In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is personal boundaries.
Kind of like our skin acts as a boundary to separate the insides of our bodies from the world, personal boundaries allow us to maintain separation in our interactions with other people.
Types of boundaries
There are different kinds of boundaries that can operate in different situtions, including:
- Physical: this can include physical proximity as well as different kinds of touching.
- Sexual: this includes talk and innuendo, as well as physical contact
- Emotional: emotional boundaries can exist around what to share and when, and having one’s feelings treated with respect
- Mental/Intellectual: like emotional, except with thoughts
- Material: this includes when and how we allow people to use or take our things
- Time: refers to how much time you allocate to others
Our skin has pores that allow certain things in and out, and boundaries are the same way.
Flexibility and porousness of boundaries
One way of describing boundaries is using the terms rigid, porous, and healthy (although I prefer the term flexible). Rigid boundaries are like a suit of armour that doesn’t let much of anything in or out. Highly porous boundaries allow a lot of things to move freely in and out. When two people are enmeshed, there is so much porousness that the two people start to blur together as one. Healthy/flexible boundaries allow for the expression of wants and needs and flexible control over what’s allowed in and out. They’re often based in values, and show respect for the self as well as others.
There can be a mix of rigid, porous, and flexible depending on the type of boundary, the setting, and the individuals they’re interacting with. Boundaries with an intimate partner may look very different from boundaries with a casual friend. Boundaries can also provide separation between different areas of your life, such as work/life boundaries. Having clear boundaries around work can help to reduce the risk of burnout.
Factors influencing boundaries
Various other things can get tangled up in boundaries, including insecurity, fear of rejection, resentment, and maintaining privacy. Social learning, particularly in the family of origin, and past experiences of boundary violations have a huge impact, especially when there’s been childhood abuse/neglect.
Multiple mental illnesses can make it more difficult to set and maintain boundaries. Dissociative symptoms in particular can have a profound impact on boundaries.
A tip sheet from the Recovery Education Network identifies these principles of healthy boundary-setting:
- “Good,” compassionate, generous people set boundaries
- Boundary-setting allow for growth
- Boundary-setting helps people to be effective
- Boundary-setting works best when boundaries are consistently upheld
- It gets easier and more effective with practice
Assertive communication can be useful in establishing boundaries and addressing violations. This process isn’t necessarily going to come easily or feel comfortable, but at the same time, we’re entitled to boundaries, and no one else is going to tend to them for us. Even when it seems like boundaries should be obvious, people aren’t mind-readers, and some explicit clarification may still be needed.
I suspect one of the most common issues that people struggle with, even if they have no other major boundary issues, is saying no. A handy article on Psych Central offers 14 different ways to say no. Looking back, I’ve usually been okay with not saying yes when I really should’ve said no. What I’ve gotten noticeably worse at, though, is actually coming out and saying no. It’s not that I’m saying yes; I’m just not saying anything. Depression means I’ve got fewer mental resources available, and as a result, I’ve added in ignoring as a viable alternative to saying no. Is this healthy? Nope.
One type of situation that I’ve always always found quite challenging is when something starts out reasonably, then there’s a series of gradual nudges that on their own don’t seem problematic, and then all of a sudden you wonder how the hell did we get here? It can be hard to figure out how to backpedal when there wasn’t one clear thing that was a boundary violation; it was more a sort of boundary creep.
Boundaries in professional-client relationships (including therapist-client relationships) are a major topic deserving of a whole blog post, so I won’t get into that here.
Are boundaries something that you struggle with setting or maintaining?
PositivePsychology.com has links to a number of healthy boundaries worksheets.
There’s a Building Better Boundaries workbook by the Self Help Alliance, and for some reason, there’s a copy on the University of Alberta Department of Anesthesiology site.
- PositivePsychology.com: How to set healthy boundaries
- Therapist Aid: Tips for healthy boundaries
- Therapist Aid: What are personal boundaries?
- Wikipedia: Personal boundaries
The Psychology Corner page includes an index of the terms that have been covered in the What Is… (Insights into Psychology) series, as well as a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.