Boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify for themselves what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around them and how they will respond when someone steps outside those limits. Boundaries are not rules for someone else to follow.

You'll see the word  "boundaries" quite frequently here at Out of the FOG.  Sometimes they'll be described in terms of  "your stuff<---//--->my stuff."  But what does that mean?  It means the ability to recognize what is our responsibility (and what is truly within our power to control) and what isn't.  Boundaries are an essential ingredient to creating a healthy self . They define the relationship between you and everyone else around you. 

Healthy boundaries help us to create our own destiny. They ensure that we are taking responsibility for our own lives; that we knowingly accept the consequences and/or reap the benefits of our choices. And, just as importantly, they ensure that we let others do the same for themselves.  

Boundaries are not an attempt to make someone do something. They are not about getting the other person to understand and comply. Boundaries are about us getting clear inside of ourselves as to what is appropriate and necessary for our mental health, and then taking action accordingly.

A key to boundaries is knowing your inner self: your beliefs, desires, needs, and intuitions.  When you know your inner self, it will become nearly impossible for someone else to manipulate you.  None of us who were controlled by someone with a personality disorder had healthy boundaries in place.

An Unchosen Perspective on Boundaries

It can be difficult to maintain or define boundaries when you are involved in a familial or otherwise unchosen relationship. Often, we are taught as children, not to make waves or to “just get along;” that is, to not assert or define our own boundaries. As children we want to please our disordered parent and get along with a disordered sibling or relative; however, a personality disordered individual lacks appropriate personal boundaries of their own. This can result in inappropriate affectionate gestures and lack of personal privacy for the child.

When our own personal boundaries are routinely broken, the message we learn is that our own needs and feelings don’t count - we are required to accept how others treat us without question. As we grow into adults, these lessons can become our way of life. We often feel taken advantage of, used or that our desires are unimportant. We become frustrated and angry that our boundaries are violated yet we are unable to express what, exactly, our boundaries are. Constant yielding to a parent, sibling or relative becomes second nature. We lose our own sense of self and often find ourselves in unhappy relationships, jobs and life situations. The early lessons, that our feelings, views and opinions don’t count continue to dominate our lives, sometimes subconsciously.

This can result in poor life choices, from entering into careers or occupations that are a poor fit for us, to marrying the person we “should” rather than the person we love. The yielding to others we were taught as children can spill over into every relationship we have as adults. The consequences can be disastrous and painful. It sometimes feels as if we are living someone else’s life.

But it doesn't have to be this way! Learning to enforce boundaries takes practice and patience-yet-it can be done, and lead us to a healthier, happier life.

A Chosen Perspective On Boundaries

One of our members, Tammy, offers this insight from her committed relationship with a person who suffers from BPD...

"The Dysfunctional Dance"

One rather consistent phenomenon in a borderline/non relationship is that neither partner clearly defines their personal boundaries.  Untreated borderlines tend to run over their partner's fences like a tank.  They project their feelings onto us and blame us when things go wrong.   Non BP's tend to give into the demands and needs of their borderline. We become enmeshed in their mental and emotional world: their beliefs, thoughts, feelings, needs, wants, and expectations.  Given enough time, without a clear sense of who we are, we lose sight of which experiences belong to us and which ones are projected onto us by our borderlines.   

With weak boundaries, we become sponges who allow our BP's to step inside our inner self, use up our energy, and define our world for us.  We permit them to tell us what to do, when to do it, and who to do it with. With each passing day, our self esteem deteriorates, and our ability to defend ourselves decreases.   

Non's tend to be compassionate, giving, and sometimes needy people.  At some point in the relationship we might have recognized that our BP's were in pain and out of control.  We were moved to give more of ourselves than was healthy. Or, we may have stepped in to take responsibility for their life. (Sometimes it's easier to deal with someone else's issues than it is to address our own.)  We either didn't know how (or were afraid) to set limits, or didn't know what our limits were.  So the dysfunctional dance began. 

If we accept responsibility for our borderline and handle their duties and responsibilities, we are essentially handling "their stuff" rather than our own. Permitting someone else to make decisions for us suggests that we are letting them define our life for us.  If there isn't a clear boundary line between your stuff<----//---->my stuff, defenses (such as withdrawal, sidetracking, blame, rationalization, and black-white thinking) become handy ways for both parties to avoid self-awareness and growth.

Healthy Boundaries

According to the book Boundaries and Relationships by Charles Whitfield, M.D:

Healthy boundaries are NOT:

  1. Set for us by others
  2. Hurtful or harmful
  3. Controlling or manipulative
  4. Invasive or dominating
  5. Rigid and immovable

Healthy boundaries ARE:

  1. present
  2. appropriate
  3. clear
  4. firm
  5. protective
  6. flexible
  7. receptive.
  8. determined by US

How to Develop Boundaries

An important first step in developing healthy boundaries is to get acquainted with, and take ownership, of your true self.  This is essential before healthy boundaries can be set and maintained.  As adults, we are responsible for the decisions we make in life.  We have freedom to respond, to make choices, and to limit the way others' behavior affects us.  As a "free agent",  we can take responsibility for our freedom by setting boundaries, or borders, between ourselves and those around us.    Some people refuse to set boundaries because they see them as selfish.  Others actually use them to be selfish.  Both are wrong. Boundaries are about self-control. 

Ten Laws of Boundaries

According to the authors, John Townsend and Henry Cloud, there are ten laws of boundaries:

  • The Law Of Sowing and Reaping - Actions have consequences.     If someone in your life is sowing anger, selfishness, and abuse at you, are you setting boundaries against it?  Or are they getting away with not reaping (or paying the consequences for) what he/she sowed?
  • The Law of Responsibility - We are responsible TO each other, not FOR each other.   This law means that each person refuses to rescue or enable another's immature behavior.
  • The Law of Power - We have power over some things, we don't have power over others (including changing people).  It is human nature to try to change and fix others so that we can be more comfortable.  We can't change or fix anyone - but we do have the power to change our own life.
  • The Law of Respect - If we wish for others to respect our boundaries, we need to respect theirs.  If someone in your life is a rager, you should not dictate to him/her all the reasons that they can't be angry.  A person should have the freedom to to protest the things they don't like. But at the same time, we can honor our own boundary by telling them, "Your raging at me is not acceptable to me.  If you continue to rage, I will have to remove myself from you."
  • The Law of Motivation - We must be free to say "no" before we can wholeheartedly say "yes".One can not actually love another if he feels he doesn't have a choice not to. Pay attention to your motives.
  • The Law of Evaluation - We need to evaluate the pain our boundaries cause others.  Do our boundaries cause pain that leads to injury?  Or do they cause pain that leads to growth? 
  • The Law of Proactivity - We take action to solve problems based on our values, wants, and needs.  Proactive people keep their freedom and they disagree and confront issues but are able to do so without getting caught up in an emotional storm.  This law has to do with taking action based on deliberate, thought-out values versus emotional reactions.
  • The Law of Envy - We will never get what we want if we focus our boundaries onto what others have.    Envy is miserable because we're dissatisfied with our state yet powerless to change it.  The envious person doesn't set limits because he is not looking at himself long enough to figure out what choices he has.
  • The Law of Activity - We need to take the initiative to solve our problems rather than being passive.In a dysfunctional relationship, sometimes one person is active and the other is passive.  When this occurs, the active person will dominate the passive one.  The passive person may be too intimidated by the active one to say no.  This law has to do with taking initiative rather than being passive and waiting for someone else to make the first move.
  • The Law of Exposure - We need to communicate our boundaries.   A boundary that is not communicated is a boundary that is not working. We need to make clear what we do or do not want, and what we will or will not tolerate.  We need to also make clear that every boundary violation has a consequence.  A boundary without a consequence is nagging.

Types of Boundaries

Reading through the various types of boundaries below you may notice they are intertwined and interrelated. Healthy boundaries mean you understand your individual choices and how you feel in each of these areas.  You understand where you end and others begin. You are responsible for you, and only you.

  • Physical boundaries - your most basic physical boundary is your skin, your body. From infancy one begins to understand where he or she ends and others begin. That we are individuals. Other examples of physical boundaries are your personal space and physical privacy. Who is allowed and not allowed to touch you and how? What do you wish or not wish in your physical space and what you consider private and personal?

  • Sexual boundaries - define your personal comfort level with sexual touch and activity. You define and decide as an individual what is acceptable, where, when, and with whom. For more information see Sexual Coercion 

  • Material boundaries - define what you do or don't allow regarding your property, what you gift or lend such as money, car, clothes, food, etc. Who is allowed in your home? Which rooms of your house are private? What can others do or not do with your belongings? Do visitors remove their shoes or not? Can others eat or drink in your car? 

  • Mental boundaries - define your thoughts, values, opinions. You own your thoughts. Each individual decides what is private, what they wish to share or not share. What do you believe?  Can you listen with an open mind to others thoughts or opinion without becoming rigid while at the same time not compromising core beliefs? 

  • Emotional boundaries - mean you are responsible for your feelings and others are responsible for their own feelings. You own only your feelings, no one else's. How others choose to feel about your choices is their decision. This leaves everyone free make their own choices and decisions. Healthy emotional boundaries prevent one from giving unsolicited advice, blaming or accepting blame. Emotional boundaries protect you from feeling guilty for someone else’s negative feelings or problems, from taking things personally. Becoming highly emotional, argumentative, or defensive may indicate weak emotional boundaries.  Do you feel your emotions without judgement? Do you feel a full range of emotion - sad, mad, glad, scared - and can you readily and calmly respond to your emotions? Ignoring these emotions at a low level means the body will push them to a higher level until we respond. Can you make decisions without Fear Obligation Guilt (FOG)? 

  • Spiritual boundaries - define your attitudes and beliefs, what you choose to accept as true is yours alone to decide. What are your core values? What is important to you and your life? How do you define your beliefs in connection a higher power?

Other types of boundaries and things you own are your words, your time. Your words are yours, no is the most basic boundary and is a complete sentence. Your time belongs to you, what you choose to do, how you spend it and with whom is your decision. How we live our life is our choice. Your choices are yours to make, we sometimes feel stuck and feeling stuck is often basically a boundary problem. Holding others responsible for us or others holding us responsible for them. 

Putting It All Together

Untreated individuals with personality disorders are dependent on the compliance of others. They resist boundaries in an effort to control, manipulate, and dominate.  Non's sometimes use boundaries in an effort to control, manipulate, and dominate too.  For example, we might be tempted to tell someone  "You can NOT rage at me", or "You can NOT say cruel things to me." These aren't examples of boundaries, these are examples of a Non's effort to control someone else's behavior.  A healthy boundary is, "When you rage at me, I feel threatened.  I am going to leave (the room, the house, etc) until such time we can communicate calmly." The other person is free to rage to his/her heart's content, but you don't have to sit there and absorb all their anger and rage.  If you are saying to yourself, "Why should I have to leave the room?  They should have to stop raging!", you are looking at boundaries backwards.  You are taking the same approach as one would take who says, "Oh no, my house is on fire and is engulfed in flames.  I'm standing at the front door but I'm not going to leave the house because my new sprinkling system will turn on an put out the flames."   Are you waiting for someone or something else to make a move so you don't have to?  Are you willing to take a chance of getting burned? Don't do it.

Boundaries are all around us.  We come across them every day.  Cars have theft-deterrent devices to prevent someone from stealing your car. Homes have deadbolts or locks to prevent someone else from invading your home and removing your possessions. Your office desk has a lock to prevent theft.  Your locker at the club has a lock to keep your valuables safe.  If your personal property is protected against theft, but you find yourself feeling like your emotional well-being is being stolen from you, then it's time to take steps to learn how to set boundaries so that your emotional well-being can be kept under lock and key.  

Think about it. We go to a lot of effort and spend a lot of money to protect our material possessions - yet we often do little to protect ourselves.  Aren't you worth more than all of your possessions?

In order for boundaries to be effective, you need to approach it with the right mindset.  Recognize that you must take personal responsibility for your own well-being.  

Whether you end up staying in close relationship or not,  learning how to set healthy boundaries is one of the very best things you can do to ensure that you don't end up in a dysfunctional dance again with someone else.

Remember the acronym BREATHE: