Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits. They are built out of a mix of conclusions, beliefs, opinions, attitudes, past experiences and social learning. This concept or life skill has been widely referenced in self-help books and used in the counseling profession since the mid-1980s.
According to some counselors, personal boundaries help to define an individual by outlining likes and dislikes, and setting the distances one allows others to approach. They include physical, mental, psychological and spiritual boundaries, involving beliefs, emotions, intuitions and self-esteem. Jacques Lacan considered such boundaries to be layered in a hierarchy, reflecting "all the successive envelopes of the biological and social status of the person". Personal boundaries operate in two directions, affecting both the incoming and outgoing interactions between people. These are sometimes referred to as the "protection" and "containment" functions.
The three most commonly mentioned categories of values and boundaries are:
- Physical – Personal space and touch considerations
- Mental – Thoughts and opinions
- Emotional – Feelings
Nina Brown proposed four boundary types:
- Soft – A person with soft boundaries merges with other people's boundaries. Someone with a soft boundary is easily a victim of psychological manipulation.
- Spongy – A person with spongy boundaries is like a combination of having soft and rigid boundaries. They permit less emotional contagion than soft boundaries but more than those with rigid. People with spongy boundaries are unsure of what to let in and what to keep out.
- Rigid – A person with rigid boundaries is closed or walled off so nobody can get close either physically or emotionally. This is often the case if someone has been the victim of physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual abuse. Rigid boundaries can be selective which depend on time, place or circumstances and are usually based on a bad previous experience in a similar situation.
- Flexible – Similar to selective rigid boundaries but the person exercises more control. The person decides what to let in and what to keep out, is resistant to emotional contagion and psychological manipulation, and is difficult to exploit.
The personal boundaries concept is particularly pertinent in environments with controlling people or people not taking responsibility for their own life.
Co-Dependents Anonymous recommends setting limits on what members will do to and for people and on what members will allow people to do to and for them, as part of their efforts to establish autonomy from being controlled by other people’s thoughts, feelings and problems.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness tells its members that establishing and maintaining values and boundaries will improve the sense of security, stability, predictability and order, in a family even when some members of the family resist. NAMI contends that boundaries encourage a more relaxed, nonjudgmental atmosphere and that the presence of boundaries need not conflict with the need for maintaining an understanding atmosphere.
Risks of reestablishing
In Families and How to Survive Them, Robin Skynner MD explains methods for how family therapists can effectively help family members to develop clearer values and boundaries by when treating them, drawing lines, and treating different generations in different compartments – something especially pertinent in families where unhealthy enmeshment overrides normal personal values. However, the establishment of personal values and boundaries in such instances may produce a negative fall-out, if the pathological state of enmeshment had been a central attraction or element of the relationship. This is especially true if the establishment of healthy boundaries results in unilateral limit setting which did not occur previously. It is important to distinguish between unilateral limits and collaborative solutions in these settings.
Anger is a normal emotion that involves a strong uncomfortable and emotional response to a perceived provocation. Often it indicates when one's personal boundaries are violated. Anger may be utilized effectively by setting boundaries or escaping from dangerous situations.
Addicts often believe that being in control of others is how to achieve success and happiness in life. People who follow this rule use it as a survival skill, having usually learned it in childhood. As long as they make the rules, no one can back them into a corner with their feelings.
People with certain mental conditions are predisposed to controlling behavior including those with obsessive compulsive disorder, paranoid personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder, attention deficit disorder, and the manic state of bipolar disorder.
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD): There is a tendency for loved ones of people with BPD to slip into caretaker roles, giving priority and focus to problems in the life of the person with BPD rather than to issues in their own lives. Too often in these relationships, the codependent will gain a sense of worth by being "the sane one" or "the responsible one".
- Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD): For those involved with a person with NPD, values and boundaries are often challenged as narcissists have a poor sense of self and often do not recognize that others are fully separate and not extensions of themselves. Those who meet their needs and those who provide gratification may be treated as if they are part of the narcissist and expected to live up to their expectations.
Codependency often involves placing a lower priority on one's own needs, while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others. Codependency can occur in any type of relationship, including family, work, friendship, and also romantic, peer or community relationships.
While a healthy relationship depends on the emotional space provided by personal boundaries, co-dependent personalities have difficulties in setting such limits, so that defining and protecting boundaries efficiently may be for them a vital part of regaining mental health.
In a codependent relationship, the codependent's sense of purpose is based on making extreme sacrifices to satisfy their partner's needs. Codependent relationships signify a degree of unhealthy clinginess, where one person doesn't have self-sufficiency or autonomy. One or both parties depend on the other for fulfillment. There is usually an unconscious reason for continuing to put another person's life first, often for the mistaken notion that self-worth comes from other people.
- Demanding parent: In the dysfunctional family the child learns to become attuned to the parent's needs and feelings instead of the other way around.
- Demanding child: Parenting is a role that requires a certain amount of self-sacrifice and giving a child's needs a high priority. A parent can, nevertheless, be codependent towards a child if the caretaking or parental sacrifice reaches unhealthy or destructive levels.
Almost a century later, Steven Pinker took up the theme of the loss of personal boundaries in a communal experience, noting that such occurrences could be triggered by intense shared ordeals like hunger, fear or pain, and that such methods were traditionally used to create liminal conditions in initiation rites. Jung had described this as the absorption of identity into the collective unconscious.
Unequal power relations
Also unequal relations of political and social power influence the possibilities for marking cultural boundaries and more generally the quality of life of individuals. Unequal power in personal relationships, including abusive relationships, can make it difficult for individuals to mark boundaries.
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