What are Boundaries?

Picture of a picket fenceA "boundary" is the term typically used for a border or fence; a line which divides one property from another. A boundary defines

For example, the fence-line around a house tells the occupier where he should start mowing his lawn - and also where his neighbour should stop.

If a person entered our physical property without our permission we would say he was trespassing and take action to have him removed.

Even though most of us understand the need to define our property boundaries, we often fail to understand the importance of having healthy boundaries in other parts of our lives. Poor emotional and relational boundaries can leave us open to the control and abuse of emotional "trespassers". You may have a problem maintaining healthy boundaries if you are:

No one wants to live this way, but many of us do without realising it. We all want freedom, and we want to choose how we use that freedom. However, freedom without responsible boundaries will inevitably cause pain and suffering - for ourselves and for others. No matter how much we may try to deny it, all our actions have consequences for which we are accountable.

Studies have shown that children playing in a fenced playground will play and explore more freely than in one that is unfenced (see an example study here).

The fence is a visible reminder that they are safe from objects of harm (stray dogs, cars, strangers and "the unknown"). As long as they remain in that secure environment they can confidently and freely enjoy themselves.

Just like playground fences, maintaining healthy boundaries around our emotional treasures allows us to enjoy them with freedom and confidence. These treasures include our:

  • Feelings
  • Attitudes
  • Behaviours
  • Beliefs
  • Choices
  • Talents
  • Thoughts
  • Desires
  • Loves
  • Values

Our treasures belong to us - we own them - and that makes them our responsibility. Put simply, how you choose to behave towards me is your responsibility, but the way I respond is mine. If I am unhappy about my feelings or attitudes, that is my problem, not yours. My feelings and behaviours are mine to control, and if I don't like the way I respond then I need to doing something about it.

Recognising that you are also responsible for your actions sets me free from the need to "fix" you (or trespass on your property). If you don't want to change, that's not my problem, and the consequences of your actions are not my responsibility.

But what if my partner abuses me?

Surprisingly, many of us surrender our feelings, attitudes, thoughts and desires to others, often with tragic consequences.

Perhaps you live with a partner who physically, verbally or mentally abuses you. You figure it must be your fault. You tell yourself that if you just try harder, love them more and understand them better, then they will change and you won't feel depressed and defeated anymore. When your partner is sober again, they beg for your forgiveness and promise never to do it again. You desperately want to believe them, because the only alternative to living with them is being alone. So once again you allow this person back into your life, even though deep down you know that it will most likely happen again... and again... and again.

The truth about what you are doing is much more "sobering": because you surrender control of your feelings to your partner, you remain a victim of their uncontrolled and irresponsible behaviour, ie. you are allowing them to trespass on your property.

But here's the irony: by continuing to take responsibility for your partner's actions, you are also crossing over their boundaries. By protecting your partner from experiencing the painful consequences of their own actions you are preventing them from realising their own need for change.

You will only find the freedom and happiness you desire by regaining control of your life, taking ownership of your feelings and accepting responsibility for your actions.

But aren't I being selfish if I put up boundaries?

Boundaries are not about being selfish, but they are about self-care. A selfish person says, "I'm looking after myself and I don't care about you." A self-caring person says, "I choose to look after myself so I can be of service to you." Another way to say this would be, "I choose to love myself so I can know how to love you."

Boundaries are all about love. By building good boundaries I show that I have love and respect for myself and the things that are important to me. By respecting your boundaries I show you that I love and care for you unconditionally, too.

This is true freedom: that we are able to lovingly allow each other the privilege of discovering our own potential, be it psychologically, physically, socially or spiritually.

Drs Henry Cloud and John Townsend have produced some excellent resources on boundaries and other relationship issues. You can find more articles about boundaries on their website.

"You will know the truth and the truth will set you free." John 8:32