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How I Understand and Maintain Boundaries With Borderline Personality Disorder

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“You don’t understand boundaries.”

“You need to learn boundaries.”

“If you keep doing this I won’t speak to you again.”

These were statements I heard often early in my borderline personality disorder (BPD) recovery. I would hear these statements from therapists and former friends, often leading to feelings of shame and anxiety.

Hearing the word “boundaries” led to thoughts such as “the relationship is over.” Or “ they don’t care about me.” It felt like an insult. I thought that I was being called: Bad, Bossy, Bothersome. Unfortunately being told directly “You don’t understand boundaries,” did not result in me suddenly learning them! Instead, it led to an increase in intense emotions, and continuing to cross others’ boundaries, as well as allowing people to cross my own boundaries.

I now understand boundaries very differently, and it doesn’t scare me anymore. I see the value in this and I have learned that there are also more helpful and effective ways to approach the topic with others who may be struggling to maintain their own boundaries, or whom may be crossing others’ in relationships.

I would define boundaries as: the “line that I do not cross with others, and the line that I do not allow others to cross for me.” We may have different boundaries with different people. For example it may be OK to show up at my in-laws house unannounced and drop off a dessert, whereas that same behaviour with my therapist for example, would be a boundary crossing and likely a concern to be addressed. It may be OK to share an experience of trauma with a therapist within a scheduled session, but not OK to disclose a childhood trauma to a new co-worker who is not a friend and has not earned trust, where there has also not been permission obtained to share something so intimate. When thinking of boundaries, I find it helpful to consider how the other person may feel and respond, and take their perspective, not just my own limits need for empathy and connection, which are valid needs to be met in appropriate circumstances and through effective actions.

I have struggled with boundaries most of my life until learning skills and having them modelled for me by effective therapists. For me understanding the line where my “self” and “my needs” are, in comparison to the other person or situation, and “their needs” and “their self” are, was incredibly hard to learn. It did not come naturally to me.

I want to be clear in stating that in my lived experience, and in many people with borderline personality disorder who I have known can struggle with this, that crossing boundaries is often not intended to upset other people, and, I do recognize that there can be an unpleasant impact on those in our environment through actions that can be seen as boundary crossing. It’s understandable to feel hurt and whatever emotion is present if your boundaries are being crossed by someone. I also think that having compassion and attempting to understand how this might happen and why, can lead to healing, change, and problem-solving in the relationship, should that be desired by both people.

I try to have self-compassion now, when reflecting back on instances when I crossed boundaries, or let others cross my own such as: sending long detailed emails after hours to a therapist, excessively calling others, or cancelling and rebooking sessions to gain access to therapist communication when in distress. For myself, feeling intense emotions with physical vulnerability factors, and not having mastered interpersonal and distress tolerance skills to cope in difficult moments and consider consequences of my actions, contributed to these boundary crossings on my part. Even years later, it is hard for me to recall these events, and there is sometimes a lingering grief over lost relationships which were in part due to my own behavior.

In dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which is a common treatment for BPD, we are often told that “we cannot be kicked out of therapy for the problems that brought us in!” So if maintaining boundaries are a problem we have, we will be supported in mastering the skills to solve this, rather than being punished for having this problem.

In the beginning of effective dialectical behavior therapy therapy, the therapist explains the boundaries that exist in the relationship, and the consequence if we cross them. Crossing a boundary does not lead to being terminated from therapy, but there will be consequences. We will also be supported in changing the behavior so that the relationship is sustainable and that the skill generalizes in other areas in our lives outside of the sessions.

Having interpersonal effectiveness skills which I learned from dialectical behavior therapy make it less likely I will cross a boundary for someone else, and make it more likely I will enforce my own boundaries, when I feel others are crossing a line with me.

1. The DEAR MAN skill, FAST Skill, and GIVE skills (M.Linehan, DBT Skills Handouts and Worksheets p. 125-132) has been helpful specifically for me. DEAR MAN has helped me in saying: “no” and to appear confident and focused on my goal when declining a request from someone else— thus maintaining my own boundaries.

2. FAST skill is about maintaining self respect and my values. Excessive emailing would go against my values, and over-sharing with a new friend goes against my self-respect. Trust must be earned, and healthy relationships develop over time. I am worthy of privacy and I have a right to determine when or if I disclose, and the other has a right to chose not to hear it as well if it goes beyond their own limits.

3. GIVE stands for: be Gentle, act Interested, Validation, Easy Manner.  This way of interacting has been helpful for me to maintain relationships. “Lashing out” is often not seen by others as maintaining boundaries. GIVE skills provides concrete behaviors to act in ways that make it more likely we sustain a relationship.

4. Lastly, practicing distress tolerance skills such as STOP and Self-Soothing with 5 senses (M.Linehan DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets p. 327 & 334), can help us be in a  calmer more regulated space to respond interpersonally with others, by using these skills we are more equipped to make wise decisions, like maintaining our boundaries and not crossing others’, thus avoiding the consequences such as lost relationships.

I know these skills are easier said than done. Being emotionally sensitive feels like I have to work harder to maintain boundaries and not cross others’ boundaries. It has taken practice and I still remind myself of these skills often. It is possible to learn interpersonal skills — to maintain relationships, to feel respected, to build a life we experience as worth living.

I can say that I want to be someone who maintains boundaries, and does not cross them. I am not bad, bossy, bothersome. We can all benefit from learning skills to improve relationships, whether we have a diagnosis of BPD or not. My needs and values matter. And so do yours.

I am brave in setting boundaries; it’s not easy. And I am committing to keep using skills so that I do not cross others’. This leads to greater sense of belonging, blossoming — this is now what comes to mind when I think of boundaries.

Getty image by Luis Alvarez

Originally published: January 24, 2023
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