What is... psychology series

What is… Personal Boundaries

Insights into psychology: Boundaries: A kind of mental skin

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.

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 qith 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.

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.

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.


You can find the rest of my What Is series here.

Sources:


Therapy Mini-ebook collection from Mental Health @ Home

33 thoughts on “What is… Personal Boundaries”

  1. That is so interesting.

    Right off the bat, people have commented to me about my physical boundaries. Being paranoid and feeling energy, I shy away from people–even from good friends

  2. Right off the bat, people have commented to me about my physical boundaries. Being paranoid and feeling energy, I shy away from people–even from good friends–by about four feet. My friend Ash pointed this out to me on the ice rink, and I was quick to assure her that she didn’t smell bad, or anything like that. But I hadn’t even been aware of it prior. I think close physical proximity, like sitting right next to someone, for example, blends energetic fields and makes feelings too intimate.

    Other boundaries… hmm… I’m totally an open book about my life, my feelings, my past, etc., etc. But I’m less likely to do it in person, simply because I don’t want to freak people out with too much info. Putting it online creates a helpful buffer.

    I think it would definitely be an issue (or focus) with raising children and trying to get them to behave! Fun blog post!!

    1. Personal space boundaries are interesting because it’s easy to assume that it’s pretty much the same for everyone, when in reality, there can be huge variations for many reasons.

  3. This is a GREAT post! I’ve gotten good enough at boundaries, that I’ve basically shut out the crux of my extended family. As I look back on how I’ve been treated with having my mental illness, it’s terrible. But, that’s just one example. Many of my extended family are quite toxic, and unfortunately, I am thinking of shutting them all out because of several bad apples. It’s difficult. Especially when there are kids involved, as well as, narcissists.

    1. Having kids involved definitely adds another layer of difficulty. But at the same time you shouldn’t have to subjected to people’s destructive behaviour.

      1. Exactly. I am just glad I had several years of time as an uncle… that was helpful for me… I could have done without their narc parent, and now am doing just that. Again, boundaries are key. I’ve lost a lot, but have I really? I think I’ve gained way more by way of self-respect and dignity, but incorporating boundaries!

  4. We have deficiencies at knowing what healthy boundaries are. Our upbringing, trauma, and disorders have rendered boundaries one of the most confusing aspects of interpersonal relations for us

    What we do know: We do not use physical violence with Spouse or children. This is easy to maintain for us even though we were hit as a kid.

    We do not engage in romantic relations (physical or emotional) with anyone who is not Spouse (which is actually easy because we love Spouse so much and value our relationship and fidelity)

    Other than that, we personalize a lot of life, have big needs, and can use quite a lot of resources—especially from therapists (time, energy, emotion, etc.).

    Older Child and Younger Child have had to parent us at times. This is true. Great source of shame and regret.

    Boundaries are a source of fear, confusion, and suffering for us.

    We are open to still learning about boundaries and we read some of your links. Maybe it’s not hopeless. Thanks, Ashley

    1. I don’t think it’s hopeless at all. The examples that you gave show that you are able to set healthy boundaries. As for everything else, I think things will start to gradually fall in place one piece at a time as you lead with love. ❤️

  5. Love this topic! Like you say, everyone is entitled to boundaries, but there are SO many reasons why it may not occur to people to explicitly set those boundaries. I really felt this statement on a personal level: “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.” I ignore issues as a means of avoiding confrontation ALL the time and it’s something I need to work on!!

  6. I never was capable of setting boundaries – it took me most of my adult life to change this. I think now I am mostly capable of setting and maintaining boundaries, which makes me happy 🙂

  7. This is an issue I struggle with constantly. I say no a lot, so that part is fine. The problem is when I agree to a thing and then change my mind. I have that right! Other people do it. But I feel people get so ANGRY at me in particular when I do it… maybe it’s just my imagination or maybe everyone deals with this? I don’t know. But it’s happened so often now that I feel my best course of action is to say no to almost everything that comes up and then change my mind to YES at the last minute if I want. I notice that this makes people really happy! They don’t get mad if I say no at the start, only if I decide not to do the thing later.

    1. It would be one thing to change your mind last minute in a way that causes huge inconvenience for other people, but aside from that, there’s no reason not to be flexible.

  8. This is good to learn about. Now, I understand better the breakdowns in my previous human relationships. And as an educator, I am always quite porous with time-related boundaries. I guess that’s my commitment to my teaching responsibilities. However, I will watch out to have some self-love time. And also, in real life, I have very rigid boundaries for emotion-related matters but here on WordPress, I am being too porous by expressing every single tiny detail. Haha…I wonder if these are unhealthy ways of relating to people.

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