Sunday 1st of October, 2023.
Written by Clinical Psychologist, Ebony Collins.


The Art of Setting Boundaries

Boundary setting is a helpful tool for most people. This technique is particularly helpful for people and their significant others with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). Boundary setting is something that we do in order to identify the parameters for certain behaviours or aspects of interactions. They provide clarity on the general expectations in the relationship and what is considered to be the limits. Boundaries are not something that is just applied to the individual with BPD, it is also applied to the other person or people’s involved in the relationship.

Boundaries can also be self imposed, in that they can be something that we apply to our own behaviours. Self imposed boundaries may be something like a particular bed time, the amount we consume something such as social media, or they could be how much we engage or share with others.

Boundaries are not about restricting or limiting people or behaviour in a negative way. The purpose of the boundaries is to provide general expectations and provide clear guidance to help remove any confusion that may lead to distress. In order for boundaries to be effectively implemented, they should contain some key information. The boundaries need to contain details regarding the expectations, such as the range of acceptable behaviour, the point that something can reach before it is crossing a line.

The key part of this strategy for someone with BPD is the removal of confusion by providing details on expectations that then allows them to know how someone will react to particular situations. Often someone with BPD struggles to understand behavioural expectations or appropriate social interactions due to a range of factors experienced from their past. In general someone with BPD wants to improve their relationships and have stable and consistent relationships with others. Their difficulties with interpersonal situations is derived from a lack of clear understanding of expectations. Inconsistent responses lead to distress.

Implementing boundaries with problematic behaviours can be far more challenging. The person experiencing the dysregulated emotions and resulting problematic behaviour, may view boundaries to be restrictive or controlling. Initially, this can result in difficulties enforcing and maintaining boundaries. A vital step in implementing boundaries is to be consistent with the response to a boundary violation.

Inconsistencies with boundaries cause confusion. The purpose of having boundaries is to remove confusion, therefore it is extremely important to remain consistent. As with most strategies boundaries can be adjusted. These should not be adjusted during an interaction where they appear to have been unsuccessful. The boundary should be reviewed and discussed in order to determine a more appropriate boundary or range for the boundary. Making changes during an unsuccessful application of the boundary can give the impression that they can be altered at any point and undermines the importance.

There needs to be responses to boundaries that are violated. The response should be communicated and discussed at the same time that the details of the boundaries are provided. This insures that those involved are aware of both the boundary itself and the response if it is not followed. Remember consistency is very important. The response should be consistent in order for those involved to be able to anticipate and understand the response to their behaviour. Responses can be scaled based on the degree of the boundary violation. Responses should always be equal to the degree of violation. An exaggerated response is unhelpful when trying to encourage improved interactions.

Do’s and Don’ts of Boundary Setting

  • Do provide clear information on the desired behaviour.
  • Do explain the range of acceptable behaviour.
  • Do provide clear information on how boundary violations will be responded to.
  • Do remain consistent in maintaining the boundary and the responses.
  • Do review boundaries over time.
  • Do remind others of the boundaries from time to time.
  • Do not over complicate the expectations by setting to many parameters.
  • Do not inflate responses to boundary violations.
  • Don’t change boundaries in the middle of an interaction.
  • Do not change consequences/responses without discussion and explanation.
  • Do not use boundaries as a form of control or punishment.

It is really important that those involved understand the reasoning for the boundaries and are provided the opportunity to discuss these. A discussion is not necessarily a negotiation process as time and consideration should have gone into determining the boundaries and responses ahead of the discussion. Boundaries are generally put in place to allow anyone involved to feel safe, and to comfortably interact with one another to assist in allowing interactions to be pleasant for all involved. Boundaries can be a really helpful strategy for improving relationships and interactions with others. Change can be difficult for most people. Setting boundaries can involve change, which may result in some level of discomfort, and some rare situations will lead to an escalation in behaviour. Remain consistent and persist as the person will start to anticipate that this is the new pattern and they will come to accept this.