What Are Boundaries?

The lives of people struggling with an anxiety disorder, and particularly social anxiety disorder, are often marred by chaos and a lack of cohesion. For many of us, it is indeed both difficult and time-consuming to figure out what it is that we are comfortable with in our lives. Then, the effects of social anxiety disorder also settle in, which only increases the fear with which one lives, making it that much harder to move out into the world, gain experience and set personal boundaries.

What are boundaries? Boundaries are something that help people to think and act in various situations. Boundaries can vary widely from person to person, and it seems as though most people may set sexual boundaries, or an alcoholic may set personal boundaries in order to maintain his sobriety. For sexual boundaries, people who are viewed as conservative will not have sex until they are married; others may choose to have sex after a certain amount of dates, after they feel comfortable with the other person, and some people set no boundaries at all, which is very dangerous!

An alcoholic may set boundaries around the type of people he or she chooses for friends. Their old friends may have enjoyed drinking to access and getting drunk on a regular basis, but the alcoholic who chooses to set a boundary says that he or she will no longer associate with these past friends so long as they continue their current behavior. On a more subtle level, an alcoholic may change the route he or she drives home from work, as it included several bars along the way. Rather than put him or herself at risk for relapse, the alcoholic has instead chosen to avoid temptation entirely and drive a different way home.

Boundaries need not be in relation to these more intense topics. People can set boundaries around whatever it is that they wish. Perhaps some people are very environmentally conscious and choose to set a boundary around using plastic bags from the grocery store, or perhaps a parent might set a boundary of not allowing his or her child to watch R-rated movies until he or she is a teenager.

The reason boundaries exist is that they help people to identify what they are or are not comfortable with. Boundaries help people to understand how to act. To better understand this, just examine the life of someone that is fairly extreme, a life that is lacking any boundaries whatsoever. Everybody has known somebody or had a close friend who has very few, if any boundaries, and can recall all the bizarre things that person did. Remember that friend who would get drunk, fall on the floor, and hit on everyone at the bar, possibly engaging in sex with one or more persons during that night? Remember the parent addicted to drugs, alcohol, or gambling who would simply leave and then return several days, or a week later? Remember the relative who would talk about getting in fights at school, stealing things from friends, and buying or selling stolen property or car parts? Everybody has known or heard of somebody like that!

While beloved by millions across the world and a very talented musician in his own right, Michael Jackson is a great famous example of someone who lacked boundaries. Remember when he dangled a baby from the balcony? Remember how he gave some teenage boys wine, showed them porn, and then admitted to sleeping in the same bed as other young boys? The point of all this is not to criticize Michael, who lived a very tragic personal life, but to give a great demonstration of someone who lacked boundaries!

For sufferers of social anxiety disorder, boundaries are an incredibly important skill to learn in life (see The Importance of Life Smarts for a broad overview of the importance of learning life smarts). Thinking through personal boundaries is a great way to take action and for people to take charge of their lives. But, like anything, setting boundaries is no simple task and takes much time, experience, and patience. And, to further complicate the process, the boundaries each person chooses to set are not going to be the same, but instead are going to be unique to that person!

While the process is not simple, and each person must do the work for him or herself, a general guide for creating your own boundaries can be given. When first thinking of boundaries to set, and this applies especially to young people, the important thing is to start small and keep it simple. Boundaries require experience, and inexperienced young people tend to reach out too far and create boundaries that are too constricting, and that are therefore unachievable. A simple starting boundary for a social anxiety disorder sufferer may be to not allow a friend to tease him or her about his or her shyness. Another great starting boundary may be to not allow parents to say certain phrases that increase one’s social anxiety.

Some people may now begin to say, “But, people are going to step over these boundaries sometimes, so how do I handle that?” This is where the gray area begins and things become more complex. It is also a great opportunity for social anxiety sufferers to build their assertiveness (see Assertiveness and Anxiety for more on assertiveness) Personally, I choose to give people the benefit of the doubt and start with the least intense reprimand. If I had a friend teasing me about something, I would say, “Look, it really bothers me when you tease me like that, could you please stop that?” Others may choose to be more harsh and may yell right back at that friend, however, that will breed resentment in the friend, and more than likely will cause the friendship to end. If that same friend continued to call me an irritating name and continued to violate the boundary I set, I might become slightly more stern and say, “Look, I asked you once nicely already to not call me that, so please stop!” If, and this may really happen to you, that friend still continues to call me that name, I would let him know that we will not be hanging out anymore because he is simply not respecting me as a person. This then forces the friend to choose between his own selfish desire to put others down and the friendship, and it is really a toss-up as to which path the friend chooses; some people are strong and can admit their faults, while others are more concerned with themselves and simply will move on as well. People fall in our external locus of control (see Locus of Control for a description of what this is), as they are something that we cannot control. However, certain actions (in my case, using the least intense reprimand) can be taken in order to optimize the chances people will take the action one desires.

Very briefly, this is how boundaries are set. The other practical advice that I can offer is that building your boundaries is a unique experience for each person; no one can set your boundaries for you. If sometimes, you feel that you have “failed” to enforce a boundary (this happens to everyone by the way) and you were not as assertive as you hoped, or were not assertive at all, be easy on yourself (see ASN’s Do Not Blame Yourself for more on self-blame). Setting boundaries takes practice and is a process (see ASN’s Patience, Recovery Can Take Time for more about this), and everyone makes mistakes.

After learning about how boundaries are set, some people will begin to ask, “But, if I change my behavior and start allowing people to treat me only in certain ways, then won’t I look stupid and maybe become the outcast of the group?” The answer to this question is a very emphatic, “Yes!” The chances are very real that if you decide to stop engaging in and allowing certain behaviors from your current group of friends, you might very well become the odd man out. Personally, I look at this as a positive. If people are unable to give you basic personal respect, then your anxiety is only going to stay where it is, or get worse, so if you must make the decision to find new friends, at the very worst your anxiety will stay the same, but likely will get better. The really good news is that there are kind-hearted people out there who are respectful of others and their boundaries, and although these people seem to be a minority of the total population, they are out there, and once you have found these people and incorporated them into your life, your anxiety will reduce dramatically and your personal happiness and confidence will increase dramatically! It really boils down to your personal willingness to undergo short-term struggles in favor of long-term personal happiness.

The answer to the question, “What Are Boundaries?” could cover an entire book in itself, but the bottom line and most important part of setting boundaries is that for the first time, social anxiety sufferers are acknowledging that they are valuable people, equal to every person in society. While setting boundaries is a far from perfect process, it is important that people are engaging in a process of personal growth and self-discovery, and everyone who continues to work at setting personal boundaries, no matter how imperfect they are, will end up okay (see ASN’s Apply Yourself and You’ll be Just Fine for more on this). Good luck and God speed to everyone as they engage on their journey to recover from anxiety! ty!