Personal boundaries or the act of setting boundaries is a life skill that has been popularised by self help authors and support groups since the mid 1980s.
It is the practice of openly communicating and asserting personal values as way to preserve and protect against having them compromised or violated. The term “boundary” is a metaphor – with in-bounds meaning acceptable and out-of-bounds meaning unacceptable. Without values and boundaries our identities become diffused and often controlled by the definitions offered by others. The concept of boundaries has been widely adopted by the counselling profession.
Usage and Application
This life skill is particularly applicable in environments with controlling people or people not taking responsibility for their own life.
Co-Dependents Anonymous recommends setting limits on what members will do to and for people and on what members will allow people to do to and for them, as part of their efforts to establish autonomy from being controlled by other people’s thoughts, feelings and problems.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) tells its members that establishing and maintaining values and boundaries will improve the sense of security, stability, predictability and order, in a family even when some members of the family resist. NAMI contends that boundaries encourage a more relaxed, non-judgemental atmosphere and that the presence of boundaries need not conflict with the need for maintaining an understanding atmosphere.
The three critical aspects of managing personal boundaries are:
|Defining Values||A healthy relationship is an “inter-dependent” relationship of two “independent” people. Healthy individuals should establish values that they honour and defend regardless of the nature of a relationship (core or independent values). Healthy individuals should also have values that they negotiate and adapt in an effort to bond with and collaborate with others (inter-dependent values).|
|Asserting Boundaries||In this model, individuals use verbal and nonverbal communications to assert intentions, preferences and define what is inbounds and out-of-bounds with respect to their core or independent values. When asserting values and boundaries, communications should be present, appropriate, clear, firm, protective, flexible, receptive, and collaborative.|
|Honouring and Defending||Making decision consistent with the personal values when presented with life choices or confronted or challenged by controlling people or people not taking responsibility for their own life.|
Having healthy values and boundaries is a lifestyle, not a quick fix to an relationship dispute.
Values are constructed from a mix of conclusions, beliefs, opinions, attitudes, past experiences and social learning. Jacques Lacan considers values to be layered in a hierarchy, reflecting “all the successive envelopes of the biological and social status of the person” from the most primitive to the most advanced.
Personal values and boundaries operate in two directions, affecting both the incoming and outgoing interactions between people. These are sometimes referred to as the ‘protection’ and ‘containment’ functions.
The three most commonly mentioned categories of values and boundaries are:
- Physical: Personal space and touch considerations; physical intimacy.
- Mental: Thoughts and opinions.
- Emotional: Feelings; emotional intimacy.
Some authors have expanded this list with additional or specialised categories such as spirituality, truth, and time/punctuality.
Nina Brown proposed four boundary types:
|Soft||A person with soft boundaries merges with other people’s boundaries. Someone with a soft boundary is easily a victim of psychological manipulation.|
|Spongy||A person with spongy boundaries is like a combination of having soft and rigid boundaries. They permit less emotional contagion than soft boundaries but more than those with rigid. People with spongy boundaries are unsure of what to let in and what to keep out.|
|Rigid||A person with rigid boundaries is closed or walled off so nobody can get close either physically or emotionally. This is often the case if someone has been the victim of physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual abuse. Rigid boundaries can be selective which depend on time, place or circumstances and are usually based on a bad previous experience in a similar situation.|
|Flexible||Similar to spongy rigid boundaries but the person exercises more control. The person decides what to let in and what to keep out, is resistant to emotional contagion and psychological manipulation, and is difficult to exploit.|
Unilateral vs Collaborative
There are also two main ways that boundaries are constructed:
- Unilateral boundaries: One person decides to impose a standard on the relationship, regardless of whether others support it. For example, one person may decide to never mention an unwanted subject and to make a habit of leaving the room, ending phone calls, or deleting messages without replying if the subject is mentioned by others.
- Collaborative boundaries: Everyone in the relationship group agrees, either tacitly or explicitly, that a particular standard should be upheld. For example, the group may decide not to discuss an unwanted subject, and then all members individually avoid mentioning it and work together to change the subject if someone mentions it.
Setting boundaries does not always require telling anyone what the boundary is or what the consequences are for transgressing it. For example, if a person decides to leave a discussion, that person may give an unrelated excuse, such as claiming that it’s time to do something else, rather than saying that the subject must not be mentioned.
Situations that can Challenge Personal Boundaries
Freud described the loss of conscious boundaries that may occur when an individual is in a unified, fast-moving crowd.
Almost a century later, Steven Pinker took up the theme of the loss of personal boundaries in a communal experience, noting that such occurrences could be triggered by intense shared ordeals like hunger, fear or pain, and that such methods were traditionally used to create liminal conditions in initiation rites. Jung had described this as the absorption of identity into the collective unconscious.
Rave culture has also been said to involve a dissolution of personal boundaries, and a merger into a binding sense of communality.
Unequal Power Relationships
Also unequal relations of political and social power influence the possibilities for marking cultural boundaries and more generally the quality of life of individuals. Unequal power in personal relationships, including abusive relationships, can make it difficult for individuals to mark boundaries.
|Overly Demanding Parents||In the dysfunctional family the child learns to become attuned to the parent’s needs and feelings instead of the other way around.|
|Overly Demanding Children||Parenting is a role that requires a certain amount of self-sacrifice and giving a child’s needs a high priority. A parent can, nevertheless, be codependent towards a child if the caretaking or parental sacrifice reaches unhealthy or destructive levels.|
|Codependent Relationships||Codependency often involves placing a lower priority on one’s own needs, while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others. Codependency can occur in any type of relationship, including family, work, friendship, and also romantic, peer or community relationships.|
|While a healthy relationship depends on the emotional space provided by personal boundaries, codependent personalities have difficulties in setting such limits, so that defining and protecting boundaries efficiently may be for them a vital part of regaining mental health.|
|In a codependent relationship, the codependent’s sense of purpose is based on making extreme sacrifices to satisfy their partner’s needs. Codependent relationships signify a degree of unhealthy clinginess, where one person does not have self-sufficiency or autonomy. One or both parties depend on the other for fulfilment. There is usually an unconscious reason for continuing to put another person’s life first - often the mistaken notion that self-worth comes from other people.|
|Mental Illness in the Family||People with certain mental conditions are predisposed to controlling behaviour including those with obsessive compulsive disorder, paranoid personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder, attention deficit disorder, and the manic state of bipolar disorder.|
|Borderline personality disorder (BPD): There is a tendency for loved ones of people with BPD to slip into caretaker roles, giving priority and focus to problems in the life of the person with BPD rather than to issues in their own lives. Too often in these relationships, the codependent will gain a sense of worth by being “the sane one” or “the responsible one”. Often, this shows up prominently in families with strong Asian cultures because of beliefs tied to the cultures.|
|Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD): For those involved with a person with NPD, values and boundaries are often challenged as narcissists have a poor sense of self and often do not recognise that others are fully separate and not extensions of themselves. Those who meet their needs and those who provide gratification may be treated as if they are part of the narcissist and expected to live up to their expectations.|
Anger is a normal emotion that involves a strong uncomfortable and emotional response to a perceived provocation. Often, it indicates when one’s personal boundaries are violated. Anger may be utilised effectively by setting boundaries or escaping from dangerous situations.
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