Reinforcing Boundaries

When you encounter a fence, do you choose to climb over it? Or, do you evaluate why that fence is there?

How do you respond to a boundary when encountered? Like invisible fences, people consistently set constraints, nonverbally and verbally. When someone moves a step or two back, when they do not respond to certain conversation topics, when their facial expressions exhibit engagement or withdrawal, they set those limits that maintain an established sense of security. A friend may say to you they are not comfortable with a situation. A family member might express pain over an event. How well are you listening?

Roughly 60% of all communication is nonverbal. And while no one individual can control another person, we have wonderful skills to detect the nature of others’ responses. Some people are better at picking up on these cues than others. And, if you are one that has difficulty interpreting these signs within interactions, how is this deficit affecting your life?

collage of portraits of cheerful woman
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio
The good news is; you can turn on your boundary-detecting superpowers!

For people whose caregivers neglected to teach them about boundaries: you can always learn. Mine failed to teach this concept. Boundary violating behaviors were also modeled early in life. My parents trampled over those of others through the outrageously offensive behaviors exhibited. Both calumniating and narcissistic, they invested each only for personal gain.

And, while yes, they set me up early in this manner; it became my responsibility once I realized this problem existed. And, it does not matter what age, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, cultural practice, economic status, or preference for lunch entrée you encompass: you can always learn. It is never too late. If you can navigate web pages, the possibility of learning new relational patterns exists. I learned later in life how to detect the nonverbal messages others send in order to set those very limits that help maintain a sense of self and security.

Our brains are akin to 80s computers. Slow, repetitive coding eventually manifests in new programming. Though monotonous, effecting new ways of relating is possible. Our brains take approximately 28 days to learn new patterns or break habits. This is also why New Year’s resolutions do not work- because attempting to make 20 grandiose changes simultaneously becomes overwhelming. To effect lasting transformation, one must set realistic, achievable, measurable goals.

person wearing silver framed eyeglasses
Photo by cottonbro
The need for change can trigger shame.

They might perceive this as being inherently defective. Past behaviors and certain realizations that create shame and pain lock block progress. Do not stay there, because this will not solve problems. The key is to recognize patterns for what they are and build upon that awareness. We are all human and fuck up. All people have characteristics that can negatively or positively affect others. Being mindful is the biggest piece of the relational puzzle.

The concept of inner boundaries (from Pia Mellody’s Theory of Developmental Trauma) refers to one’s ability to deny the integration of information into one’s core belief system if it is untrue and take in information that is true. Children have no boundaries until around age 5, coinciding with Erickson’s Initiative vs. Guilt stage. Caregivers teach physical and mental limits within this period. When a child grows up in a chaotic environment or is subject to abuse, they absorb the discord and interpret it from an egocentric perspective. Such children will make sense of the events in their surroundings as if they were at the center of these events. Because they are the center of their world at that point in time. If a child ages in a setting where parents provide consistent love and affirmations, that child will develop healthy self-esteem and confidence. Alternatively, if a minor grows up where the caregivers shout or nonverbally communicate messages of worthless and ineptitude, that juvenile will grow to believe oneself being less than others.

Think of a stranger walking down the street yelling obscenities and derogatory names at you. The question I pose to clients is: Would you take this in as your truth and react defensively? Some may respond with anger or rage, others with pain or sadness. Those with healthy inner boundaries will choose to respond empathetically or ignore this stranger after evaluating that source of information as not credible. Since there is no personal knowledge from a stranger, their evaluations are artificial. A person with healthy boundaries chooses not to adopt messages sent from those that are unfamiliar or unreal into their own definition of themself.

If we let other people define us, we lose our power.

We lose a sense of who we are, and our identities become masks. When a person lives under others’ values and not their own in order to maintain approval, that person becomes an extension of everybody else. The turmoil and conflict someone experiences when losing one’s authenticity creates resentment, pain, and misery. Thus, in order to save oneself, one must examine what truly matters; those values based upon the moral template etched within their inner genuine self.

What mask do you wear?

metal helmet and shield on green
Photo by Juergen Striewski on

Outer boundaries include those physical that protect a person’s body or aspects used to meet one’s materialistic means. Touch, sex, financial, jewelry, housing, car, and material possessions. Aspects of a person’s outer environment count as aspects over which physical boundaries are set. One should have a premeditated boundary set for each. Relationships with clearly defined parameters will succeed. Those with blurry and overlapping lines invite overreach, which increases the risk of resentment, anger, pain, or shame building.

Reinforcing boundaries is the toughest element of the process.

By following through with intended consequences that follow boundary violations is an action one can use to stay both physically and mentally sound. For individuals who endure psychological abuse, examining those inner boundaries and the information one takes in from the outside world becomes imperative to mental health. Physical boundaries that are violated through unwanted touch, or abject harm, are enforceable through means such as avoidance or legal action. The person setting the boundary should have a consequence or two prepared should the boundary violation occur, then follow through with the intended actions.

If I tell another not to touch me, and they continue to, my reaction is to move physically away, restate the boundary, and inform that person I will leave should they choose to continue to repeat this behavior. Emotionally, should someone call me derogatory names, I might let that individual know I will leave the conversation should he/she continue to use reproachful language. I have preset limits and rules for letting friends borrow physical items, such as money or my car.

When an individual draws a line in the sand and lets others walk right over it, that line serves no valuable purpose.
anonymous men painting marking lines on sports court
Photo by Maria Varshavskaya

It remains an invisible, ignored mark with no protective value or meaning. With follow through, the meaning strengthens and others realize your intent. While usually seen as a negative action, boundary setting is a kind act of love that shows to another love and resolves to maintain a relationship intact. Like Brene Brown states, “Clear is kind.”

%d bloggers like this: