He lives in Bellevue. This column is intended to provide general information to people about mental health-related issues and is not for diagnostic or treatment purposes. You should always consult with a mental health professional when you have concerns about thoughts or feelings. If you have any specific questions you would like him to address in a future article you can contact him at whayneherriford@gmail.com.

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