While most of us agree that having good boundaries is key for psychological and emotional wellbeing, not many of us know how to set them in a healthy manner. That is because setting boundaries, for the unexperienced, tends to trigger feelings of fear – be it of abandonment and/or rejection – as well as guilt and shame. If that is the case, how can a behaviour that favours us makes us feel bad? The answer is simple: nature is imperfect. It made us wired for connection – which allowed us to thrive as a species – but at an emotional and psychological cost.
Wired for connection, but also for feelings of fear, shame and guilt
Nature has taught us that in order to have a better chance of survival, we must nurture social connections. We are stronger in numbers, and when we can count on others for help. Conversely, when alone, we are vulnerable, and more susceptible to extinction. Therefore, nature’s priority is to keep us alive and in groups, no matter the emotional impact they have on us as individuals.
Nature is wise, but not perfect. While it prioritises survival, it bypasses other factors that give us a sense of wellbeing. When we are learning how to set boundaries, nature makes us feel guilty for saying no to others and ashamed for prioritising our needs. Then, it makes us afraid of not being included in the group anymore, precisely because we set a boundary! It does so because it is biased to the social for survival. It is up to us, however, as evolved human beings, to see beyond this tendency and set good boundaries, even with nature itself.
Using the prefrontal cortex (PFC) to moderate social behaviour
The prefrontal cortex is the outer, more evolved area of the brain. As stated by Kolk and Rakic (2022), “the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is considered to be the substrate of highest cognitive functions”. These include decision-making, stress controllability, behavioural flexibility and extinction of fear responses. For that reason, anyone aiming at having good boundaries should pay attention to this area of the brain and work to strengthen it. While setting good boundaries might trigger fear, shame and guilt in some, those who have good impulse control and are able to manage their fear responses autonomously set boundaries more effectively and enjoy more personal freedom and growth.
Meditation to strengthen the prefrontal cortex (and good boundaries)
Various studies have proven that meditation promotes changes in brain activity (see references below). In a study conducted by Lazar et al (2005), their findings showed that “brain regions associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing were thicker in meditation participants than matched controls”. If meditation practice thickens cortical areas, it helps strengthen the PFC. A stronger PFC, in turn, means stronger executive functioning – or ability to plan ahead, meet goals and display self-control. As self-control is key element to resist the fear, shame and guilt feelings triggered by boundary setting, we need a strong PFC to create and honour healthy boundaries.
If you are interested in learning how to practice meditation to get your brain ready for good boundary setting, I highly recommend the timeless Mindfulness, A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Williams and Penman (2011).
Lazar SW, Kerr CE, Wasserman RH, Gray JR, Greve DN, Treadway MT, McGarvey M, Quinn BT, Dusek JA, Benson H, Rauch SL, Moore CI, Fischl B. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. 2005 Nov 28;16(17):1893-7. doi: 10.1097/01.wnr.0000186598.66243.19. PMID: 16272874; PMCID: PMC1361002.