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
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.
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 youre 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
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
Your second step
will be to understand that healthy boundaries derive from
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 selfishbut 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
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 themand who can willingly set the boundaries
aside for the good of others, if necessaryand someone who, because
of fear, tolerates anything.
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.
The Lack of
A Refusal Based on Hatred
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
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
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 1 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
to break the law.
The law is absolute
to a particular city, state, or
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
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 suffersand making
someone suffer is an act of hatred.
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.
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 dont 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.
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.
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.
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 clients demands. To the client, this protection of
boundaries can feel restrictiveeven confusingbut to the psychotherapy
process its a job well done.
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 mothera
good motherwill 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
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.
the psychotherapist acquiesces to the demand to fulfill the clients
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.
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.
Note, however, that laws are hierarchical. If federal law contradicts state
law, federal law has precedence. Similarly, divine law has precedence over
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