Boundaries: Fortress, chicken wire or white picket fence? Part 1

This blog is the first part of a 2-part series on boundaries. There’s a lot to say about boundaries so, for as much information as is included here, there will also be information that I’ve left out. However, it’s all important so I would encourage you to do your own research if you need more information. In part 1 we define what boundaries are; why they’re useful; what happens when they’re violated; and what’s within our boundaries. In part 2 we’ll dig a little deeper into the different kinds of boundaries that are healthy to have; dispel some common myths about boundaries; and expound a bit more on their advantages.

I decided to blog about boundaries because, in therapy with clients, clinicians often work on boundaries. In fact, boundary issues are probably one of the more common issues we see and they tend to be wrapped up in, or a large part of, a lot of other issues that we work on in therapy.

So what are boundaries and why are they useful?

Boundaries surround our identity; the parts of ourselves that involve our physical body, emotions, spirituality, thoughts and behavior. Think of boundaries as personal property lines – where you stop and someone else starts. They define our person, who we are and who we are not. Boundaries keep us sane. Some clients have very weak boundaries and others have extremely rigid boundaries; some have both, just in different areas. Some clients don’t know what boundaries are or what it means to have them.

Webster defines boundaries as: a line that marks the limits of an area. This is a good working definition, but I like to give client’s a visual example as well. I explain that boundaries are like a fence around your house – except in our example you are the house.

I tell them to imagine a 4-foot-tall white picket fence with a gate around their home. You can see over it and interact with others on the other side and, if you so choose, you can open the gate and let them get closer. This is what healthy boundaries are like. They give us the option to let in safe people and to keep out those who are not safe. Just as a real fence around your home or property keeps people from dumping garbage on your lawn or letting their dogs do their business there, healthy boundaries also keep others from dumping their “emotional garbage” on your property.

When boundaries are violated.

Abuse of any kind is a clear boundary violation and can change the way a person’s boundaries look. We can also learn unhealthy boundaries from important people around us as we grow into adulthood. In fact, many of us were raised to believe that we didn’t have the right to create or assert our boundaries.

The fortress.

People who’ve been extremely hurt by others, through verbal, emotional, psychological, sexual or physical abuse – or those who’ve had their boundaries violated in other ways – sometimes learn that, in order to be safe, they need to build a large fortress with thick walls (imagine a castle) around themselves. The walls are so high they can’t see over it, there is no way to see through it, and often there is no way to get in – or out.

Chicken wire 

And yet others try to repair boundary damage by building chicken wire fences to keep others out. The problem with both of these types of boundaries is that they’re not effective. While the fortress keeps harmful people out, it keeps all people out, even the ones with whom we can form loving, trusting relationships. The chicken wire type of boundary doesn’t really keep anyone out or in – except maybe chickens – but it also doesn’t keep out those who are harmful or toxic to us – it lets everyone in. This type of boundary also doesn’t keep others from dumping their emotional garbage on our property – emotionally unhealthy people will often plow right over the chicken wire boundary as if it’s not even there.

What is within my boundaries?

Your feelings: They should neither be ignored nor allowed to take you over. Be aware of them and own them. Feelings come from your heart and your feelings are your responsibility.

Your attitudes and beliefs: Attitudes are the stance you take toward others: God, life, work, and relationships. Beliefs are anything that we accept as true. Instead of blaming others, we need to own our attitudes and convictions. They fall within our property line.

Your behaviors: Behaviors have consequences. To rescue people from the natural consequences of their behavior is to render them powerless (and also enables them to continue an unhealthy behavior e.g., addictions). Allow people/children to reap the natural consequences of their behavior.

Your choices: A common boundary problem is to disown our choices and try to lay the responsibility for them on someone else. What is wrong with the phrase, “I had to” or “He/she made me do it”? We are in control of our choices. Setting boundaries inevitably involves taking responsibility for our choices.

Your values: What we value is what we love and assign importance to. Sometimes we value things that go against our core values, morals, faith or belief system. When we take responsibility for our out-of-control behavior caused by valuing the wrong things we can get the help and direction we need to make effective changes.

Your limits: Setting limits on ourselves is the essence of boundary making. It takes ownership, responsibility and self-control.

Your talents: We are much happier when we are exercising our gifts and are being productive.

Your thoughts: We must own our own thoughts, including any distorted thoughts about ourselves, others or our situations. Many people’s thoughts “fly under the radar” and become so automatic that they don’t realize or question them. In some cases, thoughts can be distorted, perhaps due to past experiences. Nevertheless, we need to own them if we want to change them.

Your desires: We must also own our wishes, hopes, dreams and plans. Some of these can be hidden in unhealthy behaviors. For example, someone who is addicted to pornography may appear, for all intents and purposes, to be looking for gratification of sexual desires, but what they really desire is love and emotional intimacy.

Your love: Many people experience difficulty giving and receiving love because of past hurt or fear of rejection. To love and be loved is one of the greatest gifts given to us. However, sometimes we give it to – or accept it from – the wrong people (toxic people). Sometimes we confuse pity with love. Healthy boundaries help us to open up to people who are able to love us in healthy ways. (Adapted from Diana Rasmussen Prayers and Promises)

I think I need help with boundaries!

If you feel that you struggle with boundaries that are like the fortress or the chicken wire and would like to work on developing or creating healthy boundaries – like the white picket fence – please contact Lighthouse Counseling to set up an appointment with any of our experienced therapists. Also, don’t forget to look for part 2 of this blog on boundaries.