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by Margaret Fiero
We hear about boundaries a lot: wars being waged over disputed land, voting districts being redrawn, neighborhoods changing due to new zoning laws. How often, though, do we think about our own boundaries? Personal boundaries are critical, yet often go unexamined. It can be healthy to take stock, particularly if you continually run into the same interpersonal or relationship problems.
When discussing boundaries, I find it helpful to get down to the cellular level. Look at an image of a cell, you see that the important inner material inside is protected by the cell wall, or “membrane,” which encircles it. The membrane is firm yet flexible, adapting to its environment while at the same time maintaining its integrity. The cell wall is designed for osmosis, allowing nutrients to seep in and out, and waste to be excreted. Because of the protection the wall provides, should it be “compromised,” it usually is healthy enough to heal itself.
How does this relate to personal boundaries? Let’s start with some characteristics of unhealthy boundaries, of which there are three major types:
The word “rigid” implies stiff and unbending. There is no ability to adapt here because the boundary has no yield or flexibility to it. This individual appears “closed off” to others through stoic body language, lack of expression, and unwavering rules about physical boundaries. They have trouble accepting or offering help – the “rugged individualist” to an extreme. Nothing harmful is allowed in, yet like a cell incapable of healthy osmosis, neither is anything helpful, unless the wall is pierced. Any breakage is a cataclysmic event, difficult to repair.
This is a tricky one, most descriptive of the “hot and cold” individual. Their behavior is unpredictable and rather than adapting to their environment, others are required to adapt to them. Unlike the fluid, solid barrier of the healthy cell, this boundary has holes in it, which makes it difficult to contain the inner material. The holes make for an unstable boundary, increasing the risk of breaking down, allowing the outside to flood in, or vice versa.
To stick with the cell metaphor, there is nothing to contain the internal matter, allowing it to float around with no protection or purpose. This individual has such limited sense of self, they don’t know where they end and the next person begins. They become physically close too fast, have no place to hold their feelings, and find it difficult to be alone. As the martyr or the doormat, they often feel like a victim. With no boundary to shield them, this can be dangerous as they may not be able to ascertain whether or not they are in physical danger.
Our boundary styles are affected by our upbringing, our personality, and our cultures. Certain cultures require less physical space than the North American mainstream culture, whereas others require more. The following description, though, is a general picture of what healthy boundaries look like:
This individual is able to make their physical boundaries clear, respect others, and negotiate and compromise. Emotionally, this individual is assertive, direct, has a strong sense of self, and is empathetic. We all have bad days, we all get our signals crossed at times, and we all have our moments when we let our boundaries down unwisely, or we put the blast-proof walls up prematurely. Ideally, though, we have a durable container that holds the most important parts of our self, which we know when to share or withhold. That container is firm, yet still slightly malleable. It allows us to adapt to our surroundings while still protecting us. Our boundaries will change in different settings; they will be looser around close friends than at work. Much like that healthy cell, we take in what we need from the environment, while both getting rid of what we don’t need and contributing positively to those around us. Sounds great, doesn’t it? How do you get there, though, you ask? Check my next entry for tips on how to develop and cultivate healthy boundaries! Additionally, if you would like our help in this process, you can contact us to make a counseling appointment or read more about adult counseling on our service page.