What are boundaries?

Personal boundaries define our edges. They create a space where we can feel, act, and genuinely be who we are. Boundaries provide important information to us as we make decisions about how to express ourselves with integrity and still remain respectful of others. We use them to identify situations in which we may need to take action to help others not push beyond our boundaries. We take these edges and our understanding of them into situations and relationships every day. Setting boundaries is a responsibility that each of us has whether we are aware of it or not. Knowing and managing where we end and the other begins is essential to living a satisfying and healthy life.

Some boundaries we set mindfully and intentionally; others we set unconsciously or at such an early age we are unaware of them. Regardless of how we acquire our boundaries, they help us navigate in the world. We set boundaries to allow people to come close or to keep people at a distance physically, emotionally, and intellectually.  Boundaries should vary with context and relationship: The latitude that we have for honest expression should vary across situations and relationships. Personal boundaries are not one-size-fits all. For example, if you were to see a good friend at a coffee shop, you may hug your friend and make a joke or tease. However, if you were to see a business acquaintance, you may smile and utter a routine greeting like “Nice to see you.” No hug or personal exchange. In this example, you would be keeping the acquaintance at a distance and bringing the good friend closer: consciously setting the boundaries.

We may not always be aware of a boundary until someone pushes past it triggering feelings of discomfort, anxiety or anger. It can be confusing to feel such strong negative emotions and not be aware of just what elicited them. So it’s important when we have such experiences that we ask ourselves if we may have discovered something about ourselves: Is there a boundary here that I wasn’t consciously monitoring? What am I learning about myself? Is there anything that I need to do to make sure that this person doesn’t cross this boundary again?

Setting boundaries and having others honor them is easier said than done. Not everyone with whom we have a relationship sets his or her boundaries in the same place that we have our own. In other words, there may be people to whom you would like to be closer, but the other person keeps you at a distance. Or there may be people that you keep at a distance who want or think that they should be able to be closer.

Let’s return to the example of meeting your business acquaintance. What if this person started teasing you about your shirt? What if he started asking you questions or making comments about your personal life? How would you feel about this? What would you think about this? Suppose this acquaintance hugged you? Would this be OK with you? This could be a situation in which your boundaries and the other person’s boundaries are in conflict. Most people would not be comfortable with a casual acquaintance acting in such personal ways. When someone oversteps their by coming too close, it is important to provide feedback to that person about the behavior.

When people push or cross our boundaries, we frequently feel distressed, confused, or anxious. Here are some other situations that highlight ways that people invade each other’s boundaries.

·       Someone imposes the following rule: Because we are family, “in love”, or friends, we must do everything together. This means that we must think the same things, hold the same opinions, feel the same emotions at the same time, and act the same ways. Separateness is unacceptable.

·       Someone acts toward you in a way that triggers so much discomfort and fear that you cope by telling yourself “It doesn’t matter” or “I’ll ignore it and it will stop soon.”

·       Someone is so attentive to you that you feel smothered.

Here are some reactions you may experience that tell you your boundaries are being crossed.

·       You don’t feel or think that you can say “no” or disagree without being punished or start a huge argument.

·       You feel that nothing you think, feel or do is allowed to be your own private business. You are expected to report all the details of your feelings, reactions, opinions, relationships.

·       You feel you don't have a private space where you can be your own person.

Sometimes a person crosses a personal boundary out of ignorance of its existence. This is a boundary error. However, if a person disregards your boundary even after you have educated him or her about it, then it is a boundary violation: an intentional act that crosses the line.

An important part of assuming responsibility for teaching people how to treat us is giving a person feedback about the impact of their actions on us. If the act is an error, educate the person. If the act is a violation, remind them that you have talked to them about this before and insist that they honor your personal limits.  Often these are difficult conversations. However, it’s a conversation that you are entitled to have for the benefit of your own integrity and for the health of the relationship.

Learning to manage our own boundaries is a necessary step in learning to be a friend to ourselves and others. When we understand our own boundaries well, we know that we have separate feelings, thoughts, and perceptions. Our boundaries and our unique perceptions and experiences make up who we are and how we understand the world. They also determine who we are in relationship with others.

Without clearly understanding our own boundaries, relationships will be unsatisfying and feel confusing, scary, or overwhelming. This is because we don’t know what behavior is appropriate: we don’t know how to act; we lack a sense of “the rules of engagement”. Without this understanding, we may do something that triggers a negative response in the other person. Or the other person may do something that triggers a negative reaction in us that we can’t explain. Both circumstances lead to conflict and dissatisfaction.


Types of personal boundaries

When we are clear about our boundaries, we are positioned to avoid or stop a person from repeatedly violating our physical, emotional, and intellectual boundaries. People who continually violate our boundaries are acting abusively. This is especially true when the abuser believes that we cannot or will not protect ourselves from their actions. 

Physical boundaries define our physical comfort zone. They determine how close we want others to come to us. This includes who, how, and when we will allow a person to touch us. Our physical selves may also be extended to our personal space such as the distance that we want a person to stand from us or  possessions such as the contents of a purse or desk drawer. We also have physical boundaries associated with our resources, like money and time.

Extreme physical boundaries violations are incest, sexual abuse, physical violence, and robbery. These acts are boundary errors and always violations. However, whether the act is an error or violation, we owe it to ourselves to provide feedback to the offender. It’s is indeed difficult to provide feedback to an abuser that effectively ends behavior change. For children It’s near impossible.

Suppose an adult such as parent, family member, or clergy member inappropriately touched a child. Now consider this progression of consequences to the child. The  child might react first with fear and an instinct to defend. Close behind the fear is confusion: is there really a need to say “no”, I trust this person; am I allowed to say “no”; what will happen if I say “no”? The would likely defend himself.  The child does not defend himself. Now the child’s behavior tells him there was no real threat. And this belief could  lead to unsafe self doubt: Maybe I can’t recognize danger myself and should always look to the other person to tell me if I am in danger. This unconscious thinking actually positions the child to be repeatedly abused and to accept responsibility for the abuse. Such thinking represents only one way that boundary violation can damage a child’s normal and healthy development.

However, a physical boundary violation does not have to involve touching to cause distress. How would you feel if your boss told you that you had to work past your agreed work day? What if the boss stated that you had to comply because he was the boss? What if he did not even acknowledge that you might have other obligations? In this example, the boss’s actions communicated that he believes that he can make the decision for you about how you will allocate your time outside work. Is this really and that his rank within the organization gives him authority to do so. Is this true? The boss can certainly tell you how to use your time within the work day. However, your personal time is yours to allocate. Your boss doesn’t have the authority to commit your personal resource. Only you have that authority.

This last example also introduces something that complicates boundaries. Some relationships are defined in part by a hierarchy: the relationship may be between a person of higher authority and a person of lower authority.  In these instances, the “rules of engagement” include rules associated with conduct appropriate to roles within the hierarchy and outline behavioral expectations of people in the various roles. However, rules of a hierarchy do not eliminate your obligation to yourself to monitor and manage your boundaries. Not do these rules give all with higher rank license to abuse the boundaries of those lower in the hierarchy.

Emotional boundaries tell us which emotions are ours and which emotions are someone else’s. Emotions are internal events that are triggered in response to something that we perceive. Emotions themselves are neither good nor bad. Emotions tell us about the threat level that we have assessed in a situation.

We may or may not be aware of the threat or the emotional response to it. Yet the trigger and the emotion both exist. We can also be quite aware of the emotion and a defensive action and not be completely aware of what the trigger was. Have you ever jumped thinking that you saw something alive on the floor only to discover that it was a piece of lint?

Emotions are part of our defense system: they are connected to our ongoing activity of monitoring our surroundings for danger. Emotions position us to act quickly in response to a perceived threat: they are information about the level of threat and they motivate action. Perceived danger triggers fear that triggers action.

Many emotional triggers are common across people. There are a number of things that most people find frightening or elicit anxiety. Some are the substance of scary movies: the person in the shadows behind the tree or the bump in the attic. Yet, not all that we find scary are life threatening situations. For example, a majority of us report dreading public speaking. And what about a loss of connection with another person through death, moving away, or conflict? We also have happy emotions: emotions that feel good and allow us to relax into a situation: We enjoy anticipating something happy like the day before a favorite holiday.

One of the wonderful and maddening things about us humans is that we can differ in what elicits our emotions. Suppose that your mother used a particular phrase just prior to directing a tirade at you. Today as an adult you still cringe at those words. The association of the phrase with receiving an ugly rant is something you learned from experience. This perception is unique to you. Now suppose that I used this phrase in conversation and your body language indicated anxiety and fear. At this point, I could react to your distress with distress of my own: ”How could you treat me like that?” I communicate several things with this question: it isn’t OK with me that you respond to me with fear; I have the right to tell you how to feel; you are not allowed to act in any way that causes me distress; you are responsible for my emotional comfort and wellbeing. How could you treat me like that? So much misinformation in only seven words!!

Let’s look at how these words misinform and cause damage. First, I do not have the right to tell you what to feel. I can’t tell you how to experience your life. You just experience what you experience. Your feelings are yours and part of you. Second, I have not only rejected a part of who you are, but I have said that what I feel and who I am is more important by demanding that you share only things that make me comfortable regardless of how important they may be to you. Next, I have caused you distress and implied that I am entitled to do so telling you that you aren’t as important as I am.  Last, I have said that my perceptions and understanding of the world are right and your perceptions are wrong.  It goes without saying that such behavior works mutual respect and trust.

In reality, no one else’s emotional comfort is more important than yours. It is also true that your emotional comfort is no more important than another’s. We each have a right to our own perceptions and feelings. And healthy relationships mutually honor the emotional and physical boundaries of the other person. So what would a respectful and healthy response look like? First, I could recognize that you reacted fearfully and choose not to take it personally. Then, because you are important to me, I might ask you to tell me what you are experiencing: “I notice that you just reacted as if you are anxious or afraid. Did I say something that caused you to react this way? It was not my intent to say anything that would upset you. You are important to me. Would you please help me understand what is happening with you?” 

You could respond in several ways depending upon how you view our relationship. Suppose that we were good friends. In this case you might tell me a bit about your mother and the actual origin of your reaction. However, if we were casual co-workers, you might acknowledge that your reaction had nothing to do with me personally and everything is fine now. How much personal information you want to share depends upon the relationship. However, regardless of the level of trust and closeness within the relationship, it is appropriate to assure the other person that you were not reacting to them personally.

So why do we and others tell us how we should feel? Why do we act in ways that tell others that they shouldn’t interpret situations as they do: they shouldn’t see what they see; they shouldn’t feel what they feel? Most often it’s because we’re uncomfortable with the emotions we feel in response to the other person’s emotions or interpretations of a situation. No wonder healthy, satisfying relationships take work. The tough news is that key to effectively managing our own emotional boundaries and honoring others’ is managing our own emotions. The good news is that skills that lead to effectively managing both emotional responses and emotional boundaries can be learned. 

We can violate each other’s emotional boundaries by demanding the other react in ways that meet our own emotional needs instead of what is genuine and authentic for them. Suppose that a woman bought her husband a gift, a very special gift. She was giving it to him so that he would love her as much as she loved him. She had decided that he would sweep her up in his arms and kiss her like she had seen in the movies. His actual response was appreciative. He told her how thoughtful her gift was and how much he like it. He even gave her a kiss and hug, but he didn’t sweep her off her feet as she had imagined. The wife flew into a rage, accused him of not loving her, stomped out of the room, and didn’t talk to him for three days. In this example, the wife didn’t really want to discover what her husband thought or felt, but only wanted him to express emotions and act the way she wanted him to act and feel. She violated his emotional boundaries by dictating to him how he was to react. In fact, the gift was never about her husband, but about her.

The wife in the last example also violated her husband’s intellectual boundaries. First, she was livid that the gift didn’t mean to him what it meant to her. It didn’t matter what he thought about her gift: she refused to listen to what he had to say; she refused to understand what he really was thinking and feeling. With this act she told him that his perceptions had no value.

To say that another person’s perceptions have no value is the same as saying that the person themselves have no value. Our perceptions are a function of all we have experienced. They represent the sum total of what we have learned about the world.

Adults are important to children. When adults tell children that their feelings, thoughts, and aspirations aren’t important, how does the child develop a healthy self-respect? When a child is told that he or she is responsible for a parent’s rage, how does the child develop a sense of emotional boundaries?  Now imagine that the woman’s gift was not for her husband, but for her six year old child. Imagine how distorting and confusing such behavior would be for a child.

When an adult tells a little boy that his perceptions are wrong, how does the child learn to trust his own perceptions? This is especially damaging when the people important to us deny a painful reality like the child who was inappropriately touched or domestic violence. Suppose a mother told her daughter that there is nothing wrong after she saw her father beat her mother. Most children would be frightened by seeing daddy hurt mommy. Now suppose that the mother tried to reassure the child by telling her how much daddy loves mommy. At this point the daughter has conflicting information. Her own body is telling her she is afraid and daddy was scary, but her mother is telling her that the situation is normal behavior and OK. This is harmful to child because it teaches her to mistrust their own perceptions of danger and to rely upon another person to interpret difficult situations.  

Healthy intellectual boundaries let us trust our perceptions of the world: they tell us that we can trust what we see, hear, sense and act on it. Our intellectual boundaries provide us reliable information about what is going on so that we can trust ourselves to respond effectively. We use our intellect to understand what we need and want. We use it to discern the motives and needs of others. Healthy intellectual boundaries allow information from others and new experiences to modify our understanding of the world. We know when we have learned something that needs to be incorporated into our understanding of ourselves, others, and the world.