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Journey to Wholeness

What Are Boundaries?

By Jude LaClaire, Ph.D.


The issue of boundaries arises in nearly everyone’s personal or interpersonal problems. Let’s take a more in-depth look at the importance of knowing our boundaries and assessing how constructive or healthy they are. We begin our lives in a symbiotic relationship. Our life-long journey is learning how to be separate individuals while connecting interpersonally with others. Our experiences in this journey create our foundational learning about boundaries. Some boundaries are:

  • Emotional and physical space between you and another person

  • Knowing where we end, and another begins

  • Limits or lines we establish (consciously or unconsciously) because of the negative impact of them being crossed in the past through emotional, physical, verbal, or sexual abuse

  • Behaviors learned in our family of origin

  • Culturally established norms of physical and emotional contact and communication

  • Healthy emotional and physical limits we set on interacting with others to achieve an interdependent relationship without losing our personal identity, uniqueness, or autonomy.


From this list, you can see that boundaries are learned from both positive and negative

experiences. Murray Bowen, MD, former director of the Georgetown University Family Center, developed the Bowen Approach to Intergenerational Family Systems. One focus was the continuum of development in differentiation. Lack of differentiation results in ‘fusion’ or a very dependent relationship. This person becomes enmeshed with another with no boundaries. The other extreme is ‘emotional cut-off’ with detachment and distance. One is more codependent, while the other is more like a thick wall.


We can look at boundaries as rigid, porous, and healthy. Bowen’s description of ‘fusion’ in differentiation would result in porous boundaries. This person may overshare, have difficulty saying no, be overly dependent on the behavior and opinions of others, may get over-involved, and, fears rejection if they do not comply with others. This is poor differentiation.


Rigid boundaries look more like ‘emotional cut-off’. This person often avoids intimacy and relationships, is unlikely to ask for help, has few close relationships, is very protective of personal information, may seem detached, and keeps others at a distance to avoid the possibility of rejection.


Most people have a mix of boundary types and are in varying stages of healthy differentiation. It is helpful to look at one’s early learning about boundaries in the family, early relationships, and the cultural and societal influences in a world of great diversity.  Because every person has different learned or internalized boundaries, there can be difficulties with partners, children, work colleagues, and others in this diverse world, creating confusion, conflict, and anxiety. Many boundaries are neither good nor bad, just different.


It is helpful for each person to assess what their learned boundaries, or lack of boundaries, were in their formative years. Then they can evaluate what boundaries are helpful or hurtful. There is often an attachment to a boundary because it was taught by someone we love or respect, or is part of a cultural or religious teaching or custom. Changing them can be difficult as one has to understand that loving someone or belonging to a particular religion or culture does not mean that the behavior may need to be evaluated.


Understanding the roots of our behavior and discerning our own beliefs and attitudes in our current life can be challenging. Think about people touching you in ways that are not comfortable or acceptable to you. How comfortable are you with sharing personal information? Do you say no when it is helpful and appropriate to do so? Can you accept others setting limits with you without feeling rejected or criticized? If a value is violated or you inadvertently violate someone else’s value or boundary, how do you handle it?


It might be helpful to assess what boundaries you have. Think about the types of boundaries; physical (personal space and touch), intellectual (our thoughts and ideas), emotional (our feelings and those of others), sexual (mutual understanding regarding touch, and language), material boundaries (money and possessions) and time (with others and balancing our own time).


Take an inventory of your learned behaviors and your sensitivity to your chosen boundaries and that of others. You can continue developing your values, recognizing your feelings and needs, and being more aware of others in relationship to you. You may find yourself happier, less anxious, more fully developed, and having better relationships.

Jude LaClaire, Ph. D., LCPC is a counselor and educator at the Heartland Holistic Health Center. She is the author of the “Life Weaving Education Curriculum” that teaches creative, effective, holistic problem solving. For counseling appointments, seminars, in-service training or speaker’s bureau, call 816-509-9277 or;

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