The Guide to Strong Boundaries

Boundary Issues in Psychology

Psychological / February 28, 2021

Y definition, a boundary is anything that marks a limit. Psychological limits define personal dignity. When we say, “You just crossed a line, ” we are speaking about a psychological limit that marks the distinction between behavior that does not cause emotional harm and behavior that causes emotional harm.

We all need to protect ourselves from emotional harm. Psychological defenses are created in childhood to serve that purpose unconsciously, but they can also lead us into unhealthy and unproductive behavior. Boundaries, unlike psychological defense mechanisms, are conscious and healthy ways to protect ourselves from emotional harm.

Some persons, however, have great difficulty setting boundaries—they may even believe that setting boundaries is rude—and this difficulty usually derives from child abuse. But let’s be clear that abuse can range from subtle emotional manipulation to severe sexual and physical abuse. To the unconscious, though, any abuse, no matter how mild or severe, is an insult to personal dignity. It’s precisely this insult to personal dignity that explains why adults who were abused as children lack the ability to set appropriate boundaries. Why? Well, their not having boundaries served them as a defense mechanism in childhood. Most abused children know intuitively that if you try to do anything to resist the abuse, you just get hurt all the more. So setting aside any resistance means less hurt.

Sadly, defenses that served you very well as a child to ensure your survival can actually cripple you with fear, dishonesty, and self-sabotage when carried into adulthood. With persistence and courage, however, any psychological defense can be overcome.

So if a lack of boundaries has gotten you into trouble in the past, take heart, for the problem can be remedied.

The First Step

Your first step will be to overcome the pernicious belief that you are worthless. Like any abused child you developed this belief to tolerate your lack of resistance to abuse. If you can convince yourself that you’re worthless, then you can more easily justify not resisting anything that degrades your value.

A good metaphor to help you understand your own personal value comes from aviation. If you have ever flown on a commercial airliner, you have heard the safety talks at the beginning of the flight. One talk concerns the oxygen masks, which will drop down from the overhead compartment in the event of a sudden decompression at altitude. In that talk, you are warned to put on your own mask before trying to assist someone else.
Do you know why? Well, at high altitudes there is very little oxygen in the air, and the brain can survive for only a few seconds without supplemental oxygen. So, in the time it takes to help someone else who is confused and struggling, you could both pass out and die. But if you put on your own mask immediately, you will have the oxygen you need to survive and think clearly, so you can be of real help to others.

The point here is that unless you take care of yourself first, you cannot be of any help to others.

Note carefully, though, that the belief that you are worthless is a negative belief that you created yourself; therefore you can just as well create another, positive belief to replace the negative belief. You might begin this process by repeating to yourself, over and over, “I am not worthless.”

The Second Step

Your second step will be to understand that healthy boundaries derive from love, not fear.