Setting Boundaries

families and how to survive them

Setting boundaries is a life skill that has been popularized by self help authors and support groups since the mid 1980s. It is the practice of openly communicating and asserting personal values as way to preserve and protect against having them compromised or violated. The term ‘boundary’ is a metaphor – with ‘in-bounds’ meaning acceptable and ‘out-of-bounds’ meaning unacceptable. Without values and boundaries our identities become diffused and often controlled by the definitions offered by others. The concept of boundaries has been widely adopted by the counseling profession.

Healthy relationships are ‘inter-dependent’ connections between two ‘independent’ people. Healthy individuals should establish values that they honor and defend regardless of the nature of a relationship (core or independent values). Healthy individuals should also have values that they negotiate and adapt in an effort to bond with and collaborate with others (inter-dependent values).

This life skill is particularly applicable 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 (NAMI) 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.

When asserting values and boundaries, communications should be present, appropriate, clear, firm, protective, flexible, receptive, and collaborative. Having healthy values and boundaries is a lifestyle, not a quick fix to an relationship dispute. They require making decisions consistent with personal values when presented with life choices or confronted or challenged. Personal values are constructed from a mix of conclusions, beliefs, opinions, attitudes, past experiences and social learning. French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan considers values to be layered in a hierarchy, reflecting ‘all the successive envelopes of the biological and social status of the person’ from the most primitive to the most advanced.

Personal values and boundaries operate in two directions, affecting both the incoming and outgoing interactions between people; sometimes referred to as the ‘protection’ and ‘containment’ functions. There are three categories of values and boundaries: Physical (personal space and touch considerations), Mental (thoughts and opinions), and Psychological/ Spiritual (beliefs, emotions, intuitions and self-esteem).

The style of boundaries can be graded. Nina Brown PhD proposed a four-point scale in her book, ‘Coping With Infuriating, Mean, Critical People.’ Individuals with ‘soft’ boundaries merge with other people’s boundaries and often fall victim to psychological manipulation. Those with ‘rigid’ boundaries are closed or walled off so nobody can get close to him/her either physically or emotionally. Rigid boundaries are associated with victims of physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual abuse. Rigid boundaries can be selective, changing with time, place or circumstances and are usually based on a bad previous experience in a similar situation. A person with ‘spongy’ boundaries consistently fluctuate between soft and rigid boundaries. They permit less emotional contagions than people with soft boundaries but more than those with rigid. People with spongy boundaries are unsure of what to let in and what to keep out. Lastly, people with ‘flexible’ boundaries actively decide what to let in and what to keep out, and are resistant to emotional contagions, psychological manipulation, or exploitation.

In ‘Families and How to Survive Them,’ Robin Skinner 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 compartment – 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.

While having values and maintaining boundaries is a broadly applicable life skill, there are conditions and situations that are particularly challenging. Addicts often believe that being in control of others is how you 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, personality disorders (e.g. paranoid, borderline, narcissistic), attention deficit disorder, and the manic state of bipolar disorder.

There is a tendency for loved ones of people with borderline personality disorder (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 kinds of relationships, the codependent will gain a sense of worth by being ‘the sane one’ or ‘the responsible one.’ For those involved with a person with narcissistic personality disorder, 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 their loved one for fulfillment. There is almost always an unconscious reason for continuing to put another person’s life ahead of your own, and often it is because of the mistaken notion that self-worth comes from other people.

In a dysfunctional family with a demanding parent, the child learns to become attuned to the parent’s needs and feelings instead of the other way around. In the reverse scenario, a child makes too many demands on the parents. 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 their own children if the caretaking or parental sacrifice reaches unhealthy or destructive levels.

Freud described the loss of conscious boundaries that could occur when an individual was caught up in a unified, fast-moving crowd. Almost a century later, cognitive scientist 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. Rave culture has also been said to involve a dissolution of personal boundaries, and a merger into a binding sense of communality.

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