Personal Boundaries

Boundaries are important in your relationship with others and with your Self and are, therefore, a key aspect of emotional well-being.  Boundaries are learned in childhood, when we learn where our parents end and we begin.  Without a clear boundary between self and parent, the child remains enmeshed in the relationship.  Boundaries are invisible, the result of a conscious, bodily felt sense of self.  Therefore, a physical “no” needs to be recognized and communicated non-verbally as well as verbally.

A distinction is often drawn between physical and psychological boundaries[1]:

Physical boundary – This means respecting others’ physical and bodily space as well as insisting that they respect yours. You don’t get physically closer to someone than is comfortable for you or them.  This also includes intrusive actions such as going through someone’s private belongings, email, or eavesdropping.

Psychological boundary – This is to your psyche what your skin is to your body; it contains and protects you.  It allows for self-regulation so you are not at the whim of others’ opinions or emotions.  A healthy boundary is supple, not a rigid wall; you can stay actively engaged while considering what is being communicated.  Like an orange rind, this boundary has an outer protective layer and an inner containing layer.

  • Containing part – This part shields the world from you; it prevents your inner experience (e.g., emotional reactivity, acting out, impulsivity) from “leaking” out to others.  Generally, the more uncontained the environment you grew up in, the weaker your container will be.  Fully developing your container is necessary for closeness, otherwise you will behave inappropriately or offensively. Pausing, taking a few deep breaths, grounding and centering skills, time-outs, and walking away from a fight (with the promise to return when calm) are all good ways of strengthening your container.
  • Protective part – This part protects you from others’ intrusions. As you listen to someone, ask yourself if their words seems true to you.  If needed, ask for clarification or examples. In other words, is it really about you? People will often have inaccurate perceptions of you (and you of them)…it often happens, even with our closest friends and partners. Fully developing your protective part is necessary for closeness because it allows you to be connected and protected at the same time.  Without a strong protective layer, you will be vulnerable to any idea or emotion that someone presents.  Positive people will cheer you and sad people will bring you down; you will have little capacity to stay rooted in your own reality in the face of someone else’s.  Your protective layer allows you to stay engaged with what is being said without the need to stop it or run from it.  It allows you to teach people how to treat you.

If you have poor boundaries, you are connected but not protected.  If you are too boundaried (walled off), you are protected but not connected.  Neither condition is intimate – the key is to develop the supple protection of a healthy boundary.  Walled-off is only appropriate protection if you are on the receiving end of abuse that you can’t remove yourself from.

To explore your boundaries, ask yourself:  In my life and relationships, what do I desire, want more or less of?  What are my values? What are my stated limits?  Do I often feel taken advantage of?  What gets in the way of setting a healthy boundary (eg., fear of hurting or disappointing others; feeling your needs are not worthy; fear of being hurt; etc.)?

[1] Pia Mellody (2003). Facing Co-Dependence.