by Molly Keaton, PhD

What is a boundary?
All life forms have boundaries and each part of our bodies has physical limits, from the skin to the membranes covering nerves and muscles. When our physical boundaries are invaded (when we are cut or scratched) we are vulnerable to infection. Therefore, our physical boundaries promote health and safety. My physical boundaries are defined by how close I let people get to me. My emotional boundaries are defined by how I allow others to interact with me – whether I tolerate abuse and hostility or whether I demand respect.

To learn more about your boundaries, think about the amount of personal space that you prefer. You can probably recall the creepy feeling that arises when someone (especially someone you don’t know well) invades your comfort zone. Also, notice that this zone is very different with strangers than with acquaintances. We allow those that we love and trust to get much closer, but still there is a difference in what is acceptable for a friend vs. a lover. This illustrates an important point about boundaries – they are flowing and adaptable. It is our right to choose where to set the boundary of how close another can get to us physically or emotionally. This limit will change not only based on the relationship but also based on the situation. For example, in a relationship, there are times when partners feel like being sexual and times where they do not. Just because you are sometimes physically intimate with a partner does not mean that you owe this to your partner at all times. It is your right to set boundaries, to change your mind about those boundaries, and to have those decisions respected.

Where do boundaries come from? Why do I need them?
Boundaries define who we are and how we are connected and separate from others. Boundaries give us a sense of order and control over our lives. Healthy boundaries are empowering in that they set limits on what we will and will not tolerate from others. They allow us to bounce back from situations in which our limits are violated through awareness of our own needs and how to defend those needs. Empowerment comes not only from knowing how to protect ourselves but also from knowing that we will protect ourselves.

Boundaries develop throughout the course of our lives, beginning with our earliest interactions with the world. Our caretakers can promote healthy boundaries through encouraging individuation, which is the process of developing a clear identity that is separate from the identity of the caretaker. Conversely, a caretaker can also encourage non-existent or unhealthy boundaries. Unhealthy boundaries come in a variety of forms – boundaries can be set both too close, resulting in enmeshed boundaries. Enmeshment occurs when our uniqueness and individuality are not respected. Enmeshed families demand that all members exist for one another and sacrifice themselves in the interest of sharing the same beliefs, values, and opinions. However, boundaries can also be set too far away, resulting in little connection with the outside world. In order to determine where are boundaries are, we have to get close enough to others to feel their presence. We learn about our limits by testing them.

Childhood experiences, most significantly from caregivers, teach us where our boundaries lie and how to treat those boundaries. Enmeshed families promote the idea that boundaries do not exist and that to develop personal boundaries is to betray the family. Distant families teach their children that they are alone, isolated beings with nothing to lean on for support in this huge world. While we learn about our boundaries from our caretakers, we educate others about our boundaries through the way that we allow ourselves to be treated.

Healthy emotional boundaries lead to greater emotional health. Boundaries allow us to take care of ourselves and to defend our own beliefs, values, and needs. Boundaries allow us to say “No” to others and to act in our own best interest. Boundaries allow us to give to others without sacrificing too much of ourselves. Boundaries are highly individualized – they can be firm or flexible, close, or distant. They also vary by country and culture. Good boundaries necessitate attention and maintenance.

How do you know where your boundaries are?
When our physical boundary is violated our emotional boundaries are also transgressed. Our physical and emotional boundaries work like a system of checks and balances. Without each, we are vulnerable to violations. Our responses and emotions provide feedback about our comfort in a situation. This feedback allows us to take an inventory and as a result, to gain greater self-understanding. The combination of feedback and self-awareness facilitates boundary development. If we receive feedback but do not listen or respond to it, we are violating our own boundaries. If we do not react to our emotions, we send the message to ourselves that our feelings and gut responses are not important or reliable. In doing this, we risk losing our best tool for judgment by disconnecting from our feelings and relying on others to define our limits.

Boundaries promote connection.
Not only do good boundaries limit harm, they also increase intimacy. The ideal relationship (be it romantic or friendly) promotes a strong sense of “us” while allowing each partner to be distinct enough to maintain her/his own identity. Healthy romantic relationships involve a commitment where two people choose to make a life together. This choice is not based on dependence or enmeshment – both partners could survive without the other. While enmeshment or infatuation may resemble intimacy, they are not. Enmeshment occurs when there is no boundary or individual identity in place. Enmeshment is loving the idea or image of another rather than that other’s true self. Intimacy occurs when two people know each other deeply, accepting both strengths and limitations. Intimacy means being able to accept that your partner is distinct and has her/his own ideas, values, beliefs, and goals. Intimacy comes from having faith that you are known, accepted, and valued for who you truly are.

In sum, the goal is “to form boundaries that have some flexibility and some definite limits, boundaries that move appropriately in response to situations – out for strangers, in for intimates. Boundaries should be distinct enough to preserve our individuality yet open enough to admit new ideas and perspectives. They should be firm enough to keep our values and priorities clear, open enough to communicate our priorities to the right people, yet closed enough to withstand assault from the thoughtless and the mean” (Katherine, 1991, p. 81).

The information in this article came from a book entitled Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin (Anne Katherine, 1991).

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