The young farmer was very angry as every few weeks he’d lose a chicken or two to the coyotes living in the nearby forest. He sometimes thought about selling the farm but on reflection considered that the neighbours and wildlife could be worse on the new property. He did think about letting the dog out when he heard the commotion in the hen house, but what if the dog got hurt in the brawl? The idea also crossed his mind to hunt the predators that kept eating his livestock. He would have to buy a gun, take a course, figure out storage and where to keep the bullets. This all seemed rather onerous and dangerous. “Would I keep the gun loaded – In the living room?” he pondered.
He even considered getting rid of the chickens all together – but this all seemed rather drastic as eating fresh eggs was one of the reasons he lived on a farm. The solution that made the most sense was to build a more secure fence to keep the chickens in the Coyotes out.
It is useful to think of boundaries as serving both a ‘protection’ and ‘containment’ function which works in 2 directions, essentially regulating what we put out to people and what comes back to us. Boundaries can be more than just physical as they also involve thoughts, opinions, likes and dislikes.
For those of us who grew up in homes where there was substance abuse or mental illness experienced by a sibling or caregiver, we might have difficulty understanding where our boundaries began and what’s involved in maintaining a healthy self. In healthy homes parents are supposed to look after the children, not the other way around. I have met many clients over the years who’ve learned as children that they had no rights to privacy, or didn’t live in innocence and physical safety, or had to do all the work of ‘parenting’ their families. Some of these people are angry adults, and they have developed very ‘big fences’ as adults to protect themselves from pain and hurt. The high cost of these rigid boundaries is loneliness, and the cost of aggression is misery. I believe these people are still emotionally stuck in the past.
Individuals with poor boundaries may have difficulty saying ‘no’ to others, they may disclose way too much personal information upon meeting new people, they may also permit others to take advantage of them with time, money and feelings. Some may lack the insight to notice when others are trespassing on their rights. Apart from the physical boundaries that we all maintain, there are those qualities that we can’t see: like our morality, beliefs, rights, values, truths, and dreams. The unfortunate consequences of not maintaining boundaries is that we can be manipulated and some people can literally lose themselves indiscriminately to the social world around them. It is my experience working with clients that failure to assert and maintain boundaries leads to exhaustion and emotional disruption. In extreme cases some people lose their identity and purpose.
As a rule of thumb I keep an arm’s length away when talking with a stranger. If the person I’m interacting with keeps getting in my space, my natural “alarm” goes off and I respond in a manner to re-establish my personal boundaries. Anger would be a very normal reaction when one’s personal boundaries are violated. Sometimes the person I’m dealing with raises their voice or even threatens me, requiring me to create space, leave the situation or perhaps even “bark” back in order to protect myself.
I’ve met individuals who’ve had great difficulty re-defining their personal boundaries after suffering strokes or spinal injuries and needing to rely on others in a way they never had to before the accident. Think about the idea of having to be helped out of bed every morning or having someone help you on an off the commode every day. I have learned from these people that boundaries can change with circumstances and with practice.
In her book: Coping with infuriating, mean, critical people – the destructive narcissistic pattern (2006) Nina Brown has proposed four boundary types.
1. Soft – This style merges with other people’s boundaries and this individual is easily a victim of psychological manipulation.
2. Spongy – This style is a combination of soft and rigid boundaries. While there is less emotional contagion than soft boundaries these individuals are unsure of what to let in and what to keep out.
3. Rigid – As the name implies, this style is closed in a way that nobody can get close physically or emotionally. If it often the case that this style has developed in response to early abuse. Rigid boundaries can also be selective and depend on time, place and circumstance.
4. Flexible – This style is resistant to emotional contagion and difficult to exploit. This style allows people choice in what to let in and what to keep out.