Counsellors love mentioning boundaries… a breach of boundaries, enforcing boundaries, expecting boundaries, violating boundaries and what not. But what do they really mean by that? What are boundaries and why do we need them as mere mortals who did not go through years of therapeutic training…?
Let’s start with the pictures above: several random shapes that almost touch each other. Almost. This is it. A boundary is the space between separate parts of reality that are in proximity. These parts can be people, time periods, territory or behaviours, feelings and thoughts. You name it. The important bit is the difference between them. You define this difference. This means you can make decisions about your boundaries. Other people may respect or ignore your boundaries. What you agree to sets your boundaries as a person… at least temporarily until you decide to change.
There is a lot of discussion about boundaries and essentially they serve three main goals:
Boundaries give us a sense of consistent identity. We know who we are and what to expect from others. For example, some people do not drink alcohol at all, while others can down eight to twelve pints on a Tuesday night without hesitation (I’m really jealous of their resilient livers!). Through boundaries we also define ourselves in our roles. I think everyone would agree they would not want their coach or therapist appear in their underwear for a session (this is definitely my boundary!). A stark example, but there are more subtle ones to consider, like hugging a distressed client or meeting them on the street accompanied by a loved one. One thing is clear: having a well-defined sense of personal and professional boundaries allows us to act with confidence and precision. Our day-to-day working duties define us only partially: we may choose to push the boundary beyond our current abilities and venture into unchartered territories of achievement. On that note, Sean Stephenson, a very interesting therapist, states: “Never believe a prediction that doesn’t empower you!” Next time you’re wondering who you are and who you could become, ask yourself “Who defines my boundaries?”
Boundaries help us set limits, reduce exploitation and provide safety. When I was little, I remember my older brother being insanely curious about every single electrical appliance in the house. My parents decided to block every single socket in response… As this didn’t work, every time he approached a socket, he would be put on the naughty step. It worked. The boundary was there to save his life! I bet most of you remeber a very tough highschool teacher that everyone was terrified of. In some way they were frightening and in some way comforting. You knew where you stood because the teacher had clear principles. In other words, boundaries give us structure and reduce anxiety… Last but not least, knowing your limits boosts your well-being. The key issue is to realise how much is enough… enough fun, enough exercise, enough hard work, enough partying. Essentially, you know what is good for you and you stick to it.
Once you know who you are, what to expect of others and how to set appropriate limits, you can act wisely and with a sense of purpose. One of the issues that clients often bring to coaching touches on role boundaries in organisations. It is vital that responsibilities are clearly assigned, people know where to stop and hand their work over to someone else. This creates order within the organisation and fosters a culture of professionalism. It doesn’t mean that everything will tick like a clockwork mechanism. It is rather like an ecosystem with the rivers flowing orderly towards the sea as instructed by the force of gravity. In a relationship, this manifests as harmony, because you know the boundaries of your partner and your actions align with their expectations. You can also negotiate (and this is advisable for a healthy relationship!) your limits and decide together what is best for both of you. I know, it’s hard work. True intimacy can be only built on respect of mutual boundaries.
Boundaries can be internal or external: we either need to separate different parts of our inner world or separate ourselves from others in the world. The picture above shows that everything that is familiar to us will be included inside the circle. It is clear and known. Outside the circle, there are other versions of ourselves that we are yet to explore. They are blurry as they are undefined and we do not yet know how they might fit with the circle of our familiar ways of being. We constantly push this internal boundary in various directions when we say: “I never knew I was capable of this!” The NOT ME versions of ourselves can also mean some really tough experiences, like grief or failure. We don’t want to live them, it’s natural… but often we are presented with circumstances we have no choice over. We work hard to make the unfamiliar seem more familiar. The more courage we have to expand the circle, the more we will grow. There is no other option sometimes but to experience the discomfort.
Unless you’re a hermit or a monk, you function as an inter-dependant social being suspended in a web of relationships. When you become closer to others, some of your external boundaries need to dissolve (blurry line) so that you create a shared and mutually felt understanding of reality. We all have different needs and preferences for contact that result from our unique story. What matters is how we attune to each other so that these boundaries are honoured. For instance, if you are dealing with a whole range of personalities in your team, how often do you consider the differences between the members? Do you stop to ponder a little bit what is happening at the point of contact? It may sound touchy-feely and what I advocate for is a sense of reflection. Have a think about the following:
What is my boundary in this situation? (What do you agree and do not agree to?)
What are the boundaries of others?
What do we need to create a shared space together?
Good relationships are essential to well-functioning organisations and communities. It will happen only if the members respect each other’s boundaries. Margaret Heffernan argues that collective success relies on individual cooperation. High-performing teams notably display the following characteristics:
- High degree of social sensitivity to each other (meaning high empathy). In this case, this also implies mutual attunement and respect for each other’s boundaries.
- Giving equal time to all team members, without favouritism and passivity. Again, appreciation of boundaries!
- Including women in the teams – allowing boundaries to be inclusive regardless of gender.
I hope that awareness of boundaries will help you navigate through the labyrinth of relationships. Invest time in contact and you will build social capital.