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Boundaries: Where Are You?


By Jude LaClaire, Ph.D.


We begin our lives in a symbiotic relationship. Our life-long journey is learning how to become separate individuals while connecting interpersonally with others. Our experiences create our foundational understanding about boundaries, which are learned from both positive and negative experiences. Boundaries are:


· Emotional and physical space between you and another person.

· Knowing where we end and others begin.

· Limits or lines we establish (consciously or unconsciously) because of the negative effects of others crossing them 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 interactions with others so that we achieve interdependent relationships without losing our personal identity, uniqueness, or autonomy.


Murray Bowen, MD, former director of the Georgetown University Family Center, developed the Bowen Approach to Intergenerational Family Systems. Its primary focus is the continuum of development in differentiation of self. Variances in differentiation means that boundaries can be porous, rigid, or healthy.


Poor differentiation results in fusion between individuals that creates a dependent relationship. One person becomes enmeshed with another who has weak or porous boundaries. This person may overshare, have difficulty saying no, be overly dependent on the behaviors and opinions of others for validation, may become over involved, and fears rejection if they do not comply with others’ demands.


The opposite extreme is emotional cut-off characterized by detachment and distance. One individual is codependent – defined as an excessive reliance on others for approval and a sense of identity – while the other is like a thick wall.


With rigid boundaries, a distanced and detached person avoids intimacy and relationships, is unlikely to ask for help, has few close relationships, is protective of personal information, may seem detached, and distances from others to avoid rejection.


Most people have a mix of boundary types and are in varying stages of healthy differentiation. It is useful to consider your own early learning about boundaries within the family, early relationships, and the cultural and societal influences in schools, churches, and other groups. Difficulties with partners, children, work colleagues, and others in setting boundaries can create confusion, conflict, and anxiety.


Assess the origins of your own learned boundaries or lack of boundaries in your formative years. Then you can better evaluate which boundaries are helpful and which are hurtful. We often have 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 these boundaries can be difficult, and it is important to know that loving someone or belonging to a particular religion or culture does not exempt certain behaviors from scrutiny.


Understanding the roots of our behavior and discerning our own beliefs and attitudes in our current lives can be challenging. Think about people touching you in ways you find uncomfortable or unacceptable. How comfortable are you with sharing personal information? Do you say no when it is appropriate to do so? Can you accept others setting limits with you without feeling rejected or criticized? If one of your values is violated or you inadvertently violate someone else’s, how do you handle it?

When considering your boundaries, it is helpful to think about the different types:


· Physical – personal space and touch.

· Intellectual – our thoughts and ideas.

· Emotional – our feelings and those of others.

· Sexual – mutual understanding regarding touch, language.

· Material boundaries – money and possessions.

· Time – with others balanced against our own time.


Inventory your learned behaviors and your sensitivity to your chosen boundaries and notice those of others. You can continue developing your own values, recognizing your feelings and needs, and being more aware of those of others. You may find yourself happier, less anxious, and having better relationships.






Evolving Magazine

Kansas City



Jude LaClaire, Ph.D., LCPC, is a counselor, educator and author. For counseling appointments, seminars, training, speaking engagements or information on Neurobehavioral Programs or Imago Couple therapy call 913-322-5622. For more information about Jude LaClaire or the Kansas City Holistic Centre go to


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