Mind Matters – The importance of boundaries

How can the psychological concept of “boundaries” help us through the COVID-19 pandemic?

I think there is much confusion about the concept of boundaries – it is a shame that they have become associated only with difficult and abusive behaviours, used as a judgement or a criticism and so not always thought about as a way to navigate and be helpful in how we approach living generally.

When people speak about boundaries it is often about the importance of setting them and this suggests that boundaries are about setting rules, guidelines and limits. Instead I view boundaries as being about a dynamic, moment to moment process that enables us to make skilful and healthy choices throughout our day; in every situation we encounter, whether it is something in relation to others, or to ourselves. If you are living your life operating within a set of fixed rules, timetables and guidelines it does not mean you have good boundaries – it just means you are choosing to live by rules, timetables and guidelines!

I was fortunate enough to have a two week holiday in Sicily during September – being able to get away to a remotely situated house close to a huge and mostly deserted beach in a nature reserve – one that I have visited on a number of times over the last few years – gave me an experience of having big portions of my day where I experienced life as I did before COVID-19 – no face coverings, no situations requiring altered behaviour, no social interactions, just us, nature, sun, sand, swimming in the sea, relaxing in the holiday home. With all this time away from COVID-19 and the changes it has brought to our everyday lives I noticed that when thoughts of the pandemic did arise it really highlighted to me the extent and scale of the changes. I thought about this in terms of boundaries.

I thought about how on the positive side, my days back home have been less pressured with commuting and social obligations, with more time to stop and reflect, to exercise, to take slow and regular walks with our ageing Chocolate Labrador Holly, to relax and enjoy being at home. On the negative side a felt sense of pressure coming from wanting to be useful, saying yes too much, spending too much time at the computer, colluding with my anxiety by watching too much news and allowing my diet to contain more fat and sugar and make that glass of red wine an almost daily “treat” rather than twice weekly treat.

So these reflections highlighted to me where I had not been paying close enough attention to my process and not considering my boundaries in some common areas. Namely allowing myself to give time and energy to things that don’t sustain or support me and not giving enough time and energy to the things that do. Some of the things were about doing things in relation to other people that, on reflection, I might have said ‘no’ to in some instances and ‘yes’ in others whilst the eating and drinking are examples of me saying ‘yes’ to things where ‘no’ would have been more skilful.

So what are boundaries in action? A very topical example right now is around how people are behaving in relation to COVID-19 rules and what that means for us all. A BBC news article I saw last week talked about how Boris Johnson had urged neighbours to speak to each other about breaking rules on social gatherings before involving the police. For many people this might be a good solution but what if you have angry and violent neighbours? What if doing this causes you great stress and under stress you tend to get angry?

Before you put your shoes on and head next door let’s use the concept of boundaries to decide on how to manage this situation. Ask yourself the following questions:

How do I feel about going round to speak to my neighbours?

What is my experience of these neighbours, of situations like this, of me in situations like this?

What am I legally required to do?

What are my beliefs and values relevant to this situation?

What might the consequences of speaking to the neighbours or not speaking to the neighbours be?

What other options are available to me?

How do I feel about each of these, what consequences come with them?

What would I recommend someone else to do in this situation?

What option aligns with my beliefs and values, do I think is best and feels most comfortable for me?

Having asked yourself these questions you will have taken into account your feelings, beliefs and values, experience and skills and considered relevant factual information – what you decide you want to do can be seen as your boundary in this situation. You may head next door, you may call the police, you may do nothing at all but importantly you will have made the best decision you can in the circumstances.

Reflections of my own boundaries remind me that the central driver to which I need to pay more attention is the feeling of “pressure”. It is feeling under pressure that can lead me to shortcut the process of reflection and questioning that enables me to fully take account of my boundaries. COVID-19, the guidelines, restrictions and uncertainty everyone is experiencing means that we need to really pay attention to how we ensure stress and pressure do not divert us from attending to our boundaries.

My holiday reminds me that taking some time out to think about our behaviours can highlight whether we are managing our boundaries. I hope you have had a chance to get away, if not that you are able to find ways to step out of your everyday to reflect. I’ve already said ‘no’ to a few things that I would have taken on, started a few exciting new things that I might not have prioritised and with the uncertainty around when another holiday might be possible, decided to increase time for meditation and daydreaming. I don’t have as much time now for the news feeds but I’ll let you know how I get on with the fat, sugar and vino..…

Look after yourselves.

Nicholas Rose
Psychotherapist, Counsellor, Couples Counsellor and Coach
UKCP registrant, MBACP (accred), UKRCP
PGDip, MA, Adv Dip Ex Psych

Nicholas Rose & Associates
Counselling, psychotherapy and coaching for children, adults, couples and families.


Featured image: No Boundaries – Aboriginal Contemporary Abstract painting