Do You Have Healthy Boundaries? Here's How To Find Out (And How It Affects Your Relationships)
Boundaries are a vital part of the relationship we have with the world and with ourselves. A combination of vulnerability, protection, and containment is the cornerstone of healthy boundaries. These elements are also the components of authentic connection.
Boundaries have two primary purposes: to protect us from the outside world and to protect the outside world from us. In other words, they allow us to not be harmed by or do harm to others.
Boundaries help keep us safe from harm in three arenas:
- Physical: We decide who, what, where, when, and how someone else can touch us.
- Emotional: to protect us when other people’s feelings and energy are used against us.
- Mental: protecting us against others’ hurtful words, ideas, or judgments.
We learn about boundaries from our parents or primary caregivers. Thus, a dysfunctional boundary system can be a symptom of relational trauma.
The two types of dysfunctional boundaries.
Dysfunctional boundaries usually manifest in one of two ways: We are either too open/vulnerable or too impenetrable/invulnerable.
When we are too open and vulnerable, we allow others’ words, judgments, emotions, and behaviors to infiltrate us on emotional, mental, and/or physical levels. We often feel that we are unable to protect ourselves, that we need someone else to protect us, and that the only way we can feel protected is if we get very close to someone else. But we never feel close enough, so we never really feel safe.
When our boundaries are impenetrable, we are shut off from the world. We are more protected than those who are too open, but we are unable to truly connect with others and have great difficulty in accepting and processing others’ emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. On this side of the spectrum, we often feel that we can’t and won’t let anyone get close enough to hurt us.
Protecting others from ourselves.
These two dysfunctional boundary systems also affect containment—how we protect others from ourselves. Boundaries contain us so that we don’t commit physical, emotional, or mental offenses against others.
Lack of containment usually happens for two reasons. One, because a parent was uncontained—even if they correct their children's uncontainment, it usually will not stick because the child looks to the caregiver to show them how to interact with the world. Alternatively, the caregiver allowed the child to run wild and did not correct their behavior.
Characteristics of a person who has trouble with containment include:
- Standing very close to others or being "in their face."
- Touching people and their property without permission.
- Lacking a filter—saying whatever comes to mind.
- Inability to contain emotions or energy.
- Has difficulty thinking before they react; they react and then think.
- Often blaming others.
Someone who is walled off or overly contained will be on the opposite side of the spectrum in terms of their behaviors. They will rarely approach others for physical contact and will often not say what they are feeling or what is important to them.
Boundaries vs. containment.
A common misconception is that people whose boundaries are too open will be uncontained, while those who are walled off will be overly contained. However, containment and boundary issues don’t necessarily correlate like this. A person can be wide open, allowing others’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to deeply affect them, yet never express their wants or needs, out of the fear that they won't be met. This is often because they are focused on not offending others and being "perfect" so that they won't be abandoned.
On the other side of the coin, a person who is invulnerable to the actions of others can offend people with their behaviors, criticisms, and emotions.
Furthermore, all boundary and containment issues can coexist and change depending on the trigger point or person. Someone may be walled off around women but totally vulnerable around men. It all depends on the person’s unique relational history with their caregivers.
Healing dysfunctional boundaries.
In order to heal a dysfunctional boundary system, we must first identify where we fall short of healthy boundaries. Do we tend to be more open or walled off, overly contained or uncontained? A therapist who works with relational trauma can help you identify not only what it looks like when you lack boundaries but also what triggers the system to go awry. Behavioral, cognitive, mindfulness, somatic, and experiential therapies can all play a part in the recovery process, as each individual is unique in their trauma and healing process.
Different interventions may be helpful in different areas. For example, when we are working on containment, we may focus on a therapy approach that deals with regulating our emotions. This will strengthen our ability to rely on ourselves to calm down instead of talking nervously, being reactive, or relying on someone else. When working on protecting ourselves emotionally from others, we may again apply mindfulness—but this time in a way that re-centers us when someone else is upset, so we can practice not taking on too much responsibility for others’ feelings.
A healthy boundary system allows us to be flexible and adaptable to the world and to others. At the core of healthy boundaries is the knowledge that we protect ourselves because we know that we are worthy of protection. We can respect others’ rights because we can admit when we are wrong, because we have humility.
The balance of appropriate vulnerability and appropriate protection is essential to a happy existence, bringing us closer to alignment with our truth and distancing us from thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that don’t belong to us. Once we find that balance, we are more easily able to forge authentic connection with ourselves and with others.
Remember, because they are forged in childhood, our behaviors and defense mechanisms have been in place for years. Changing the system and structure of our boundaries will take time and requires practice, guidance, patience, and compassion.
Want more insight into your relationship? Find out the things you should always be selfish about in your partnerships and the questions that could keep your marriage from ending.
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Heather Senior Monroe, MSW, LCSW, is a psychotherapist, licensed clinical social worker, and the director of program development at Newport Academy, a holistic adolescent treatment program celebrated as the most comprehensive in the United States in the mental-health field. She holds a bachelor’s in english from Skidmore College and a master’s in social work from City University of New York, Hunter College.
Senior Monroe specializes in treating trauma and its destructive effects on individuals and families, specifically teenage depression, anxiety, and trauma. She has worked in the fields of teen treatment and prevention for more than 10 years. Additionally, she has implemented solution-focused techniques with teenagers in a wide range of settings.