Learning how to set personal boundaries and how to implement those boundaries is a
topic that can either make or break a relationship. According to the dictionary a
boundary is defined as “a line that marks the limits of an area; a dividing line.” In
psychology, personal boundaries do just that. Boundaries help us clearly define our
limitations and expectations for both ourselves and others. In other words, boundaries
are a way for us to establish acceptable, respectful, supportive relationships with one
another. Furthermore, the way in which we allow others to treat us, says a lot about how
we treat ourselves – it speaks to our self-esteem and self-respect.
However, like anything in life, finding a balance is imperative for boundary setting and
overall satisfaction in life. If you’re someone who has a difficult time enforcing personal
boundaries, feelings of worthlessness, weakness, frustration and self-doubt can arise.
Conversely, if you’re someone who has a difficult time loosening personal boundaries
feelings of isolation, distrust and loneliness may become your “new norm.”
Though we talk a great deal about the consequences of ill-defined boundaries, what we
don’t often talk about are the consequences of having boundaries that are overly rigid,
uncompromising and inflexible.
We all have met people who are the victim of this circumstance. We describe them as
“having a wall up.” Though we may not be able to verbalize what it is that we feel when
we’re around them, we inherently feel a barrier preventing us from getting close to them.
Often, people with rigid boundaries are “no people” – in other words, they don’t’ share
personal information and they’ll avoid interaction and intimacy – sometimes to the point of
self-sabotage. Eventually, those around them will pick up on this emotional block and grow
tired of being kept at arms-length - at some point they’ll be forced to choose the only
outcome that the ironclad boundaries evoke…segregation.
But why would someone reject our inherent human need for authentic intimacy,
understanding and relatability? Fear. As humans we are hardwired with a “fear response”
when we perceive danger. Once we detect potential danger, we are programed to respond
with one of two options: we confront the threat…or we avoid the threat. This programmed
response is known as a “fight-or-flight response” – or formally, an autonomic (nervous
system) reflex. This complex system acts largely unconsciously and regulates bodily
functions like heart rate, digestion, and respitatory rate.
We tend to build strict, inflexible boundaries when we want to protect ourselves from pain.
There isn’t a hard and fast rule that states having stringent boundaries equals being a victim
of physical, emotional, psychological or sexual abuse but we see it often enough.
Impenetrable boundaries can also be a result of grief, heartbreak, and/or disappointment. In
other words, at some point, you agreed to “protect” yourself at any and all costs –and
believe the only way to do so is to never allow yourself to be vulnerable again.
What we don’t realize is that we’re only creating more pain by doing so. We think that if we
can just protect ourselves from (insert anything from your past that has left emotional
scarring) then, we’ll never feel the pain that we experienced again. Which may very well be
true…however, in doing so, we also run the risk of becoming closed off and numb to
everything – opting out of life’s tragedies…and triumphs…sorrows…and joys…pain…and
love. What we fail to realize is that rigid boundaries rob us of peace, contentment, love and
Oftentimes from the hurt we have suffered, we have become wiser and far more aware thus
repeating the same past patterns are less of a risk. What you have learned through your
painful experience is a lesson in life that you cannot erase and this experience can provide
more meaningful, insightful relationships in the future.
At The Hellenic Therapy Center, 567 Park Avenue, Scotch Plains, New Jersey, we have a
team of licensed clinicians you can assist you day, evening and weekend hours. Visit us at
www.hellenictherapy.com or FB or call us at 908-322-0112.