Having Healthy Boundaries: A Necessary Way to Love

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To know where you begin and I end is necessary for me to respect you, for me to be respected by you, and for me to respect myself. Without respect, there is no authentic love.

Every time I visit my family I come home feeling sick. My stomach gets upset. My energy is low. I lose confidence in who I am. Oddly enough, nothing bad usually happens at our family gatherings. We just sit around, stare at each other and talk about nothing important. My brothers brag about about their kids. Mom asks me why I haven’t met the right man.  Everyone knows mom would be devastated if we didn’t show up. Why do I have this feeling that I am slowly being poisoned when I visit my family? We all feel obligated to be a family since dad passed away from alcoholism. We all thought things would be better after dad was gone. Actually none of us knows how to be close and I constantly worry what others think of me with everybody I meet. It’s like I just don’t exist as a person. I just belong to my family. Sorry if my story is such a downer for you.

So many of us equate love in human relationships with getting our needs met, being nurtured and cuddled, and having somebody to depend on. Too many of us are unaware of another equally important aspect of human love: having our differences with others be respected and being able to distinguish who we are from who other people are. When our connection with others does not allow room for individual differences and personal privacy, then the caring in such relationships is stifling and limited. Indeed, love without breathing room can be a form of control and, as the example above illustrates, can seriously undermine our individuality and personal development over our life span. Respect for our own uniqueness and self-initiative is an essential need we all have for us to feel truly loved. In fact, the act of respecting differences and independence is just as important as the cuddling in human relationships. Sometimes it’s even more important!

What are boundaries?

Boundaries are the emotional barriers that provide privacy, protection and differentiation in human relationships. We develop our personal boundaries in early childhood and continue to modify them throughout our lives. Having boundaries is an on-going process—sometimes we need to be flexible with them and at other times we need to be firm with how we are different from others. Having boundaries consists of knowing who is emotionally responsible for what in relationships, having a set of personal rules — called limits — in all relationships that protect our privacy and individuality, and continuously monitoring how rigid or flexible our boundaries need to be over time. When we assert our boundaries we may say something like, “I am willing to have lunch with you but I’m not willing to listen to you talk about your problems with your boyfriend.” Such a limit may appear harsh, but it’s more likely a loving act, particularly if there’s been a history of one friend using another friend to avoid facing relationship problems. Asserting boundaries in relationships is a form of respect, sometimes referred to as “tough love” — a gift to ourselves as well as to others. Boundaries are particularly important in raising our children. If we take charge in setting limits with our children, then they will learn how to respect others and have a conscience. If we try to be our children’s best friend and be permissive parents, our children may never learn to love themselves or others.

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Boundaries and today’s culture

More and more the world is shrinking, less personal and constantly intrusive. You and I may have our entire credit and health histories electronically sent around the world without our knowing it. We can’t even attend our mother’s funeral or any meeting without cellphone interruptions. Facebook, blog sites and Twitter all guarantee that privacy is a thing of the past, much like the dinosaurs are. It’s almost assumed that we’re not alive if we don’t want to hear the most trivial details of people’s lives through online teleconnecting. Yet are we really connecting? Or are we just part of some amorphous electronic creature? Research tell us that without boundaries more and more of us are losing our identities. Children raised by computers and video games may have a more difficult time with their social relationships — they may not know where they end and others leave off. They lose the ability to read nonverbal behaviors, they are deathly afraid of showing who they really are to others in real life and they become passive conformists. Often they develop social phobias and get depressed by online excesses. After all, there are no boundaries in cyberspace and showing who we really are to others is the only way we ever become socially confident. The upshot of all these changes is that many of us have become numb to having our boundaries violated and we haven’t the foggiest idea how to have healthy boundaries. Having clear boundaries in today’s world is almost passé. Yet, without clear boundaries, we live with less authentic love.

Boundary problems

Our parents can hamper our personal development when they continually invade our boundaries with their own unfinished business. Their failures feel like our failures.Difficulties with boundaries occur on a continuum from having our personal space be invaded (boundary violations) to having overly rigid rules (boundary rigidity) that exclude necessary human involvement. Like locks on our residences, our boundaries need to be closed sometimes but they don’t need to be permanently jammed up. Having healthy boundaries is a delicate balancing act between firmness and flexibility. As the example above illustrates, even with the best of intentions, our parents can hamper our personal development when they continually invade our boundaries with their own unfinished business. Their failures feel like our failures. Boundary violations by people in authority positions pack the greatest punch in our lives since we crucially depend on such people for survival. Boundary violations by peers may irritate us but they’re seldom devastating. When young children have their personal boundaries violated, the effects are often devastating and such children may completely lack the ability to have boundaries in adult life. Trauma and abuse often cripple our abilities to have boundaries. Adults who have their boundaries violated often feel ashamed, compromised, disempowered, and locked into a hurtful double bind. Also, many boundary violations can arise from apparently innocent intentions and blind faith and they often, have their origins in previous family history. Boundary problems are a serious dilemma in today’s world.

Recognizing boundary violations

It’s difficult but not impossible to recognize when your boundaries are being violated. Telltale warning signals may include any of the following:

  • feeling that someone is too close to you or that you can’t really be yourself
  • having two relationships with a person at the same time that complicates your life
  • having to pretend all the time
  • being in a no-win situation that makes you feel powerless
  • feeling that you have to keep a secret
  • and being unrealistically responsible for another person’s well-being
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A possible example of a boundary violation is having your neighbor gossip about your best friend. Most likely such information would be an unwanted burden to you, especially if you keep the gossip from your best friend. Even if you silenced your neighbor, you may still be left with residual worry that your neighbor’s gossip may be true or wonder what investment your neighbor has in belittling your friend. Essentially, you would be in a no-win situation. Having our boundaries violated often damages us emotionally and it generally has lasting damage when our boundaries are violated in our childhoods.

Maintaining healthy boundaries

You have a right to accept yourself no matter how other people think of you.First, let yourself know that you have a personal right to have your differences with others be respected without being punished by others or by yourself. All humans deserve boundaries. You have a right to exist apart from how other people think of you. You have a right to accept yourself no matter how other people think of you. Second, use the guidelines above to recognize boundary problems and, out of caring for yourself and others, verbally set limits with people you love and distinguish in your own mind what is really true for you even when others think differently. Avoid being responsible for other’s happiness. We cannot be all things to all people, nor are we obliged to be. We don’t have to let other people’s opinions of us rule our lives. When we lovingly detach from others, it is the only way they can find what they alone can give themselves. Third, if you have difficulties asserting your limits, consider joining a good Alanon group, read Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin by Anne Katherine or Don’t Take It Personally by Elayne Savage, and seek personal guidance. Be especially forgiving of yourself if you have been traumatized or emotionally abused. Setting boundaries may feel impossible to do. Bear in mind that having healthy boundaries is something we naturally learn through our earliest relationships with our parents — so many of us have major struggles with tough love and self-protection. Be patient and self-forgiving with what you were never taught. Of course, it’s never to late to learn.

John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

This article first appeared in the June/July 2010 issue of The Phoenix Spirit. We may earn commission via some of the links on this page, at no cost to you. Thank you for helping to support the site.


Last Updated on May 11, 2021

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