The concept of boundaries is one that has been labeled “psychobabble.” And yet, the word is a shorthand that conveys a simple meaning about a complex and important psychological construct. When you hear it, you know what it means. I’ll spare you the dense lecture. However, we often hear, “Well, they need to respect your boundaries” or “that’s such a violation of your boundaries.” What does this mean? Why are boundaries necessary? How can I develop more flexible boundaries? When boundaries are violated, what happens? Where do they start?
The formation of boundaries: essentially ego boundaries — not surprisingly — starts at birth. Our earliest attachment to another. A deep human dependency, the requisite need for emotional nourishment, care and trust, safety and security, it all starts here. Over time, if all goes well, we learn at least three things. The first is an intrinsic belief that we are valued, loved and respected solely for who we are. Next, we learn we can expect safety, stability and consistency to continue to meet our psychological needs to grow, move out into the social world of peers, and develop relationships of our own as we evolve through adolescence and into adulthood. We come to sense and trust that I am I and you are you. Our boundaries between ourselves and others are flexible. We can trust and rely upon them.
However, as we now know, things don’t always go well. In the delicate dance of attachment that is an intrinsic part of boundary formation, things go awry. The process becomes disrupted. Trauma in the family and abuse can impair the process. Our needs become displaced due to the needs of a parent, drugs and alcohol, the basics of daily living, really, an infinite variety of things. Sometimes, the impaired boundaries of a parent or caregiver can become fused with our own developing boundaries. We develop a sense that we are responsible for their happiness. We can’t know or understand that we, as children, have a right to a healthy sense of emotional stability and security. Your needs become my needs.
This dance is one that can plays out throughout our lives. We get attached to others, come to expect a certain level of needs to be met — if we can recognize our needs — we relax our boundaries in the hopes for comfort and safety. We find this in our groups of friends, lovers, spouses and families. Our boundaries can become too loose and, at the extremes, lead to difficulty accurately perceiving reality. Others, and their needs and agendas, intrude upon and take over our lives. Our boundaries can be too rigid and wall us off from others, leading to isolation and despair. Humans are social animals. A healthy sense of boundaries and of our own selves, needs and expectations is shaped through myriad interactions, comings and goings, attaching and separating. Often, relationships that are functional and good for us are the way we come to love ourselves.
Healthy and loving relationships require flexible boundaries. We come to know our own needs, what we require to take care of and love ourselves. We know what he need from others and come to be able to ask. We also come to know what others need from us. We work to try to meet their needs without losing sight of our own. We learn to truly love another. Their welfare and well being is central to our own. Having a healthy boundary means that our care and concern does not come at our expense, of our own responsibility to care for ourselves. In a way, healthy boundaries are a paradox: we take care of ourselves and care for others we love. They do the same, taking responsibility for themselves but also sharing concern for our needs. When we look at it this was, one and one do not make two, but one and one make one.
Of course, there is much more to learn here. If you are looking for some help and want to talk it out and need someone to listen, call my office today to arrange an initial consultation.