I have been “working on boundaries” for a long time. And by that I mean, I don’t remember a time in my adult like when the idea of working on boundaries wasn’t a part of my vocabulary.
But what do we mean by boundaries?
A quick search for the term boundary on Websters Online brings up definitions about “lines that divide things, limits that differentiate, rules that define acceptable (and thus, unacceptable) behavior.
–something (such as a river, a fence, or an imaginary line) that shows where an area ends and another area begins
–a point or limit that indicates where two things become different
–boundaries: unofficial rules about what should not be done : limits that define acceptable behavior
A quick Google search of the term boundaries bring up images of people drawing lines in the sand, painted lines separating people, and fences to keep others out.
Not surprisingly, when asked to draw my boundaries, the first cartoon that came out of me was a house surrounded by trees and a picket fence! Physical boundaries for sure. Ha!
According to Darlene Lancer in What Are Personal Boundaries? How Do I Get Some?, emotional boundaries are defined as an imaginary line that people place between themselves as others. Moreover, when people create a “healthy boundary” they are less likely to try and advise others, or get caught up in a blame game with others.
Emotional boundaries distinguish separating your emotions and responsibility for them from someone else’s. It’s like an imaginary line or force field that separates you and others. Healthy boundaries prevent you from giving advice, blaming or accepting blame.
My problem with this concept begins as a linguistic one. Yes, the word nerd in me can’t get away from the metaphorical associations of boundaries as dividing and partitioning entities that separate people rather than fluid and adaptable constructs that help people bond with each other. If boundaries are a good thing, why aren’t they defined in terms of more permeable notions of being–like a cell membrane, where things can go in and out when necessary? It seems to me that people who are emotionally healthy are able to be open to letting love in and out, while also knowing when to close the gates (so to speak) to either keep unwanted negative energy out or to conserve one’s own energy. This sort of more malleable and permeable membrane is what I came up with for my second boundary drawing.
As a researcher and major nerd I couldn’t help but continue down the rabbit hole of defining boundaries. A little more research brought me to an online community where the concept was grappled with a little more deeply. In Setting Boundaries and Setting Limits, an article found on the BPDFamily web community, R. Skip Johnson problematizes the terminology of setting boundaries as ultimatums and shifts the focus to a discussion of personal values, arguing that boundaries are often tied up in terms of defining, asserting, and honoring or defending our values.
The Three Pillars
- Defining values: Healthy relationships are sometimes characterized as an “inter-dependent” relationship of two “independent” people. Healthy individuals have values that they honor and defend regardless of the nature of the relationship. These are core or independent values. Healthy individuals also have values that they are prepared to negotiate and adapt to in an effort to bond and collaborate with others. These are known as inter-dependent values.
- Asserting boundaries: Using verbal and nonverbal communications to assert intentions, needs and define what is in-bounds and out-of-bounds. Laying out reasonable, safe and acceptable ways for other people to interact and relate to us.
- Honoring and defending: Living a life that honors our values and knows how to take constructive actions necessary to avoid being compromised.
As I read this, I was struck by the yin-yang nature of the independent and inter-dependent. In this case, both people and values are identified as straddling the solitary and the social. And some values are based more on the individual whereas others are socially situated. As I read through the independent core values, I was struck by the bind for people who, like myself, value family and/or friendship. To value sociality often means to sacrifice the personal for the good of the whole. This independent value is in fact almost inter-dependent.
Independent core values
Those who value their individuality take responsibility, are self-reliant and act with self-respect. Those who value truthfulness cannot bring themselves to tell a lie. Those who value family or friendship sacrifice their personal interests for the good of others. Those who value goodness cannot bring themselves to do something they know is wrong. We express values in our relationships with other people when we are loyal, reliable, honest, generous, trusting, trustworthy; feel a sense of responsibility for family, friends, co-workers, our organization, community or country.
Being realistic about values is important. If we have an unusually large number of uncompromisable independent values / core values, we may be too dogmatic to have a relationship with very many people. At the same time, if we have so few independent values, or such a weak commitment to them, we will then be “undefined” to ourselves and to others and the only values that matter are those of others. The latter is common in codependent or enmeshed relationships.
So the question is, how does someone who values interpersonal relationships not throw themselves under the bus for others in the fuzzy boundaries sort of way? And what of someone who, like me, values both individuality and sociality?!?! Even more of a bind. Oh, the humanity of it all!
The drive to meet conflicting needs is complex and requires self-awareness and reflection, but more importantly, it requires open, honest communication and negotiation with those we want to bond with who may have differing values and needs.
With all this said, I am throwing down the gauntlet for us to rethink this concept of boundaries in terms that allow us to think about how we CONNECT with others in ways that honor all of our values and needs rather than approaching relationships from a defensive stance that is about PROTECTING ourselves (and each other) from threats.