One of the most important things, if not the most important thing, in our social life is boundaries. In this article, we will briefly define boundaries, review the types of boundaries, and look at how we learn to have the boundaries that we have.
What Are Boundaries
Boundaries, or personal boundaries, can be understood as an invisible shield or fence around you. It’s a line you set for yourself and others that separates you from others and their influence.
Boundaries usually are categorized as physical and mental.
- Physical boundaries are in regard to your physical existence, e.g., your body, property, and resources. For instance, you would let your romantic partner kiss you or hold hands, but if a random stranger did it you would see it as a violation of your physical and sexual boundaries.
- Mental boundaries (sometimes referred to as emotional, psychological, intellectual, or spiritual) are in relation to your psyche, e.g., your thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. It defines how affected and shaped you are by other people’s emotions, beliefs, expectations, opinions, and so on.
Another classification of boundaries involves the quality or strength of one’s boundaries. Here, generally there are four types of boundaries.
- Soft. People with soft boundaries tend to be unaware where a healthy boundary is supposed to be and merge with others quite easily. They are quick to accept other people’s thoughts and opinions, or are overly involved with other people’s lives. Because their boundaries are too soft and clearly undefined, they are prone to being manipulated and violated.
- Rigid. Rigid boundaries are the opposite of soft. In a sense that people with such boundaries are overly shielded and unreachable. They keep too much distance from others and have difficulties opening up, being emotionally available, or building close, meaningful relationships.
- Spongy. This is a combination of soft and rigid. A person with such boundaries are unsure how to handle various social interactions and relationships, therefore tend to jump back and forth between being too soft and too rigid.
- Flexible. This type of boundaries are somewhat similar to spongy, however the key difference is that the person is more aware and more in control. They read others better and have a clearer sense of self, therefore their boundaries are reasonable and healthy, and change accordingly depending on the situation they are in.
Why We Need Healthy Boundaries
The purpose of boundaries is twofold. One, they are there to protect yourself from other people’s violation. And two, to inform and remind you not to violate another’s boundaries.
Having healthy boundaries means that you are able to set boundaries that don’t interfere with other people’s healthy(!) boundaries, where you are able to protect yourself from violation and you don’t violate others.
Boundaries protect us from abuse, manipulation, exploitation, and other forms of personal violation. Recognizing and respecting other people’s healthy(!) boundaries lets us be moral and fair to others.
The concept of boundaries is closely related to such psychological, philosophical, and social concepts as identity, self-esteem, relationships, morality, society, justice, self-defense, politics, and many others.
For more in depth introduction to what boundaries are and why we need them, feel free to watch this video where I explain it in more detail.
How We Form Our Understanding of Boundaries
Whether we are educated on the subject or not, we all have some concept of self, others, and where we are in relation to others. Some may have not even heard of the term ‘boundaries.’ Yet we all consciously or unconsciously apply our understanding of it in our relationships and interactions with others.
Everyone’s understanding of boundaries is different. We all learn about them based on our early environment and experiences. The key factors in how a person learns about boundaries are the following:
- Childhood relationship with primary caregivers. This involves parents, grandparents, elders, family members, teachers, priests, and similar authority figures who had power and influence over you when you were small, dependent, and impressionable. These relationships primarily set the blueprint for later relationships and the dynamics we set and seek for in others.
- Childhood social environments. It includes school, peer groups, friends and acquaintances, church, hobby groups, etc. These are also important examples of social interactions a person has.
- Information that you were taught. This involves the messages people, mainly your primary caregivers, taught you about what is acceptable or unacceptable, good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, and so on. A lot of people have grown up with many toxic beliefs.
- Information that was available. A child doesn’t have a frame of reference. Whatever they experience seems at least somewhat normal because they don’t have a broader understanding of what healthiness actually looks like. However, sometimes they are able to compare their family life with their friends’ or read a book or see a better example. All of that can help them understand what the differences between healthiness and unhealthiness are.
As adults, if we really care about our well-being an important goal for us should be reevaluating our understanding and application of boundaries, examining our upbringing, and learning to have healthier boundaries.
We will continue with the topic of boundaries in the following weeks, so stay tuned!
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.