Boundaries 101 (Part 1)

You may have heard of a popular phrase used about relationships: healthy boundaries. However, this pop-psychology term is anything but a fad or flash in the pan; the importance of having healthy interpersonal boundaries simply cannot be overstated. Boundaries affect not only our romantic relationships, but friendships, business relationships, and family relationships as well. In fact, I discuss boundaries with almost every client I see because our interpersonal health is intimately wed to our mental health.

But that raises the question, what is a boundary? Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, co-authors of the popular Boundaries book series define boundaries as (paraphrased) “a property line that defines ownership, control, and responsibility.” So boundaries dictate the limits of physical ownership, like the edge of your property line. However, they also define interpersonal and spiritual lines, like what you’re okay with and what you’re not okay with. These are not as visible, but they are just as important and real.

This lack of visibility is part of the reason why people struggle with interpersonal boundaries. We have well-developed laws that dictate ownership over property like land and vehicles, for example. But many of the rules about interpersonal boundaries are culturally established, not legally defined. Meaning, our culture has decided that cutting someone in the checkout line at the store is unacceptable, but there isn’t an actual legal statute that prohibits that behavior.

This becomes a problem when someone tells you that your boundary is wrong or shouldn’t exist. Imagine a scenario where someone yells at you, and you reply “Stop talking to me that way. It’s inappropriate and rude.” And they respond, “that’s not rude. And you’re the reason I’m yelling!” You can see the problem - you tried to define an interpersonal boundary for yourself, but the other person questioned your view of the situation. If this happens enough, eventually you start to question if your boundaries are legitimate or reasonable. “Maybe he’s not being rude...maybe I’m the crazy one…”.

Here are some possible ways in which people’s boundaries can be crossed:

  • We are asked to work more than is humanly possible (or at least healthily possible)
  • We are responsible for work that we are not paid for
    • e.g. expected to answer emails in the middle of the night
  • We are touched or spoken to in a way that demeans our value as a human
  • We are blamed for something that is not our responsibility
    • e.g. “It’s your fault I’m acting this way.”
  • We are not treated in a way that the other would want themself to be treated
  • We are made to feel that we are in control of another’s behaviors or well-being
    • This usually happens when a person is highly empathetic but has low self-worth.
  • We are asked to do something we are not comfortable with
    • e.g. “Let’s not count this on our taxes…”.

This is the first of a five part blog series about boundaries. Here, I hope I gave you a better understanding of what boundaries are and how they can be crossed. In my next four posts, I want to tell you a story about a close friend who taught me a lot about boundaries. Through that relationship, I learned four important rules about boundaries that I want to share with you. Is there any relationship in your life which feels exhausting or even harmful? If so, your boundaries may need work. We at the Well Clinic are here to help.