“Heads up” Note: This post may bring up painful and/or overwhelming issues. If you feel that you are being overwhelmed by reading this, please stop, contact a therapist and/or call 911 if you feel you need/want immediate help. As always, this post is NOT meant as therapy and I give it you for informational purposes only. That said, I realize how sensitive a topic this can be, and want you to take care of yourself and do what it takes to be safe and whole. My email is: email@example.com if you wish to email me, or you may leave comments on the blog.You may also call me and leave at message at (970) 776-6043. I do respond to each and every comment, so if you wish to leave a comment, I will get back to you.
Also: This discussion may seem to move “backward” as I’m describing boundary violations before I talk about healthy boundaries. The reason for this setup is that I want us all to have a common understanding of what a violation is – and many of us may not even recognize that our boundaries were violated. So we start with a common awareness, and will move to a discussion of healthy boundaries from there.
Boundaries are a popular and important aspect of my work. However, many people aren't sure what we mean when we talk about "boundaries." Simply put, a boundary is a rule that you set, or someone else sets, about what is ok and what is not ok. We all have boundaries, although some of us may have more difficulty with setting, keeping, or respecting them than do others. Boundaries come in many different forms. In this discussion, I’m relying heavily on Cloud & Townsend’s excellent book, “Boundaries: When to say YES, When to say NO to take control of your life” (Zondervan, 1992 – there may be a second edition available at this point.) I’m also relying on my experiences – both as someone who’s had boundaries violated and from working with people whose boundaries were violated. Boundaries are NOT trying to control anyone else, or get them to do what we want. Rather, it’s trying to set rules and guidelines for ourselves about what is acceptable to us, what is not, and how we’re going to take care of ourselves.
There are many kinds of boundaries, the most basic of which is the fact that we are separate physical beings from other people. When someone else – intentionally or not – invades and/or ignores that separateness without our permission, that is what we call a “boundary violation.” A boundary violation is exactly what it sounds like – a boundary that should have been maintained or honored has been crossed.
Boundaries are all around us in the world – you know the signs that say “Do Not Enter” or “Store Personnel only beyond this point”? Those are boundaries. A “stop” sign is a boundary, as is a locked door. Having separate restrooms for men and for women is a boundary, our very homes are boundaries that separate our family from the rest of the world. The list of boundaries that exist physically in our world is nearly limitless. Boundaries in the world around us are not always physical, either – generally speaking, we don’t go up to people and ask them what kind of underwear they’re wearing – that’s a social boundary. All those verbal and nonverbal rules about how we behave around other people are also boundaries. Here’s another example of a social, unspoken boundary: When you’re visiting your doctor’s office, you generally don’t ask about his/her spouse by the first name and ask about how their businesses are going (unless you have a REALLY good, outside-the-office friendship). You may share things about your life, but the general rule is that you don’t ask the professionals you work with about their personal lives and relationships. (There are, of course, exceptions – sometimes we therapists may say things about our lives to help you understand and trust us. These should always be done, however, with YOUR best interest in mind.) Think about what happens when you cross one of these boundaries: you may get a surprised reaction, someone may reiterate the boundary with you (“I don’t think it’s appropriate for me talk with you about that”), they may move away from you and/or have little interaction with you from that point on, etc. The point here is, social boundaries aren’t always clear or spoken – AND they still exist and must be observed, or there are consequences. These are “group” boundaries – they apply to us as a social group. There are also individual boundaries, and we are going to focus here on those.
Your individual boundaries, like the group boundaries are both physical and social. Physically, your skin is a boundary – it keeps us separate from and protected from the world around us. When that boundary is compromised, we risk being hurt – bleeding, damage, infection. Our bodies themselves are a boundary. Other than normal infant, medical, or physical care, our bodies belong to us and we should have the ultimate say about who touches them or has access to them. Unfortunately, these boundaries are violated way more that we would care to admit. A cross-over boundary between the physical and psychological boundaries is our "space" - how close we all allow people to get before we feel uncomfortable. Depending on our culture, how we've been treated physically and psychologically and a whole host of other factors, our personal space may or may not be a huge boundary issue.
Psychologically speaking, boundaries are the way we respect ourselves and our needs while respecting others and their needs – it’s how we take care of ourselves and let others do the same. Ideally, this is a two-way street, but as many of us know, that’s not always the case. Healthy boundaries mean we take responsibility for our “stuff” – our issues, our growth, our needs and wants – and that we respect those same things in other people. Having healthy boundaries means realizing that someone may do or "be" in ways different from us, and that we don’t have to impose our way of being on them. Having healthy boundaries also means that we are able to tell other people that they have done something harmful or hurtful to us, in a way that is respectful to both them and us. Robert Burney has a great discussion of setting boundaries on his website (http://joy2meu.com/Personal_Boundaries.htm). While he is discussing boundaries in the context of codependency, some of his words are applicable to many situations. His concepts echo Cloud and Townsend, where they speak of boundaries being flexible. There are some boundaries that are not meant to be flexible – having the right to control your body and what’s done to it is one of those. Other boundaries leave room for negotiation and change: “While I’m a student, I’ll accept your expertise and authority. Once I’m working on my own, though, you need to respect my needs for independence and growth.” (As you’re probably guess by now, this boundary stuff can get sticky sometimes!)
Cloud and Townsend have a great analogy for what a healthy boundary would look like. If your boundaries are too tight or too rigid, it's like putting up a stone wall keeping the rest of the world outside. Too many of us have had to do this to survive, and learning to take down the walls is hard work. Boundaries that are too "loose" or too permeable are like an open rail fence - they may keep somethings in or out, but generally there isn't much of a barrier there - both for protecting what's inside and for keeping what's inside from leaking out. Again - many of us have not been allowed to learn to set healthy boundaries, and may have boundaries that are too open. Ideally, healthy boundaries are like a strong, secure fence with a gate - we can keep in what we want and protect ourselves from the world, and can let out what we want to let out in a healthy manner.
Please Note: The content on this blog is intended for informational purposes only. This is not therapy, and if you wish to work in therapy, please contact your local mental health agency or your physician for a referral.
If you are in crisis or danger, please call 911 for immediate help. Please, again, realize that seeking out help really IS a sign of strength and not a sign of weakness. You don’t have to be alone in facing these things – there are people who care and who will help. Email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org