An Introduction to Boundaries; A Complete Primer to Empower Your Relationships (Part 1)

introduction to boundaries image of shoes at the line.

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Boundaries has become a real buzzword in popular psychology, and these days in almost all of my client intakes someone cites "boundaries" as one of their issues. But what the fuck does that even mean?

Given that it is a foundational skill for interpersonal relationships, I thought it was time for me to write this in-depth introduction to boundaries.

Table of Contents

    PART 1: INTRODUCTION TO BOUNDARIES - DEFINITIONS & OVERVIEW

    Introduction to Boundaries;

    three people in colourful cubicles that are side-by-side.

    Before we dive into this introduction to boundaries, let's take a the functions of boundaries.

    Boundaries support us to;

    • manage our time, energy & attention,
    • become good decision makers,
    • tap into our intuition,
    • explore & express  our needs, desires & dreams,
    • navigate relationship expectations,
    • live in alignment with our values,
    • explore full self expression.

    While most of us have a sense of the behaviours associated with poor boundaries, fewer people are clear on the specific skills that are required to identify, maintain, articulate, and negotiate healthy relational boundaries.

    In this introduction to boundaries we will look at defining boundaries, some of the common challenges we encounter personally & relationally with setting boundaries, and evaluations of your own capacity to navigate boundaries.

    Defining Boundaries

    Of course any introduction to boundaries has to start from the beginning; a definition of terms.

    In its simplest, most literal form, a boundary is a divide between "this, and that". Those things that are divided could be tangible, idealogical, relational and more.

    Relationally, a boundary is "what's okay, and what's not okay". This is the definition used by Brené Brown in her book Rising Strong, and is the definition we'll be using in this introduction to boundaries.

    In a socio-cultural context boundaries are a set of rules and/or agreements, and behaviours or expressions,  that are followed by most of the people in that society or group.

    We can also consider some types of familiar boundaries; this will help in our definition, as well as provide some metaphors to draw from as we explore relational boundaries.

    Here are some structural examples;

    We have a fence around my garden. This is a wire mesh fence that keeps my dogs out of the vegie patch, but it also has gates on it. The mesh has a large weave so that air, sun, and insects can fly through.

    We also have a more rigid boundary, a Colorbond fence around my home & property. That is taller and serves to maintain privacy, to define the property, to keep other people out, and to keep the dogs safe.

    There are varied boundaries between rooms in the house which can be rigid (like walls), more flexible (like doors), or permeable (like open plan areas).

    We could also look at some of the biological boundaries such as the implied boundary of trees between suburbia and bushland, the boundary of skin that separates my insides from the outer world, or the cellular boundaries within organisms which define the separate structures.

    In this introduction to boundaries it's interesting to notice that some boundaries require shared cultural understanding, while others function regardless of the meaning attached to them.

    What is the Difference Between Boundaries & Discipline?

    An important distinction for this introduction to boundaries is the difference between boundaries & discipline. 

    Relationally, a boundary is the line between what is, and what is not okay. That boundary may or may not be; consciously acknowledged, implemented, articulated, maintained. That means that it is absolutely possible for an individual to have boundaries they are not aware of, and that they don't align towards behaviourally.

    In my work, I use the word 'discipline' in the sense of the spiritual application of that word; A spiritual practice or spiritual discipline (often including spiritual exercises) is the regular or full-time performance of actions and activities undertaken for the purpose of inducing spiritual experiences and cultivating spiritual development. ~Wikipedia (15th November 2021)

    While this is a definition in the context of spirituality, I map that across to all personal & relational contexts in my life. So, discipline is the regular performance of actions and/or activities undertaken for the purpose of exploration & experimentation, as well as to cultivate outcomes and experiences. That could be anything from a daily tea ritual, to speaking my partner's love language, to my non-linear movement method practice.

    And finally, in this context of an introduction to boundaries, I define discipline as having no association with punishment or enforcement, it's just about practice.

    What that means in this introduction to boundaries is that we can explore our engagement via the various aspects of awareness, discipline, implementation, articulation, and evolution. We may have different levels of skill in each of these different facets at any given time. It's important for me to note this, because I often see a correlation drawn between rigidity of boundaries and discipline which I don't think is helpful.

    Levels of Relational Boundaries

    Steps made from colourful wooden blocks against a blue background.

    There are three levels of relational boundaries;

    • Intrapersonal
    • Interpersonal
    • Extrapersonal

    These three levels each require the same fundamental skill set, but the complexity of implementation increases as the variables become more dynamic and the people involved increase.

    This introduction to boundaries will explain these three levels, and help you see your strengths & gaps.

    Intrapersonal Boundaries

    The first level in this introduction to boundaries is INTRA-personal Boundaries. That means; what is and what isn't okay for you to think, feel, say, and do, for & within yourself.

    For example, consider your level of awareness & control of what is and isn’t okay in;

    • The stories you tell yourself about your life
    • Your self-esteem
    • How you speak to yourself
    • How you structure your time
    • Where you direct your attention
    • How you manage your energy
    • How you respond to your internal cues
    • Your behaviours in different life contexts
    • Your personal wellness & vitality
    • How you regulate your own emotional state
    • How you relate to stress
    • The way you behave with money
    • Your pursuit of pleasure
    • Your sexual self

    This level of boundary is often overlooked because relational boundaries tend to create the most stir. It's also the most important place to begin, because this is the place where all of your boundaries originate.

    Your level of skill in handling intrapersonal boundaries will dictate how well you manage your most precious resources; your time, your energy, and your attention.

    Clues you may need to do some skills development beyond reading this introduction to boundaries;

    • you feel exhausted or burnt out
    • you feel numb or checked out
    • your emotions are dialled way down, way up, or both
    • you feel like you are out of control in an area of your life (finance, career, relationships, health, recreation)
    • there's never enough time
    • you often second guess yourself
    • you have low self esteem

    Part 2 of this Introduction to Boundaries will focus on the skills required to develop good intrapersonal boundaries.

    Interpersonal Boundaries

    The second level in this introduction to boundaries is INTER-personal Boundaries. That means; what is and what isn't okay for you to think, feel, say, and do, for & with other individuals. This now expands the context & complexity because we are now encompassing the boundaries belonging TO you, TO them, and BETWEEN you.

    For example, consider your level of awareness & control of what is and isn’t okay in;

    • The stories you tell yourself about other people
    • What you think & say to others
    • Your self-esteem in the presence of another
    • How you structure your time with others
    • Where you direct your attention with others
    • How you manage your energy with others
    • How you respond to your internal cues with others
    • Your behaviours in different life contexts, and with different people
    • How you regulate others emotions
    • How you relate to stress in the presence of another
    • How you relate to others stress
    • The way you relate to money - yours, theirs, and shared
    • Your engagement with yours, and their pleasure
    • Your sexual engagement with them

    This level of boundary tends to create the most stir. What that means is that the behaviour of others is likely to violate your boundaries, or stir up emotion about your interactions which may effect the way you now enact your personal boundaries as well as any relational variations.

    Your level of skill in handling interpersonal boundaries will dictate how deeply you connect, your relational self-esteem, the safety you experience with others, and your capacity for compassion.

    Clues you may need to do some skills development beyond reading this introduction to boundaries;

    • you feel resentful or guilty about the role of others in your life
    • you experience shame and/or blame in your relationships
    • you feel used by others in relationships
    • you feel angry at others
    • other people don't respect you
    • your partner breaks the rules or their agreements often
    • you have a hard time trusting other people
    • you have a hard time saying no
    • other people say you're inflexible
    • you feel isolated or lonely
    • you have few close relationships
    • you are successful at work, but don't have many friends
    • you give in too easily / you find it hard to compromise
    • folks in your life are given to drama

    Part 2 of this Introduction to Boundaries will focus on the skills required to develop good interpersonal boundaries.

    Extrapersonal Boundaries

    The third level in this introduction to boundaries is EXTRA-personal Boundaries.

    That means the boundaries that you have in a variety of different contexts & environments. This might include with groups of people in your community or workplace. It could be boundaries that govern your interactions with animals, plants,  the natural environment. It could be even be the boundaries that you have interfacing with computers and technology.

    This is important because your level of skill in managing your own extrapersonal boundaries will dictate your behavioural flexibility, and your capacity to move competently between different environments & situations.

    The scope of this kind of interaction is well beyond this introduction to boundaries, but it's in this space where we play to explore the deepest expression of a well boundaried person.

    Exploring Permeability of Boundaries

    Image of a close up rainbow soap bubble

    Let's look at the permeability of boundaries. A boundary can think be on a spectrum from completely porous and flexible, to utterly rigid.

    On the porous end of that spectrum is no boundary at all. For example, something with the rigidity of a soap bubble doesn't keep a lot out and it doesn't last for very long.

    At the other end of the permeability scale is an inflexible, rigide, impermeable boundary. A brick wall, for example, is a pretty solid boundary which has little to no flexibility.

    This introduction to boundaries will describe some of the behaviours you see in people across that spectrum.

    What Are Loose or Permeable Boundaries

    People with porous or no boundaries often struggle to differentiate themselves from others in their lives. They have little sense of their own likes, dislikes, needs or desires, and are not very skilled at identifying or articulating boundaries to themselves or others. Folks with loose boundaries often feel resentment and/or guilt  towards others. This resentment is often expressed through passive aggressive behaviour and other indirect means.

    Clues you may need to do some skills development beyond reading this introduction to boundaries;

    When this kind of loose boundary shows up in my clients, one of the biggest issues relationally is that their partner feels overburdened.

    Their partner feels like they have to mind-read and guess what is happening in their relationship and in their lives. They often overcompensate, and feels responsible for making them both happy.

    According to Sunnie Giles in her book The New Science of Radical Innovation, some characteristics of people at this end of the boundary spectrum are;

    • "They let others encroach on their space by not respecting their own feelings, or they expect too much from others.
    • They define their self-worth through other people's opinions of them.
    • They give too much to others until they are completely depleted, ignoring their own needs. Often, they don't realize they are letting others violate their boundaries; they justify their actions as being nice, charitable, or serving others."

    What Are Rigid or Inflexible Boundaries

    People with rigid boundaries often struggle to connect meaningfully with others. They can seem cold, and may see themselves as being more 'logical' than 'emotional' in the way they approach life.

    Clues you may need to do some skills development beyond reading this introduction to boundaries;

    When this kind of rigid inflexible boundary shows up in my clients, one of the biggest issues relationally is that their partner feels disenfranchised.

    One person is unilaterally making the big decisions around career or where you live or how you spend money, and so on. There's no flexibility and there's no accepting of influence.

    Sunnie Giles says some characteristics of these folks are;

    • "They are distant, isolated, and withdrawn; they do not experience the rich joy that comes from feeling their emotions deeply and connecting with others.
    • They don't let others influence them at all, adhering to their thoughts even when presented with contradicting evidence.
    • They find it difficult to tolerate differences of opinion or different ways of doing things; hence, they tend to insist on "their way or the highway"."

    What Are Healthy Boundaries

    Ideally, boundaries are strong AND permeable. That means that each individual has a clear sense of what they want, what is good for them, and also has an eye on the contextual elements that require flexibility and/or reconfiguration of boundaries.

    Giles writes "Here is how people who have  strong yet permeable boundaries act:

    • They do not try to increase their sense of self-worth through another's approval, validation, or praise.
    • They don't look to others to fulfill their emotional needs to be happy or whole, because their self-concept is defined by a deep conviction that they are good inherently, not because of other people's opinion of them.
    • They can clearly articulate who they are and what they like and dislike because their self-concept has not been subsumed into another's.
    • They do not dispense advice to others unless they are invited to do so.
    • They do not feel guilty about articulating and meeting their needs; they don't sacrifice their needs or self-respect to meet others' needs.
    • They let others into their hearts and are open and flexible.
    • They are not aloof but have a rich range of emotions.
    • They don't withdraw from conflicts passive-aggressively but work through them even when confronting others is difficult.
    • They are tolerant of differing opinions, rather than interpreting difference as rejection.
    • They are flexible, adaptable, and balanced between compassion for others and their own self-respect.
    • They freely exchange love and compassion while remaining firmly grounded in a secure identity and concept of self-acceptance."

    PART 2: INTRODUCTION TO BOUNDARIES - TOOLS & SKILLS DEVELOPMENT

    I trust you have found this introduction to boundaries helpful!

    You can read more in Part 2: An Introduction to Boundaries & Skills Development

    • What are the types of boundaries in relationships?
    • How do I know what my boundaries are?
    • How are boundaries enforced relationally?
    • When can I negotiate boundaries?
    • Setting boundaries with self
    • Setting boundaries with partner/s
    • Setting boundaries with family & friends
    • Skills development

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