What are Boundaries?

Goal

To be able to understand the concept of boundaries.

Overview of Boundaries (Cloud & Townsend, pp. 28-31)

Overview of BoundariesBoundaries are all around us. Signs, fences, walls, or hedges are all types of physical boundaries. In their differing appearances, they give the same message: This is where my property begins. The property owner is legally responsible for what happens on his or her property. In contrast, personal boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins-leading me to a sense of ownership which in turn empowers me to take care of what is mine.

Freedom can be found in knowing what I am to own and what I take responsibility for. If I know where my yard begins and ends, I am free to do with it what I like. By taking responsibility for my life, many different options open up; whereas, if I do not take ownership of my life, my choices and options become very limited. Boundaries also help to define what is not my property and what I am not responsible for. For example, we are not responsible for other people. In a nut shell, boundaries help us keep the good in and the bad out while remaining permeable enough to allow danger out.

Letting Go of Pain (Cloud & Townsend, p. 31)

When we are hurt by others in some way, our tendency is to hold the pain inside and close ourselves off from others. When people have been abused, for example, their tendency is often to reverse the function of boundaries and keep the bad in and the good out. Not opening up to let support in from the outside can prevent healing from occurring. It is easy for hurt people who haven’t worked through past pain to allow others to “dump” more pain on them.

Letting Go of Pain Exercise (Cloud & Townsend, 1995, p. 17)

Instructions: The fences around our property-our boundaries-need gates in them so that we can let out the bad when it is inside and let in the good when it is offered to us. Consider these questions:

  • What pain do you need to get out so that it does not continue to poison you on the inside?
  • What good things would you like to be able to receive?
  • Types of Boundaries (Cloud & Townsend, pp. 33-47)

    Here are several different types of boundaries:

    1. Skin. Your physical self is the first way that you learn that you are separate from others. The skin boundary keeps the good in and the bad out. It protects your blood and bones and keeps germs outside to protect you from infection. Skin also has openings that let the “good” in, like food, and the “bad” out, like waste products. People who have experienced physical and sexual abuse are taught that their property did not really begin at their skin. Others could invade their property and do whatever they wanted. As a result, they have difficulty establishing boundaries later in life.
    2. Words. Good, protective fences can be created with words. The most basic boundary-setting word is no. It lets others know that you exist apart from them and that you are in control of you. People with poor boundaries struggle with saying no to the control, pressure, demands, and sometimes the real needs of others. This can lead to passively complying while being resentful inwardly. Your words also define your property for others as you communicate your feelings, intentions, or dislikes-giving them a sense of the “edges” that help identify you. “I don’t like it when you yell at me!” gives people a clear message about how you conduct relationships and lets them know the “rules” of your yard, for example.
    3. Geographical Distance. Sometimes physically removing yourself from a situation will help maintain boundaries. You can do this to replenish yourself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. You can also remove yourself to escape danger. To create a safe place for ourselves, we may need to separate from those who continue to hurt us.
    4. Types of BoundariesTime. Taking time off from a person or a project can be a way of regaining ownership over an aspect of your life that is out-of-control.
    5. Emotional Distance. Emotional distance is a temporary boundary to give your heart the space it needs to be safe; it is never a permanent way of living. People who have been in abusive relationships often use emotional distance in this way and benefit from finding a safe place to begin to “thaw out” emotionally.
    6. Other People. You need to depend on others to help you set and keep boundaries. Being alone results in weakened boundaries. Others can offer helpful input and insight-contributing to strong boundaries.
    7. Consequences & Behaviors. Trespassing on other people’s property carries consequences. In the same way, we need to back up our boundaries with consequences. They let people know the seriousness of the trespass and the seriousness of our respect for ourselves. Behaviors also have consequences, and we may be tempted to rescue people from the natural consequences of their behavior. Doing so, however, renders them powerless and hinders their having a sense of control over their lives.
    8. Feelings. Feelings play an enormous role in our motivation and behavior. They should neither be ignored nor placed in charge. Feelings come from your heart and can tell you the state of your relationships. They can tell you if things are going well or if there is a problem. Your feelings are your responsibility, and you must own them and see them as your problem so you can begin to find an answer to whatever issue they are pointing to.
    9. Attitudes & Beliefs. Attitudes have to do with your orientation toward something. Beliefs are anything that you accept as true. Often we do not see an attitude or belief as the source of discomfort in our life and instead blame other people. We need to own our attitudes and beliefs because they fall within our property line. We are the ones who feel their effect and the ones who can change them.
    10. Choices. Setting boundaries inevitably involves taking responsibility for your choices instead of trying to lay the responsibility for them on someone else. You are the one who makes them. You are the one who must live with their consequences. And you are the one who may be keeping yourself from making the choices you could be happy with.
    11. Internal Limits. We need to have spaces inside ourselves where we can have a feeling, an impulse, or a desire without acting it out. We need self-control without repression. We need to be able to say no to ourselves. Internal structure is a very important component of boundaries and identity.
    12. Thoughts. Establishing boundaries in thinking involves owning our thoughts, growing in knowledge and expanding our minds, and clarifying distorted thinking. Taking ownership of our thinking in relationships requires being active in checking out where we may be wrong. As we assimilate new information, our thinking adapts and grows closer to reality. Additionally, as the owner of our thoughts, we are responsible for communicating them to others.
    13. Love. Many people have difficulty giving and receiving love because of hurt and fear. Having closed their hearts to others, they feel empty and meaningless. You can think of your heart as a trust muscle that when injured, slows down or weakens-making it difficult to use and exercise it. Nonetheless, we can choose whether to accept or resist love. It’s time to begin taking ownership for how you may resist love.

    Next Step

    Watch the following video to learn more about different types of boundaries:

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