A Blog by Araminta Jonsson

Personal boundaries are rules or restrictions set by people in order to ensure that others behave in reasonable, safe and permissible ways towards them. Boundaries also guide the way a person should act when they are overstepped. They are built from a mix of beliefs, perceptions, opinions, past experiences and social learning[1]. The importance of setting and adhering to personal boundaries has been widely referenced in self-help books and delivered through counselling since the mid-1980’s[2].

Personal boundaries are believed to operate in two directions; affecting both how we interact with people and how they treat us, often referred to as the “containment” and “protection” functions[3]’ in social and intimate relationships.

Anne Katherine describes the absence of boundaries akin to leaving the door to your home unlocked: ‘anyone, including unwelcome guests, can enter at will. On the other hand, having too rigid boundaries can lead to isolation, like living in a locked-up castle surrounded by a mote. No one can get in, and you can’t get out.[4]’

Just as police tape, or a “No Trespassing” sign sends a clear message that if you violate that boundary, there will be a consequence, so should personal boundaries. By setting boundaries for ourselves, we practice self-care and respect; open communication of our needs in relationships, and ensure that we have enough time and space to engage in positive interactions. One could perceive setting boundaries as a way of closing oneself away, however boundaries are not rigid rules that we apply to everyone, but instead change according to how we feel, and the people we are interacting with. Like dealing with issues around consent, boundaries are fluid and dynamic and cannot be assumed.

According to Pia Melody, boundary systems are indiscernible and symbolic “fences” that have three purposes; to prevent people violating our space in order to be abusive, to keep us from doing the same, and to allow us to embody congruence; a true sense of who we are[5].

Melody states that boundary systems are comprised of both our external ability to give ourselves distance from people, and our internal ability to protect the integrity of how we think, feel and behave[6].

A boundary system is designed to protect self-esteem and self-worth.

There are many different aspects of our lives that we would set boundaries for[7]. An example would be someone standing too close or making unexpected or unwanted physical contact, being forced to engage in or witness sexual activity, or by being insulted, shouted at, patronised or lied to[8].

While it might seem obvious to put boundaries in place and to reject people who don’t respect them, people allow their boundaries to be broken; either by not realising a boundary should be in place, or feeling that they must adapt to another person’s needs or wishes. This could be due to a fear of confrontation and consequently rejection and potentially abandonment. Many people are not taught healthy boundaries and so may internalise a sense of guilt for not being able to adequately provide someone else’s needs over their own[9]. An example of this can be seen at childhood, when we are encouraged to kiss extended family members, and chastised for showing reluctance to do so. This teaches us that even though we don’t want to, we should compromise our physical boundaries to please other people.[10]

Rokelle Lerner argues that when we have healthy boundaries we know when we are being mistreated, but an individual without boundaries will not recognise this. Lerner writes about boundaries in relation to people who are co-dependent, and more specifically, Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACAs). Her work suggests that the lack of boundaries common among ACAs may explain why a disproportionate number of them remain in abusive situations.[11]

Lerner’s research took on board Dr. Stanley Keleman’s work from “Your Body Speaks It’s Mind” which found that children that are not able to say “no”, are not able to form and maintain boundaries, and so often become victimised. This then will usually carry on problematically in adulthood.

As a child goes into its second year, they begin to challenge their parents’ rules; testing the care and control systems around them in order to understand their place and what boundaries there should be; “where do I end and you begin?”. Lerner found that this is the reason many children from chaotic families often harbour a sense of responsibility for their parents that is then applied to their adult relationships; imparting a great sense of shame for their failures and a disproportionate and unrealistic level of expectation of themselves.[12]

If children have not been taught how to create healthy boundaries in childhood, this boundary deficit will create a core of shame which, in turn, will develop into a constant feeling of low self worth.

The most important impact of shame is the profound sense that “something is wrong with me”. This belief breeds a lack of trust in oneself, giving justification and weight to absorbing the emotions, opinions and beliefs of others.[13]

Lerner reminds us that It's important to remember that we are the only experts on our boundaries; that no one can tell us where our comfort zone is. This is something we must determine.

Damaged boundary systems born in childhood through dysfunctional families are written in stone and, without work, will remain well into adulthood, perpetuating themselves mostly in intimate relationships.

Roselle’s research found that emotional boundaries are most often damaged in the family by:[14]

Role Reversal – This is when emotions become enemies, and are numbed or feared due to a feeling of unease or mistrust at expressing emotions to parents who adopt the child role, expecting the child to make them feel better about themselves. This forces the child to act as parent; taking on the parents emotions and learning to block out their own.

Emotional Overload - Parents who share intimate details of their lives with their children or burden them with their secrets, such as infidelity, reduce the child’s ability to discern between their own and other people’s problems. This can lead to feeling emotions on behalf of our partners, according to Merle A. Possum and Marilyn J. Mason, authors of Facing Shame: Families in Recovery.

Shaming and Humiliation - Children who are routinely shamed for expressing their emotions often carry with them, what Lerner calls an invisible “committee” that criticises and judges the way they respond to situations. These people not only reject nurturing and compliments, but also mistrust those who try to get close to them, perceiving ulterior motives.

Enmeshment - This is when we become emotionally empty or "emotional sponges", by absorbing the emotions around us, letting ourselves be driven and identified by other people.

In Lerner’s book, “Boundaries for Codependants”, ‘we can begin to rebuild damaged emotional boundaries by paying attention to when we feel shame.[15]’ Adults who were victims of emotional abuse must learn to trust their feelings, and if these emotions overwhelm us, it requires us to identify what is causing those feelings.

Pia Melody suggests statements to help build and strengthen our personal boundaries, for example; saying “I have a right to control personal space and non-sexual touch with you, and you have the same right with me”, or “I have the right to decide with who, when, where and how I am going to be sexual” and “I create what I think and feel and I am in control of what I do, or don’t do, and the same is true for you”. We must have healthy boundaries in place in order to reject intolerant and abusive behaviours from others, such as broken commitments, lying and cheating.[16]

Lerner reminds us that feeling crazy is not the same as being crazy; what may seem like confusing and irrational behaviour in hindsight may be a completely normal response to abnormal situations. When people comment on the way they see a situation, it is possible to disregard it if we do not perceive it to be true, but we must allow ourselves the time to consider what is being said.[17]

Pat Ogden in Proximity, Defence and Boundaries with Children and Care-Givers: A Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Perspective, found that boundary setting, or “proximity seeking and defence actions” are organised by innate psychobiological systems of attachment. Her paper supports the idea that healthy attachments through boundary setting is key for our development, stating; ‘The legacy of trauma and attachment failure, with their consequential deficits, can constrain and disrupt adapting responses to the arousals of these systems.[18]’

In her book, “Where You End and I Begin”, Anne Katherine advises that when the time to set a boundary is identified, it should be done clearly, calmly, firmly, respectfully, and as succinctly as possible. It is not necessary to justify the boundary, or to demonstrate aggression or apology for it.

“When you feel anger or resentment or find yourself whining or complaining, you probably need to set a boundary. Listen to yourself, determine what you need to do or say, then communicate assertively.”

A person can only be responsible for their own behaviour, and so it is not possible to control someone else’s response to our own imposed boundaries. If a person has become accustomed to being manipulative or controlling, they might suggest that our boundaries make us selfish or that we are overreacting. However, we all have a right to self-care, and in order to be able to support others, we must in turn feel supported. Our boundaries are there to make sure we are self supporting and looking after ourselves.