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Page Contents: Boundaries / The First Step / The Second Step / The Lack of Boundaries: A Refusal Based on Hatred / Examples of Healthy Boundaries / Boundaries in Psychotherapy / Summary

 

 
TY definition, a boundary is anything that marks a limit. Psychological limits define personal dignity. When we say, “You just crossed a line,” we are speaking about a psychological limit that marks the distinction between behavior that does not cause emotional harm and behavior that causes emotional harm.

We all need to protect ourselves from emotional harm. Psychological defenses are created in childhood to serve that purpose unconsciously, but they can also lead us into unhealthy and unproductive behavior. Boundaries, unlike psychological defense mechanisms, are conscious and healthy ways to protect ourselves from emotional harm.

Some persons, however, have great difficulty setting boundaries—they may even believe that setting boundaries is rude—and this difficulty usually derives from child abuse. But let’s be clear that abuse can range from subtle emotional manipulation to severe sexual and physical abuse. To the unconscious, though, any abuse, no matter how mild or severe, is an insult to personal dignity. It’s precisely this insult to personal dignity that explains why adults who were abused as children lack the ability to set appropriate boundaries. Why? Well, their not having boundaries served them as a defense mechanism in childhood. Most abused children know intuitively that if you try to do anything to resist the abuse, you just get hurt all the more. So setting aside any resistance means less hurt.

Sadly, defenses that served you very well as a child to ensure your survival can actually cripple you with fear, dishonesty, and self-sabotage when carried into adulthood. With persistence and courage, however, any psychological defense can be overcome.

So if a lack of boundaries has gotten you into trouble in the past, take heart, for the problem can be remedied.

 
The First Step

Your first step will be to overcome the pernicious belief that you are worthless. Like any abused child you developed this belief to tolerate your lack of resistance to abuse. If you can convince yourself that you’re worthless, then you can more easily justify not resisting anything that degrades your value.

  

A good metaphor to help you understand your own personal value comes from aviation. If you have ever flown on a commercial airliner, you have heard the safety talks at the beginning of the flight. One talk concerns the oxygen masks, which will drop down from the overhead compartment in the event of a sudden decompression at altitude. In that talk, you are warned to put on your own mask before trying to assist someone else.
 
Do you know why? Well, at high altitudes there is very little oxygen in the air, and the brain can survive for only a few seconds without supplemental oxygen. So, in the time it takes to help someone else who is confused and struggling, you could both pass out and die. But if you put on your own mask immediately, you will have the oxygen you need to survive and think clearly, so you can be of real help to others.

The point here is that unless you take care of yourself first, you cannot be of any help to others.

  

Note carefully, though, that the belief that you are worthless is a negative belief that you created yourself; therefore you can just as well create another, positive belief to replace the negative belief. You might begin this process by repeating to yourself, over and over, “I am not worthless.”

 
The Second Step

Your second step will be to understand that healthy boundaries derive from love, not fear.

For example, you will often see so-called “nice” persons who always appear to sacrifice themselves for others. They give the impression that capitulating to others promotes peace and that boundaries are selfish—but many of these persons are motivated by an unconscious need to keep the “peace” because of a fear of getting hurt. Such persons usually come from dysfunctional families, and they themselves may have played the unconscious “family role” of peace-keeper. They’re angry at their parents, they feel guilty for being angry, and they fear any conflict that might reveal the truth about their anger. The real motive for their “nice” behavior, then, is fear, not real love.

On the other hand, you can also find persons who, knowing full well that they are being hurt, will sometimes set aside their boundaries as an act of charity for others. For example, if people push past you to get on a bus, you might decide to say nothing, knowing that people who would push past you to get on a bus will also react with hostility if you say anything to them about their rude behavior. In this case you can set aside your boundaries and tolerate their rude behavior with forbearance, praying that they might someday learn to act with charity to others. Yet these same persons who can willingly set aside their boundaries can just as well defend them. For example, if someone at work uses foul language, you can say that you do not like to hear such talk; if the talk persists, you can get up and walk away.

So you can see that there is a big difference between someone who has clear boundaries and is willing to protect them—and who can willingly set the boundaries aside for the good of others, if necessary—and someone who, because of fear, tolerates anything.

Therefore, acting out of fear only leads to a wasted life because it unconsciously supports rudeness and disorder. Acting from love, however, can bring genuine good into the world, through personal example. But only with healthy boundaries can you act from love. Why?

 
The Lack of Boundaries:
A Refusal Based on Hatred

Well, consider that boundaries have a fundamental place in life itself. Look around you, and you will see that every living creature has its own territory in which it lives and that it defends against intrusion. Boundaries are so fundamental that even criminals who thrive on violating the integrity of others have their own internal code of ethics, their own “boundaries.”

So, considering that boundaries have a core purpose in civilization, an individual’s lack of personal, psychological boundaries isn’t really a true lack—at least, it’s not a lack in the philosophical sense of something “missing.” Instead, this apparent lack is really a refusal to defend one’s own dignity, and it’s a refusal based on hatred. This hatred, though, is double-edged : it’s a hatred for others and it’s a hatred for the self.

It’s a hatred for the self that results from living always in fear because of having been mistreated or abused as a child. Unable to make sense of senseless hurt, a child, using imperfect childhood logic, arrives at the only “logical” conclusion: “It’s all my fault. I’m just a worthless person. I deserve condemnation for being worthless, and I deserve condemnation for always being so afraid.” And there you have it: self-hatred caused by fear that is caused by abuse.

If you didn’t hate yourself, you would be able to take proper care of yourself—and that includes having healthy boundaries to protect your dignity. Moreover, if you had healthy boundaries to protect your dignity, you you could, like in the above example of the oxygen mask, take proper care of others. Thus it should be apparent that not taking proper care of yourself, and not taking proper care of others is a refusal based on self-hatred.

All of this self-hatred, however, derives from a hatred of others. When a child is mistreated by a parent, for example, the child will be angry with the parent, but, because it will feel dangerous to be angry with someone the child depends on for food and shelter, the child will hide the anger—and hate—by turning it against itself.

That hidden hatred, though, hurts others as well as yourself. When others mistreat you, your dignity is insulted, yes, but by keeping quiet and allowing the mistreatment, you deprive them of what would essentially be a spiritual warning about their sin; that is, if you were to defend your boundaries and speak up about the mistreatment, you would at least give the offender the opportunity to recognize and repent the hurtful behavior.

To re-establish healthy boundaries, then, endeavor to stop refusing to defend boundaries. You can do this by starting to refuse to hate—and that includes refusing to hate yourself.

  
Examples of Healthy Boundaries

Refusing to break the law. 

  

The law is absolute to a particular city, state, or country.[1] Breaking the law is not just an act of hatred to authority, it is a criminal act with unpleasant penalties. If you break the law, even if others manipulate you into doing it, you are the one who has to pay the price. Getting yourself into trouble like this harms everyone.

  

Refusing to bend the rules.

  

Unlike the law, which is absolute, rules are relative to a particular social context. Rules allow things to function smoothly because everyone within a particular context agrees to them. Rules can refer to a game, to office procedures, to family conduct, or even to the conduct of psychotherapy. But if rules are bent, then the whole social context suffers—and making someone suffer is an act of hatred.

  

Refusing to betray your moral values.

  

Your moral values provide your own internal guidance about what is wrong to do, even if it might be legal or even if social rules permit it. Moral values derive from an abstract sense of the “good,” which often has a religious component to it. If you betray your moral values, such as by allowing yourself to be pressured into doing something immoral, you hate the good.

  

Refusing to allow someone to get too close to you emotionally.

  

We do not live in a world of true love; we live in a world of selfishness, where others try to get their needs met even at the expense of your needs. People will try to get you to “open up” when you don’t feel like it, and they will try to get you to “spill your guts” when it can be used against you. Allowing yourself to be pressured like this defiles love.

  

Refusing to allow someone to get too close to you physically.

  

We are physical creatures. Our bodies are made of bones and flesh. Each of us, therefore, has a physical presence that makes us unique and contributes to our sense of individuality. Allowing your body to be touched when you don’t want to be touched, or allowing your health to be threatened (for example, breathing second-hand cigarette smoke or riding in a car with an intoxicated driver) defiles your soul.

  

 
Boundaries in Psychotherapy

Life often involves counter-intuitive principles. For example, to drive from one place to another you may have to drive for a while in a direction away from your destination. Psychology, too, is like this, especially when working clinically with the psychology of the unconscious.

Boundaries in psychotherapy, therefore, can have a counter-intuitive element to them. When a client makes demands of the psychotherapist, the psychotherapist demonstrates that he or she cares about the client by resisting the temptation to cross certain boundaries so as to attempt to fulfill the client’s demands. To the client, this protection of boundaries can feel restrictive—even confusing—but to the psychotherapy process it’s a job well done.

The explanation for this, as with most things psychological, can be found in the psychology of infant development.

The time of infancy brings with it the expectation that the expression of needs will lead to the fulfillment of those needs. A child cries, and a mother—a good mother—will come running to feed the child, change the diaper, relieve pain, or do whatever needs to be done. After all, a good mother can interpret the meaning of any cry.

As infancy progresses into childhood, a new task begins. Rather than be dependent on having their needs fulfilled in all things, children learn how to fulfill their own needs. They want to hold their own cup and tie their own shoes. This prepares children to grow into mature and responsible adults.

But, in a dysfunctional family, little of this healthy learning takes place. If infants are denied the comfort of feeling understood, they will not be able to take up the task of wanting to fulfill their own needs. Never having felt understood, they will feel burdened by always having to take care of themselves. The mature obligation of fulfilling their own needs will seem like a curse.

Psychotherapy offers the opportunity to learn as an adult what was not learned naturally in childhood. In psychotherapy, clients can experience the comfort of being understood. Clients can speak about the needs they have, they can feel the yearning to have those needs fulfilled, and they can verbalize the pain of not having someone else fulfill those needs. Being honest about this pain, and feeling understood in expressing it, clients can then learn confidently to take up tasks that previously felt oppressive.

If, however, the psychotherapist acquiesces to the demand to fulfill the client’s needs, the attempt will infantilize the client, will overwhelm the psychotherapist, and will lead to a failure of the psychotherapy. Instead of teaching the client mature independence, the psychotherapist will cripple the client. A psychotherapist who makes this mistake shows that he or she does not really care about the client.

Thus the full irony becomes revealed: only by maintaining boundaries does the psychotherapist show real caring for the client.

 
Summary

Life often involves counter-intuitive principles. For example, to drive from one place to another you may have to drive for a while in a direction away from your destination. Boundaries, therefore, can have a counter-intuitive element to them because it can seem that setting boundaries is rude or cruel. But only by maintaining healthy boundaries can you demonstrate real love for yourself and for others.

 

 
Notes.

1. Note, however, that laws are hierarchical. If federal law contradicts state law, federal law has precedence. Similarly, divine law has precedence over federal law.

 


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Related pages within A Guide to Psychology and its Practice:

Anger
Confidentiality
Consumer Rights and Office Policies
Death—and the Seduction of Despair
Psychology: Clinical or Counseling or ...?
Questions and Answers about Psychotherapy
Reasons to Visit a Psychologist
Types of Treatment
 
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