Countries have borders. Gardens have fences. Cells have membranes. And people have boundaries.
In the case of countries, gardens and cells, the boundaries are physical and visible. The ‘owner’ decides who can cross and under what conditions, and the boundaries can be closed and protected.
People’s boundaries, however, are invisible. The rules of entry are usually implicit and change in relationship to other people, who themselves have changing and vague boundaries.
In addition, even when our boundaries are clear, others will still cross them, like a virus slipping into a cell or your neighbour’s dog wriggling through the fence to pee on your lawn (bad dog!).
Unclear or improperly guarded boundaries are the source of many (inter)personal problems and conflicts at work. They put us in situations that are unhealthy, stressful or downright dangerous. It also means we often do not get what we badly want or need.
Why is it so hard to have clear boundaries? Some of the reasons may be that people:
- simply do not know that they have boundaries. They do not know what they want, need, and what their values are, so they cannot say what others should or shouldn’t do to them. Also, if you’re not in touch with your feelings, you cannot alert yourself to the fact someone is nearing or crossing your boundaries.
- ignore their own boundaries. They know they have them, but they have been taught that “it is not nice to say no” or to put the other person’s needs and desire above their own.
- think that they don’t have the power to protect their boundaries, that the other is ‘stronger’ and that resistance is futile. They simply don’t even try anymore.
- fear that if they assert themselves, the other will be disappointed, leave or stop loving them. This fear of loss is greater than the anxiety of having someone cross their boundaries.
- do not know how to protect their boundaries, particularly with people who repeatedly and knowingly cross them or manipulate their way across.
One of the things I do, is empower private individuals and leaders to build and protect their boundaries.
I help them remove their inner constraints, reconnect to their core self, identify their values and needs, mark their boundaries and protect with both fierceness and compassion.
Strong and clear boundaries are a valuable resource. They lead to healthy and balanced relationships, more resilience to conflict, and more effective leadership.
On a final note: which of your boundaries do people cross? What happens as a result? And what would you need to protect those boundaries more strongly?
Ilja van Roon
P.S. Get in touch if you want to explore how you can strengthen your boundaries or check the Life Foundation programme for a private, 12-day programme that will give you structurally stronger boundaries for life.