Most of us are familiar with the term “boundaries”. We may speak about people having “boundary issues” or “bad boundaries”, but what are they exactly?

Boundaries refer to the degree of closeness and limits we have with other people, especially in families or intimate relationships. The term “boundary” is a metaphor to boundariesdescribe how and when we let people into our personal space, whether physically or psychologically. It refers to our ability to say “no” to unwanted requests, and to ask for the things we need or want. It also describes the quality of connection we have with others, and how intertwined our emotional and psychological well being is with theirs. We learn our boundary style from our family of origin and unconsciously continue the same pattern into our adult relationships, recreating the same amount of limits, connection, or distance with other people. Sometimes we overreact to our early boundary experiences and do the opposite of how we were raised!

Our style can be best thought of on a spectrum, ranging from no boundaries to extreme boundaries.

Diffuse (Co-dependent) >>>>> Clear (Interdependent) >>>>> Rigid (Independent)

At one end we have “Diffuse” boundaries, where we have difficulty saying no to unwanted requests or making requests of others. In relationships, this can lead to over-connection, sometimes called “enmeshment”. In this state, people are not really able to distinguish their own wants and needs from those of their family or partner. They are highly dependent on each other (co-dependent), and subject to the others emotional state and mood. Rather than a connection, it is an entanglement. A couple or parent/child who are enmeshed can have difficulty forming relationships with other people, and tend to be very inflexible. People with diffuse boundaries may have difficulty functioning or making decisions without their partners approval, or even with strangers in ordinary interactions. This type of boundary is often the result of insecurity; a belief that we are not good enough and that giving into other people’s wants before our own in all situaitons is the only way to have relationships.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have “rigid” boundaries. People with these kinds of boundaries are distant from others, highly independent, and frightened of “counting on someone else”. They allow little emotional connection to occur, with their relationship functioning only as a way to fulfill their individual wants and desires, without regard to how that might impact other’s wants and needs. People with this style are often insecure about whether people will really be there for them, so they’ve decided to focus on meeting their own needs, often offending or hurting others in the way.

Ideally, we have “clear” boundaries. We can modulate our ability to ask for things or say no depending on the situation. We can connect with people when we choose and keep harmful or unwanted people away. We are interdependent on each other people without being dependent. We are able to fully connect with others emotionally, to consider the impact of our actions on our family and partners, all without forgetting about our own needs and wants. We give regard to everyone’s well-being in an interaction, including our own. We have a sense of security in knowing we are connected and cared for, while still being able to function independently when necessary. We are also flexible to outside events and changes, and can operate well alone or with others.

Keep in mind our concept of healthy boundaries is culturally specific. In dominant Amercian culture, highly rigid boundaries are often valued. Personal happiness is considered more important than the well-being of others. We champion “rugged individualism”, and relationships are often viewed as a liability; a drag on our efforts to achieve and earn, so being more assertive or even aggressive is tolerated. In contrast, some more tradional cultures, such as in Asia, have long valued the group and collective as more important than the individual. Setting what might seem like healthy boundaries to Americans might be offensive in those families or communities.

Take a moment and think about your own boundaries along this spectrum.

1. What type of boundaries do you set in your current relationships?

2. What were boundaries like in your family of origin? Did everyone have the same boundary style, or did some members have diffuse boundaries while others were rigid?

3. Did you want more connection or less with your family? How about now?

4. In current or past realtionships, where has conflict occurred when boundary expectations were different? Did you get in trouble for setting boundaries, or were you harmed by not having solid boundaries?

5. Which style of boundaries do you tend to bring to relationships? What skills might you need to develop to have better boundaries?

6. What kind of boundaries do you have in public, work, or other less intimate places?