I’m back again with my boundary stuff. If you have followed me on this journey of understanding the significance of setting boundaries both personally and professionally, then wait till you get a load of this blog—internal boundaries. Each time I have mentioned this concept in session clients look at me like I have sprouted a third eye. Internal boundaries? Never heard of her. And quite frankly, I hadn’t either until very recently when my mentor took a minute to inform me! So, full disclosure, this mental health professional is right here with you on this part of the journey.
When it comes to defining internal boundaries why reinvent the wheel when other folks have already created beautiful, succinct definitions—
“Internal Boundary: This is the boundary which protects you (and others) from yourself. It serves as a filter between your feelings, and what you do with them. This boundary helps you sort through your intense anger, hurt and pain, and decide whether, and how, to express it” (Thanks again, PsychCentral)
I also liked this definition,
“Internal boundaries are boundaries that we set with and for ourselves, with our well-being in mind. If external boundaries are where we bump up against other people’s limits, internal boundaries can be said to be where we bump up against our own values, morals, personal capacity, and identity.” (Credit goes to Lindsay Braman)
So, in essence, internal boundaries are the rules we create for ourselves for how we want to live our lives.
The neat part is that they can change as we grow and develop as humans. What our internal boundaries may have started out as may look entirely different as we endure various lived experiences. Speaking of how internal boundaries start—not all internal boundaries are created equally. Our families, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood shape how we exist in the world, so it is fair to say that some folks possess a better grip on their internal boundaries than others. The great news is that therapy can help hone your internal boundaries if you feel as though yours need to be strengthened.
What do I mean by honing your internal boundaries? Well, as with most things in the therapeutic process, it could look like enacting a certain level of intentionality. You could show up to session and matter-of-factly let your therapist know, “Hey, I gotta work on these internal boundaries of mine. Stat.” And while I can only speak for myself, I imagine that could lead to a lot of creative interventions (that’s just a fancy therapy word for activities).
I like to focus on my client’s values as a means of shaping their internal boundaries. Sometimes, if we have been working together for a while, I can offer examples of how they have maybe inadvertently shared their values with me through examples. I then ask them to consider how their values help shape their actions and desires. So, for example, if a client tells me (even in a roundabout way) that they really value punctuality (“Monet, I must be on time to every event I have planned. That’s important to me. I want folks to know I really appreciate them spending time with me.”) I will lean into that. I may say something like, you know, you mentioned a while back that you really value punctuality. It sounds like an internal boundary you possess regarding punctuality is that you hold yourself accountable to being on time.
What if you haven’t been working with a client for a while, Monet? What then? I’m so glad you asked! That’s what Values Assessments are for (that’s just a fancy therapy word for answering questions about your values). A session may be devoted to gathering data on a client’s values. We would go through the assessment together and determine what the client specifically values in life and from there identify some internal boundaries they can begin to implement or recognize internal boundaries that they are already implementing in their lives.
In my work pursuing my sex educator certification I have come to realize that internal boundaries also play a significant role when it comes to one’s sexuality. Specifically, internal boundaries are crucial if you plan to engage in any sort of sexual activity. Why? Because you need to know what you are willing to do and not do in a sexual context. Now, I realize that’s a declarative statement and that there is nuance and exploration to be had when engaging in sex, but I am speaking more so to the bigger picture here so humor me.
Internal boundaries allow people to intentionally engage in sex that aligns with their values and often yields more satisfying results.
So, then, how do you figure out your internal sexual boundaries? Lots of ways! This can be done independently or in session with a trained therapist or registered sex therapist. Examining beliefs around sex (what messages you were given about sex at home, in the community, in the church, etc) as well as your previous experiences with sex and sexuality (considering what dating was like for you, what expectations were given to you based on your gender, how you personally feel about sex) and examining the limits to which you are willing to engage in certain sex acts or aspects of sexuality (example—are you adamant that you will use a condom every time with a long-term, monogamous partner or are you willing to be tested for STIs consistently? Are you okay with engaging in a polyamorous relationship or are you a one partner kind of person?)
Being intentional about your internal sexual boundaries empowers you to make choices and not only hold yourself accountable but also any future partners accountable for what happens within the relationship.
Often, when I am listening to a client lament about a negative sexual experience, it is clear that there wasn’t this level of intentionality enacted. And honestly, it is through no fault of their own, because we live in an erotophobic society that condemns folks for communicating openly about their sexuality (more on that in a future blog, don’t worry).
So, if you find yourself wanting to explore or strengthen your internal boundaries (generally speaking or specifically your sexual boundaries) I invite you to give me a call—this is something I truly enjoy helping clients come to understand about themselves.