Healthy boundaries are vital for people to thrive. But what exactly are healthy boundaries?
Personal boundaries are the rules or guidelines we use to structure how we interact with people. They can be physical or emotional.
Boundaries are a form of self-care and are necessary for the health of the individual. They are not harmful to others, though they do function as limits on other people.
Physical boundaries establish how we are willing to be touched. From overt violence to hugs and tickling, making choice about who can touch you and how is a right and a responsibility. Protecting physical boundaries may require force, and moral and ethical discussions about the acceptable scope of self-defense hinge on determining the minimum amount of aggressive force required to maintain appropriate physical boundaries. Those discussions are beyond the scope of this article.
Healthy emotional boundaries protect us from manipulation while allowing us to connect with people.
Unhealthy Boundaries come in Three Varieties
Nina Brown, author of Children of the Self-Absorbed and other books, defined these three types of unhealthy boundaries.
- Soft – A person with soft boundaries doesn’t hold their own boundaries and merges with other people’s boundaries. A person with soft boundaries accepts other people’s accounts of who they are and what they need instead of looking at themselves to determine what they need. A person with soft boundaries may also impose unrealistically on other people because they do not recognize the other person as having boundaries that need to be respected.
- Rigid – A person with rigid boundaries doesn’t allow anybody to get close either physically or emotionally. Rigid boundaries may be selectively held in contexts that are associated with previous harm. The most rigid boundaries are frequently a form of self-protection as a result of past abuse.
- Spongy – A person with spongy boundaries is like a combination of having soft and rigid boundaries. People with spongy boundaries are inconsistent or unsure of what to let in and what to keep out.
Soft boundaries create a sense of intimate connection between people and vulnerability to manipulation, and require giving up a sense of self-determination and agency. Rigid boundaries create a sense of self-determination and control, and require giving up intimacy. Spongy boundaries are an unskilled form of trying to balance self-protection and openness to human connection, and people with spongy boundaries typically feel a sense of whiplash as they bounce between two extremes.
Healthy Boundaries are More Flexible and Create a Sense of Agency
Someone with healthy boundaries has flexible boundaries. They consciously choose what to let in and what to keep out. This makes them resistant to emotional contagion and psychological manipulation and difficult to exploit.
For people with unhealthy boundaries, developing healthy boundaries is surprisingly deep work.
Soft boundaries are like the straw house the first pig built in the Three Little Pigs, all it takes is someone else huffing and buffing to blow the house down. Trying to protect oneself with rigid boundaries is like building with stronger materials. The wolf can still blow down the stick house but it has to work harder. But the pigs are safe inside the brick house as long as they stay inside. The trouble is, human existence is like earthquake territory – there is always something threatening to shake things up. And in a big earthquake, brick buildings frequently crumble. A building needs to have the right foundation to survive an earthquake.
Developing healthy boundaries is retrofitting for earthquake territory.
The human condition is that we are born into and live our lives in interdependent communities full of other people, who are all working toward their own agendas with their own agendas, temperaments, failings, and strengths. We need other people, both physically and emotionally, and we have our own inner drives to accomplish things and ways we want the world to be. Conflict with others is an inevitable and recurring part of life. And we need a sense of agency and choice in order to thrive.
The leading theory of suicide includes the absence of a sense of connection and the absence of a sense of agency as two of the three things that coexist when people die by suicide. These are fundamental human needs.
Healthy boundaries require self-knowledge, a solid foundation of self-worth, and a belief in one’s own competence.
Before you can hold boundaries, you must first believe that you are worthy of self-protection and that your knowledge and perspective are valuable.
Then, you must identify the boundaries you will hold.
- Is any specific behaviour always unacceptable?
- What values do you hold that you will not tolerate being violated?
You must find a compelling reason to hold firm boundaries. Most people need to be helping something outside or bigger than themselves to hold to boundaries in tough situations.
- What bigger purpose are you serving by holding those boundaries?
- What kind of world do you believe will be created if your values are always honoured?
- Who do you hold these boundaries for?
Thirdly, you must develop comfort actually holding these boundaries. And comfort comes with practice. Exactly how you hold a boundary will change depending on the circumstances. The key is to remember your compelling reason. When you feel out of your depth or lost or without direction, remind your self why you are holding this boundary. The creativity to solve the question of how will emerge from your commitment.
This post is part of the 2017 Blogging from A to Z Challenge.