One of the things that can often become blurred throughout your life are boundaries. You might allow your boss or a coworker get away with asking you to complete unnecessary tasks in order to be a team player. Or let you child have extra screen time or a sugary snack because you’re busy, tired, or distracted. Maybe it’s family that tends to push you, or friends who take just a little more than they give. That’s where healthy boundaries come in.
To put it simply, boundaries are the lines you set internally that create personal space between you and the rest of the world. You can imagine it like a fence surrounding you, or a series of fences. Each one should have a gate. This allows you to let people move closer to your internal world but that also firmly keep others out. Like any good fence, they should be able to breathe. You don’t want them to be too rigid, or they might break under pressure. But what does that look like in practice? And what do healthy boundaries look like in the brain?
Boundaries and the Brain
Your brain is wired to respond to your environment—both internal and external. And boundaries are the practices that help regulate this response. They allow you the distance to protect your mental and emotional well-being. But unlike other primal instincts driving the brain, boundaries can be a bit tricky. Because your brain is also primed to seek social connection and maintain group cohesion. That’s why it can be difficult to determine if agreeing to work late is upholding the social balance we all need to survive, or if it’s doing more damage than good.
When faced with a situation that requires an internal boundary, your brain goes through several decision-making processes. That might sound logical on the surface, but before you get anywhere near logic, your amygdala lights up. The amygdala is your emotional processing center. This is what controls your fight-or-flight response. And while being asked to work late or going to a stressful family dinner isn’t life-threatening, the amygdala is what tells you how to respond.
The first thing your amygdala asks is if the situation poses a threat. When your boss asks you to help a co-worker on a project, your reaction will depend largely on your emotions. If you have a good working relationship, your prefrontal cortex will take over and allow you to logically analyze the situation. But if things have been tense, your fear might spark anxiety over the situation and cause you to override any logical deduction you might use to determine if this is good or bad for your internal well-being.
Once your amygdala is triggered, it can be difficult to stop thinking of anything except worst case outcomes. This is the primary reason your boundaries can be eroded over time. Every instance where you give in to the request based on fear and anxiety, the stronger this emotional reaction will become.n order to offset this reaction, you have to practice allowing your prefrontal cortex to take over. You can do this by taking time to write a pros and cons list to help you switch from emotions to logic.
Your prefrontal cortex is where your executive functioning takes place. When you need to make a sound, reasonable decision, you can rely on your prefrontal cortex to calm your emotional responses and come up with a rational approach to the problem. The more you practice logical reactions to situations requiring boundaries, the easier they get to enact.
That doesn’t mean you should get rid of your emotional response. In fact, once you’re able to effectively maintain healthy boundaries with the people around you, that emotional response can be a far more reliable indicator of things to agree to or avoid. Remember, your brain is designed to keep you safe and those emotional responses can be an incredibly reliable way to measure and assess new situations. The problem happens when you override that instinct too many times, and the emotional response takes over.
The Benefits of Boundaries
A healthy boundary is one that balances the short-term needs with the long-term benefits. When put that way, it becomes obvious why you need your prefrontal cortex in charge. You have to be able to identify, measure, and assess both the needs and potential outcomes to these difficult situations.
Healthy boundaries can reduce your stress, help you avoid burnout, and lead to better emotional regulation. When you calm your amygdala, you make it easier for your prefrontal cortex to take over. Emotions are an important part of being human, but not having emotional regulation is exhausting and can have numerous negative consequences on your body and brain. It increases the stress hormone cortisol, which can interfere with sleep, induce anxiety, and lead to poor executive functioning.
It’s understandable that the fear of damaging relationships can occur if you enforce a boundary. But studies have shown that it’s the opposite that’s true. Your relationships grow stronger because the people in your life know that you will be more present around them. When you don’t have healthy boundaries, you can develop resentments that will erode the relationship over time. And because your emotional responses are in control, you may overreact to other situations, leading to worse experiences for everyone involved.
Understanding the neurology of healthy boundaries is a powerful tool for optimizing your brain’s potential. Healthy boundaries allow your logical prefrontal cortex to effectively assess and analyze situations so you can ensure you balance your needs with the maximum social and emotional benefits. They also allow your amygdala to properly identify potential stressful situations that you may want to avoid. When you maintain healthy boundaries your relationships improve, your stress goes down, your brain function improves, and your overall well-being increases.
If you want to learn more about the benefits of emotional health and how to live a more emotionally healthy life, watch this video: