Good boundaries make other coping skills more effective. But what is so important about boundaries? How do boundaries apply to life skills?
Our bodies, the natural world around us, our culture and civilization, and our “higher” or “inner” beings (what you might think of as soul, spirit, consciousness, or heart) all have boundaries. Maybe the most obvious boundary of our bodies is our skin. It’s a protective boundary that protects all the parts of our body within it. Our cells have boundaries. Walls and fences are boundaries. Political borders are boundaries. Some boundaries are permeable, like cell walls. Others are fixed, and insulated, like the walls of a house. Some have doors of various sizes, like cat-doors, garage doors, or border crossings.
Boundaries usually keep some things out, and other things in—and are usually used for protection and containment. Not all boundaries are physical. There are cultural boundaries – like cultural norms, or groups of people – “them” and “us”. There are personal boundaries—things I won’t do, or friends vs. enemies. There’s “me” and “you”. Although many human or personal boundaries are not physical, they may have physical representations, or it may help us to understand them through something physical. “He gets under my skin” is an expression that uses the skin-boundary as a metaphor. With the coronavirus pandemic, we use “bubble” to represent a household, or a group of people who spend time around each other. We can imagine them under a big bubble, interacting with each other, but being separate, and protected, from people outside the bubble.
We can talk and learn about all kinds of personal boundaries more easily by describing them in physical terms. Reflective listening essentially sets a boundary for what is about “the other person” to set it apart from what belongs to me, like holding up a mirror. The mirror reflects the other person back to themselves and at the same time, shields me from absorbing what is about the other person into my being. Another way of respecting the boundary between me and you is to use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. “I” statements are about things that belong to me.
Sometimes personal boundaries involve physical boundaries – like “personal space”. “Keeping someone at an arm’s length” invokes a picture of physical distance but is really talking about a personal boundary. Children whose physical, bodily boundaries are violated through abuse have a difficult time developing healthy emotional boundaries.
Just like physical boundaries are essential to the functioning of our bodies, our houses, and our countries, so our personal and emotional boundaries are essential to the healthy functioning of our “inner” selves. Just as children develop through stages to become separate from their parents emotionally, and then lead their own lives independent of their parents, so we can also learn and implement boundaries to become better-functioning versions of ourselves. Healthy boundaries are a good foundation for other coping skills.