By Anita Anand
You need a certain amount of space to yourself – physical, emotional, spiritual, sexual and relational. defining and maintaining the boundaries in a healthy way is necessary to your well-being
You are standing in a line and you can feel the breath of the person behind you on your neck. You come home from school and find that your older sibling has read your diary and revealed the contents to your parents. Your father tells you he called your boss and had a good chat with him about your future prospects in the company. A young woman reveals that her father physically abused her for many years while she was growing up. All these are examples of crossing boundaries.
Examples of boundaries
What exactly is a boundary? Anne Katherine, author of Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin, says that it is the limit or edge defining us as separate from others; it is a limit promoting integrity. It is our Lakshman Rekha.
Katherine highlights various kinds of boundaries – physical, emotional, spiritual, sexual and relational. When a person stands too close to us, it could be a violation of a physical boundary. We feel differently depending on whether it is a stranger, a friend, or a lover. The less we know someone, the more space we seem to need.
There are limits of what is safe and appropriate in emotional boundaries. You run into friends you have not seen for a long time. “My, you have put on weight,” they say loudly. How do you feel? Is your weight gain any of their business? Do you have an intimate enough relationship with them to accept this? When you let someone hurt you verbally, the other person is not affected. You may need to draw a limit between the two of you, and you may need to let the person know that your weight is not their business.
We have spiritual boundaries. We can choose a spiritual path for ourselves, and can be assisted but not forced. Our spiritual development comes from within ourselves. We have sexual boundaries, outlining the safe and appropriate sexual behaviour that we expect from others. We have a choice about who we interact with sexually and the extent of that interaction. Then, there are relational boundaries – these are roles that we play which define the limits of appropriate interaction with others.
Why is a boundary important? Boundaries bring order to our lives and as we learn to strengthen them, we gain a clearer sense of ourselves and our relationship to others. Boundaries empower us to determine how we will be treated by others.
Different cultures have different concepts of boundaries. In Europe and North America, it is rare for people meeting you for the first time to ask intimate details of your life: Are you married? How much money do you earn? This, however, is routine in many cultures like India. In some cultures, a greeting is incomplete without a hug or a kiss. In others, it is considered highly inappropriate to even shake a hand.
Violations of boundaries
There are violations of intrusion and violations of distance. An intrusion violation occurs when a physical or emotional boundary is breached. For example, it could be a question like, “Have you ever had an abortion?” For many this is a very personal decision and issue, and not a subject they would care to discuss with people they do not know closely or intimately. In the same way, incest is a violation of intrusion, in which a physical and emotional boundary is breached with young children who do not know better, or are confused about their response to the advances of the adult – whom they most often trust. Others can be inappropriate personal questions (What is your salary? How much rent do you pay?) Or, inappropriate touching and attempting to control how another person thinks, feels and believes.
Violations of distance occur when intimacy is less than what is appropriate to the relationship, when someone from whom one has a right to expect closeness is excessively distant or cut off. Too much distance can also be harmful. For example, children need safe physical contact in order to define themselves. Non-sexual hugging, holding, cuddling, and touching are important for a child’s emotional and physical development. Adults also need to be touched. Author Diane Ackerman in A Natural History of the Senses, says experiments show that the more babies are held, the higher their level of alertness and cognitive development, and people of all ages can become sick in the absence of touching and being touched. If we have good emotional boundaries, we can protect our physical boundaries.
Both physical and emotional boundary development are harmed by distance and intrusion violations. Our ability to protect ourselves is related to the strength of our boundaries.
If we have not developed clear emotional boundaries, we are vulnerable to physical violation.
We learn about emotional boundaries by the responses we get. As we grow, when our feelings are met with disapproval, harshness, or simply ignored, we learn to push them down, to separate ourselves from our feelings and to ignore the valuable information they have for us. When feelings are met warmly, we are encouraged to talk about them, helped to identify them, and when a parent correctly interprets our facial expression, our body language and feelings connected with it, our understanding of our inner self grows. Learning about connecting with feelings is essential for complete boundary development.
Context and the type of relationship define appropriate closeness and distance in a relationship. A marriage has great potential for physical and emotional intimacy. The parent-child relationship offers a range of safe physical closeness and a range of emotional involvement. Best friends can share some physical closeness and a high degree of emotional intimacy.
Marriage is possibly the most complicated of relationships. In a healthy marriage or intimate relationship, each person is whole and intact. They choose to live together. They could still live if something happened to the other. And marriages have the best chance to succeed if the partners have a lot in common – shared interests, similar values, common goals, comparable backgrounds, and a somewhat parallel way of looking at things. Too much difference builds too much distance.
Relationships between parents and children also call for boundaries. Your child is not your friend. Ageing parents often expect too much from their adult children, who in turn often feel guilty and resentful at having to offer a certain physical and emotional support they may not be able to give.
Roles have built-in limits. What is appropriate when your role is a mother is not the same as when your role is a boss. Confusion of roles leads to confusion of boundaries. For example, your therapist is not your boss, and your boss can never be your therapist.
You can tell boundaries are being ignored if there are one or more of the following characteristic symptoms:
Excessive detachment: When you and others in a group or family are not able to establish any fusion of emotions or affiliation of feelings. Everyone is totally independent from everyone else. There is nothing to hold you and them together in healthy union. You and they seem to lack a common purpose, goal, identity, or rationale for existing together. There is a seeming lack of desire from you and the other members to draw together to form a union because you fear loss of personal identity.
Over enmeshment: Everyone has to think, feel, and act in the same way. No one is allowed to deviate from the family or group norms. Everyone looks the same. Uniqueness, autonomy and idiosyncratic behaviours are viewed as deviations from the norm.
Disassociation: You blank out during a stressful emotional event. You feel your physical and/or emotional space is being violated and you tell yourself: “It does not matter.” “Ignore it and it will go away soon enough.” “No sense in fighting it, just hang on and it will be over soon.” “Do not put up a struggle or else it will be worse for you.” This results in being out of touch with your feelings about what happened, and may result in your inability to remember what happened.
Victimhood or martyrdom: You feel you are a violated victim and become overly defensive to ward off further violation. It can be that once you accept your victimisation you continue to be knowingly victimised, and then let others know of your martyrdom.
Chip on the shoulder: Because of your anger over past violation of your emotional and/or physical space and the real or perceived ignoring of your rights by others, you have a chip on your shoulder that declares, “I dare you to come too close!”
Invisibility: Pulling in or over-controlling so that you or others never know how you are really feeling or what you are really thinking. Your goal is not to be seen or heard, so that your boundaries are not violated.
Aloofness or shyness: A result of your insecurity from real or perceived experiences of being ignored, loved, or rejected in the past. You take the defensive posture to reject others before they reject you. This keeps you inward and unwilling or fearful of opening up your space to others.
Cold and distant: When you build walls or barriers to ensure that others do not permeate or invade your emotional or physical space, due to previous hurt and pain from being violated, hurt, ignored or rejected, you are saying, “I have drawn the line over which I dare you to cross.” It is a way to keep others out and put them off.
Smothering: When another person is overly concerned about your needs and interests and intrudes into your emotional and physical space, it is overwhelming. You feel like you are being strangled, held too tightly, and lack freedom to breathe on your own.
Privacy: Nothing you think, feel, or do is your own business. You are expected to report to others in your family or group all the details and content of your feelings, reactions, opinions, relationships and dealings with the outside world. You feel that nothing you experience can be kept private.
Building healthy boundaries
Unhealthy thoughts or beliefs allow boundaries to be ignored or violated. Listed below, after each unhealthy belief is a healthier, rational, realistic, reality-based affirmation for healthy boundary building.
Unhealthy: I can never say ‘no’ to others. Healthy boundary builder: I can say ‘no’ to others if it is an invasion of my space or a violation of my rights.
Unhealthy: It is my duty to hold them together. Healthy boundary builder: I can take care of myself. If they want to stay together as a family or group, it is up to them. They all have equal responsibility to create the interdependency needed to keep us together as a united group.
Unhealthy: I can never trust anyone again. Healthy boundary builder: I can take the risk to grow in my relationships with others. If I find my space or rights being violated or ignored, I can assertively protect myself to ensure I am not hurt.
Unhealthy: I would feel guilty if I did something on my own, and left my family or group out of it. Healthy boundary builder: I need to do things, which are uniquely mine so that I do not become so overly enmeshed with others that I lose my identity.
Unhealthy: I should do everything I can to spend as much time together with you or else we will not be a healthy family or group. Healthy boundary builder: I need to explore my own interests, hobbies, and outlets so that I can bring back to this family or group my unique personality to enrich our lives rather than be lost in a closed and over enmeshed system.
Unhealthy: It does not matter what they are doing to me – if I keep quiet and do not complain they will eventually leave me alone. Healthy boundary builder: I will not allow my space and rights to be violated. I will stand up for myself and assert my rights to be respected and not hurt or violated. If they choose to ignore me, then I have the right to leave them or ask them to move out of my life.
Unhealthy: As long as I am not seen or heard, I will not be violated or hurt. Healthy boundary builder: I have a right to be visible and to be seen and heard. I will stand up for myself so that others can learn to respect my rights, my needs, and not violate my space.
Unhealthy: I would rather not pay attention to what is happening to me in this relationship, which is overly intrusive, smothering and violating of my privacy. In this way I do not have to feel the pain and hurt that comes from such a violation. Healthy boundary builder: I will associate with my feelings when I am being treated in a negatively painful way. I can be aware of what is happening to me, and assertively protect myself from further violation or hurt.
Unhealthy: I have been hurt badly in the past and I will never let anyone in close enough to hurt me again. Healthy boundary builder: I do not need to be cold and distant or aloof and shy as protective tools to avoid being hurt.
I choose to open myself up to others trusting that I will be assertive to protect my rights and privacy from being violated.
Unhealthy: I can never tell where to draw the line with others. Healthy boundary builder: There is a line I have drawn over which I do not allow others to cross. By this line I let others know: this is who I am and where I begin and you end; this is who you are and where you begin and I end; we will never cross over this line so that we can maintain a healthy relationship with one another.
Getting to healthy boundaries
It is never too late to build healthy boundaries for yourself. Start with the following:
• Improve your self-awareness. In a notebook for one week, research how you are different from the people around you. Make a note every time your opinions or values differ from another. List your differences and discuss this with a trusted friend.
• Identify childhood violations and the offenders and take care of that damage. List the people that were important to you growing up and the violations you may have experienced. Discuss this with your therapist or trusted friend.
• Examine the present state of your boundaries in your present relationships and clear them up – dependants (children, subordinates, people in your care), people who give you care (boss, lawyer, therapist, priest, guru), your peers (friends). Decide what you really want from these relationships, and do what makes you comfortable, keeping in mind that there are boundaries to be respected.
All this may take a while. Imagining that you have drawn your Lakshman Rekha and your work begins inside the line can make an important start. Healthy boundaries need to start from the inside – from you.
You can start now.
Anita Anand is a Delhi-based hypnotherapist and crystal healer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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