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Boundaries – our emotional fences

Boundaries define how we interact with others and how we allow others to interact with us. Psychoanalyst and philosopher Jacques Lacan stated that boundaries define us as individuals, outline our likes and dislikes, and set the distances we allow others to approach us. They include physical, mental, psychological and spiritual boundaries.

We learn how to set boundaries from our childhood experiences. Physical and emotional abuse clearly crosses boundaries. Boundaries can also become distorted with emotionally distant or controlling parents. When personal boundaries are routinely broken, we learn that our own needs and feelings do not count and that we are required to accept how others treat us without question.

Professor Dr. Nina Brown defined four major types of psychological boundaries. People with ‘soft’ boundaries merge with other people’s boundaries. They put their hands on strangers and let others touch them inappropriately. They get too close to others too fast. They may take on and feel responsible for the feelings of others, giving too much. They easily become emotionally overwhelmed, and yet may ‘crave drama.’ They often resent others who may have ‘used’ or ‘manipulated’ them. Their emotional houses have no fences, gates, locks or even doors.

People with ‘rigid’ boundaries are closed off so nobody can get physically or emotionally close to them. However, the rigidity can be selective depending on circumstances. They appear aloof and distant, and do not talk about or show emotions. They are extremely self-sufficient, rarely asking for help. Their emotional houses are surrounded by immense walls with no gates.

A ‘spongy’ boundary style is a combination of having both soft and rigid boundaries. Although these people permit less emotional contamination than soft people, but more than rigid people, they are unsure (lack the selectiveness) of what to let in and what to keep out.

A ‘flexible’ boundary style is desired. It is similar to the selective rigid boundaries but in this case, the person discerns (selects) what to let in and what to keep out.

How do we know when boundaries are being crossed? Start noticing situations that are draining or stressful. Are we acting under obligation, being nice, or letting someone manipulate us? Look for feelings of resentment or discomfort. The resentment often indicates that we did not assert ourselves and thus, let a boundary be crossed or remain to be crossed. Discomfort may be a cue that someone may be violating our boundary, such as when an inappropriate question is asked.

People with healthy boundaries are firm but flexible. They respect their feelings, needs, opinions and rights, and those of others. They are responsible for their own happiness and allow others to be responsible for their happiness. They are assertive and respectful of the rights of others to be assertive. Their emotional houses have fences and gates that open only to those who respect their boundaries.

Next: Learning to set boundaries

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Diane Hancox, MA, CCC provides counselling services to Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Nanaimo and Vancouver Island.