Today, more than ever, it seems, people are concerned about boundaries. This concern undoubtedly has always been there to some degree as we have always valued privacy, freedom, and the psychological space to be ourselves. I am reminded of Robert Frost’s popular poem about how good fences make good neighbors. Boundaries help us affirm our identities. According to the psychoanalyst, Vamik Volkan, in his book, The Need to Have Enemies and Allies (1985), setting boundaries is a fundamental process of identity development that ultimately manifests in the grand geopolitical sphere. On a more benign scale, many of us have our favorite sports teams toward whom we become deeply loyal, and their rivals our bitter enemies. But boundaries also can have a “downside.” The philosopher, Ken Wilber, once observed, for example, that when “we set the boundaries of our soul we set the battles of our soul” as well. Perhaps it is something in our physiological constitution. There is some empirical evidence, for example, that has drawn a correlation between distrust, or xenophobia, and testosterone.
The need for boundaries may serve an ordinary function to protect and identify who we are but the possibility that it is becoming more salient in today’s world may be a warning sign. In my recent blog on Malice, Apathy, and the Meaning of Psychological Health in a Shrinking World, I observed that the psychological effects of living in a smaller world today because of population growth and advances in technology may be contributing to a greater prevalence of hostility and moral injury. The porousness of our existence today resulting from internet communication and social media heightens our sense of vulnerability because we have lost an important layer of privacy from those who at the same time are protected by a greater degree of anonymity. “Road rage,” as an analogy, arises from the protection venting one’s anger from the seemingly safe anonymity the confines of one’s automobile provides. Internet bullying, trolling, and ghosting, may be, likewise, encouraged by the safe confines of anonymity. The psychological sense of boundaries generated by anonymity in cyberspace, however, may be further enhanced by the dehumanizing interface of electronic media when human interaction is digitalized.
Boundaries serve an important role to establish and maintain psychological health. They give us sanctuary from the demands of everyday life, our jobs, our neighbors, the media, even our loved ones at times. They allow our private thoughts and emotions sufficient time to incubate before we are ready to act on them or make them public. By the same token, establishing boundaries between thoughts and actions helps us distinguish between which aspects of our behavior for which we should be held accountable.
Boundaries also serve to establish and maintain healthy relationships. Many of my patients raise concerns about “codependency” in their relationships with lovers and spouses. Maintaining healthy boundaries in relationships breathes vitality necessary for a relationship to grow stronger and in dimension. I have also seen, on the other hand, instances when setting boundaries ostensibly for this sake can serve as a defense from establishing emotional intimacy and risking the vulnerability necessary for a relationship to grow. Maintaining healthy boundaries then is distinguished by the degree to which we affirm our need for space and individuality without sacrificing our willingness to communicate and openly respond to the concerns and needs of our partners.
Boundaries are also important to establish and maintain between parents and their children. This is so because parents need to cultivate their personal investments outside their roles as parents and, by the same token, children need the psychological space to establish their identities apart from their parents in order to become healthy adults. Boundaries are also important in professional relationships. It is especially important in my field of practice in order to maintain the necessary objectivity that could otherwise compromise my effectiveness as a therapist. Healthy boundaries also serve to preserve the distance necessary both to limit the extent of my power and influence that could otherwise violate my patient’s trust in me as well as the safety that the delimitations of my patient’s access to my private life and thoughts would afford.
Unhealthy Boundaries in Personality Styles
Our characteristic ways of relating to others are what mostly define our personality style. This is true especially when the demand characteristics of the situation, such as social convention or protocol, are minimal so that we may be ourselves as much as our defenses will allow. Those behaviors that violate interpersonal boundaries, by the same token, may be explained by the dynamics associated with each personality style. A person with narcissistic features, for example, is likely to breach the boundaries of others for the sake of power or as an expression of entitlement. Those who have dependent or anxious-attachment difficulties, on the other hand, violate boundaries out of a fear of being alone or abandoned. Individuals who are antisocial in nature might violate boundaries surreptitiously in order to gain an advantage or to exploit others.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who reinforce their boundaries from others. For example, the schizoid personality isolates him or herself in order to protect themselves from the risks or difficulties of intimate relationships. The paranoid person, on the other hand erects interpersonal boundaries because they are guarded and distrustful of others’ intentions. How boundaries are negotiated, therefore, often reveals key aspects of each personality style.
These personality styles should not be confused with difficulties discerning appropriate boundaries as often found in individuals with developmental disabilities, such as autism spectrum and other neuro-atypical disorders. In these instances, boundary difficulties may be attributed primarily to cognitive deficits that impair social discernment rather than interpersonal disturbances at their source.
Tips for Establishing Healthy Boundaries
There are several books that offer helpful advice about how and when to set boundaries. Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself, by Nedra Glover Tawwab (2021) a licensed counselor, was on the New York Times Bestseller list and offers tips based on cognitive-behavior therapy methods. Another book, recommended by some of my patients, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life, by Henry Cloud and John Townsend (1992) is also very good although it has some religious overtones some might find off-putting.
Here are some tips to help you set healthy boundaries:
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Robert Hamm Ph.D