When you drive across the country, how do you know when you pass into another state? Chances are, you likely cannot tell unless there is a sign. Invisible lines called boundaries separate geographical locations. Borders separate countries. We individuate ourselves using this same concept.
Merriam-Webster defines a boundary that fixes or shows a limit of extent (Merriam-Webster, 2021). Regarding human beings, this invisible line separates the point where one person ends and the next begins. It exists to keep both factions safe and engaged in a relationship. When one crosses this divide, the unseen becomes a focal point, until that boundary has either mended or altogether collapses. Not taught in school, boundaries are an important function within the social setting that leaves many to figure out on their own. Relationships are not possible without them, but many people do not know what these are. Setting a boundary gets perceived as an offensive act, rather than love. Keeping oneself psychologically and mentally well is a healthy behavior encouraged to keep relationships active and intact. One person setting a boundary speaks “I love our interactions and this ensures it will continue respectfully;” as well as, “I honor your being enough to set and make known these confines.”
Think of a time when you felt uneasy around another who stood too close, talked too loudly, complained too much, or asked for money (and no, I am not referring to your children). What feelings did you experience? Some become anxious, angered, others merely uncomfortable. Depending on the culture one grew up in, a person may view these behaviors as acceptable if the cultural practices accepted this conduct. Or, a person may such acts offensive. Boundaries vary per person and form throughout life, beginning in childhood, and learned through experience.
In the relational aspect, a person recognizes social cues and gauges these as a signal the other feels safe or guarded. Through the lens of Dr. Porges’s Polyvagal theory*, the nervous system works to detect safety or danger. An unconscious process, neuroception, refers to this automatic scanning of one’s environment for threats of danger or life threat. Once determined secure, the nervous system enters the ventral vagal state of social engagement. Once safe, the person is free to use vocal tones, varied facial expressions, and experiences low respiratory and heart rates. Boundaries are that limit which, when crossed, triggers the engagement of the human alarm response system.
Unfortunately, this topic rarely gets discussed, becomes learnt through human interactions, and varies widely. The ramifications for determining another’s limits incur damage to connection and concede the basis for a multitude of intimacy disorders, such as autism. Resultant loneliness and isolation occur, which disrupt the conditions to help a human thrive.
If the concept of a boundary is foreign, it is imperative that one not only learn, but also how to respect those of others, in order to engage in bi-directional relationships. I will post many articles on this concept because the complicated subject gets intense and underlies the fundamental difficulties we experience in human relationships and societal functioning today. It is a matter central to mental wellbeing.
Each human contains unique thoughts, feelings, beliefs, feelings, and realities. That which makes us who we are. It’s what separates us from others. Boundaries refer to that system of limit setting that strengthens a person’s capacity to protect and contain oneself, maintain a sense of individuality compared to others, and control the impact of reality on the self and those we interact with.
External and internal boundaries function separately. According to Pia Mellody’s Model of Developmental Immaturity, Internal boundaries refer to those mental, emotional, and spiritual someone develops to keep them psychologically contained and protected. If another verbally attacks or psychologically abuses you, does that information become integrated within your core defined self? Or, does it bounce off like glue and stick to you like that saying in childhood I never believed? Likewise, when you are angry, anxious, or in pain, do you distribute negative emotions to others through blame, shame, or disparaging one’s character.
External boundaries are those physical boundaries that separate one’s body from another. Think personal space- a concept my children have not yet comprehended fully. Visualize your physical response when someone stands an inch away. Physical boundaries include those sexual or all within distance and touch.
Boundaries are modeled throughout childhood. Primary caregivers and authority figures interact with those they raise, each other, and the public in methods we eventually adopt. Depending on their communication styles, children pick up dysfunctional or functional ways to establish boundaries. This also depends on the core belief system one formed (those beliefs that which we assume truths about the world and ourselves in it). For instance, do we deem ourselves worthy of protection? A distorted core belief system will cause poor boundary development or no formation at all.
If our parents/caregivers modeled poor boundaries, those adopted by us are likely also poor. If a caregiver cannot respect the limits set by others and often crosses outer lines regularly, chances are the child will learn those same offensive habits. Parents that do not respect the privacy of each other and display this behavior in front of their children teach it is okay to intrude on another’s right to privacy. For instance, checking emails, phone contacts, or eavesdropping on conversations as caregivers will show children this is acceptable behavior.
Our prior life experiences affect our belief system. If a caregiver believed oneself to be unworthy and critically disparaged their photographs or body shape, then the child will internalize that it is acceptable to objectify oneself or others.
As interactional human beings, we have a choice to protect ourselves. And we also can choose to respect the boundaries of others. This ability becomes crippled when addiction or affective disorders impact a person. Inhibitions decrease as the rational centers of the brain become disabled. The addict may believe or trust everyone, share too much or too little about oneself or others, believe one is invincible, engage in negative thought processes, or have immature thinking patterns. Their behavior towards others becomes humiliating, shaming, lying, aggressive, controlling, and dishonest. The addict’s reality (or mentally impaired) contorts while extreme and overwhelming feelings, or lack of taint their perception.
Realities vary per person. Our realities comprise data, beliefs, perceptions, feelings, and emotions. While one person will perceive an event negatively, another can form a positive meaning. For instance, forest fires can cause one person tremendous fear, while another might view that event as necessary to revitalize habitats. We cannot assume one reality to be more important than another’s. There is no one right way to perceive the world. My religion is not better than yours, nor is my way of living.
We cannot control another’s behaviors, including our children’s or partners’. All we can do is control how we behave and what we allow within our systems. We can establish and reinforce these limits by designating what we will do behaviorally if others cannot respect those boundaries. For instance, if my children leave their toys all over the house without picking them up after, I may enforce a boundary by taking those toys and piling them on their bedroom nightly or restricting them for a time. Or, if my husband constantly piles up riffraff on our counter to the point it falls off, I can choose to put it in boxes and place it in his closet. Don’t put laundry away, guess what- momma’s not doing laundry. And, so on.
As adults, we all can create functional boundaries no matter the age, sex, gender, culture, or preference for music. Now, those New Age people, I often question, the rest of us certainly can begin the process. Even in our current relationships. While there may be some pushback, it will create stronger, healthier relationships.
Boundaries are not for acquiring desires, they establish safety and well-being. If a person cannot respect your boundaries, it signifies the importance of your relationship with that person. I emphasize in my lectures they are a way to show someone you love them enough to communicate your needs to them in order to preserve that relationship. So, get started. Awareness is the first step. What are your needs in a relationship to feel safe enough to engage?