When most people think about emotional boundaries, they think about making sure other people don’t exploit them. They think about knowing how and when to say “no.”
This way of thinking about boundaries is important, and it partly addresses one kind of boundary problem – the problem of weak personal boundaries.
But there is another kind of psychological boundary problem, too – the problem of rigid personal boundaries.
If you’re not sure whether you have one of these boundary problems, keep reading, because both types reek havoc on relationship happiness.
This post will help you determine – with just one simple question – if you have an emotional boundary problem that is getting in the way of your sense of joy and connection with others.
And if so, it will help you fix it to develop highly effective personal boundaries that ensure your relationships will be nourishing and wonderful!
The One Question that Will Reveal Your Boundary Style
On a scale from 1-10 (1 low, 10 high), how likely are you to incorporate someone else’s feedback into your sense of self?
Score of 7 – 10: Boundaries Likely too Weak
- If someone tells you something about yourself, you automatically “put it on” and consider it true.
Score of 4 – 6: Healthy Boundaries
- When someone tells you something about yourself, you consider the source and weigh the feedback against your steady but flexible sense of self.
Score of 1 – 3: Boundaries Likely too Rigid
- When someone tells you something about yourself, you dismiss it and the source immediately unless it matches your opinion of yourself exactly.
Download an Unhealthy Boundaries Checklist for free.
The Anatomy of Healthy and Unhealthy Boundaries
Let’s explore how boundaries work a little more deeply with a simple analogy of a gate outside of of a large country estate (hey, I have an active fantasy life 😉 ).
In this analogy, the gate represents your psychological boundaries, and the large property represents you.
Let’s say a visitor approaches the gate and your compound with the intention of coming inside (engaging with you).
Let’s explore how that will look in the case of a wide open gate (weak boundaries), a gate with a friendly guard (healthy boundaries), and a locked, unattended gate (rigid boundaries).
Weak Boundaries: Open Gate
In the case of weak emotional boundaries, your gate will be wide open. Your visitor will be able to walk right in and do whatever they want to your property (you).
If they are a respectful person, they may make a special effort not to mess up your beautiful grounds. They may carefully step around the flowers in your garden and forbid their dog to poop on your yard.
But even if they are a nice and respectful person, they have to guess about what you want and don’t want on your property.
This means that whether they mean to or not, their desires and priorities will end up overrunning your home.
Maybe they decide to plant a gorgeous peach tree in your front yard as a gift because they don’t know that you’re allergic to bees – which will surround the tree and sting you in the summertime.
But respectful people making honest mistakes is actually the least of your problems if you have weak boundaries. This is because respectful people don’t usually feel very comfortable around those of us with weak boundaries.
More often, people with weak boundaries end up as targets for the kind of people who feel entitled to walk onto someone else’s property and make themselves at home just because they come across an open gate.
We’ll get into how to fix that later, but for now let’s move on and look at the case of a gate with a friendly guard.
Healthy Boundaries: Gate Guard
When you place a friendly guard at the gate of your estate, you have the opportunity to vet whoever seeks to enter your property before they gain access.
You can deny ominous looking people at the outset (in fact, upon seeing your guard, they will probably keep walking past your compound in the first place).
But more importantly, you have the chance to communicate your ground rules with any guests before they enter your property.
Your guard can say: “Good afternoon, Sir, welcome! Before you enter, please secure your horse in the stable on the right. Your hostess doesn’t like animals too close to the house because of the flies.”
Or your guard can ask your guests about their dietary restrictions and clue-in your chef before he prepares dinner.
With a friendly guard protecting your interests and the interests of your guests, everyone ends up feeling comfortable and respected. Trust settles, in and emotional connection as well as fun become possible!
Rigid Boundaries: Locked Gate
So a guard protects your estate and makes your guests comfortable. But employing a guard also seems like it might be expensive and time consuming. You have to train your guard, and you have to pay her too!
What if, instead, you just lock your gate and call it a day?
No matter who comes by, you automatically deny them entry to your compound.
Your grass doesn’t get trampled down by people walking through your garden, and no one distracts your chef from making your favorite dessert because he has to make a special vegetarian entree for a guest.
But in this case, obviously, you’re now completely alone. Maybe you enjoy your solitude, but how is your gardener going to get in to mow your lawn and tend to your flowers?
Who is going to help you when you get the flu? Who is going to edit that novel for you and give you feedback?
It’s becoming clear that locking your gate and keeping everyone out means that you’ll miss out on the benefits of living in society with other people.
Even if you are an introvert, this will be a bad thing for you. In fact, I want to be very clear here, as an introvert myself, that having rigid boundaries are absolutely not the same thing as enjoying time alone.
Rigid boundaries means refusing to let other people influence you and refusing to cooperate.
Extroverts and introverts alike can have rigid boundaries, and in both cases they suffer from a lack of healthy relationships.
Why Having Dysfunctional Personal Boundaries Makes Emotional Connection Impossible
So, I hope my silly analogy helped to illustrate some of the ways that boundaries protect us, and how malfunctioning boundaries cause problems in our lives.
But one of the negative consequences of poor boundaries can be rather subtle – the prevention nourishing emotional connections.
An Emotional Connection happens when two (or more) people knowingly feel and perceive the same thing at the same time.
How Emotional Connection is Thwarted By Weak Boundaries
If you have weak boundaries – an open gate – you may have what I like to call a pseudo emotional connection with someone else.
For example, your boss might try to micromanage you and tell you that you have no idea what you’re doing, and you may automatically believe her.
In a perverse way, you may both feel and perceive a sense of disappointment with your performance and your job commitment, and you might share a (pseudo) emotional connection around this at your performance review.
But if deep down part of you knows that you can’t get anything done because your boss keeps getting in your way and sabotaging your efforts, even if that fact is completely buried because of your weak boundaries, then you’re not really, truly, and completely feeling disappointment.
You’re probably feeling all sorts of other things besides disappointment. But you’re hiding those feelings. And if what your feeling is hidden, then you’re not emotionally connecting with anyone around it.
How Emotional Connection is Thwarted by Rigid Boundaries
If you have rigid boundaries, it’s a little bit more obvious that you’re not going to be sharing in any kind of emotional connection – unless by way of the coincidental path to emotional connection.
In other words, unless someone happens to coincidentally feel and perceive exactly what you feel and perceive, then you won’t feel close to anyone because you will not allow anyone to influence you with their point of view.
People with rigid emotional boundaries frequently suffer from profound loneliness.
The Simple But Challenging Path to Training Your Own Boundary Gate Guard
The conventional advice about developing healthy boundaries is simply to practice enforcing them – to learn to make requests, and to learn to say “no.”
This is well-intentioned advice, but unfortunately it skips an absolutely critical step:
Before anyone can enforce their boundaries, they have to know what they are – they have to have a solid sense of self.
And unfortunately, people with both kinds of boundary problems – weak boundaries and rigid boundaries alike – do not have a solid sense of self.
You see, the difference between someone with rigid boundaries and someone with weak boundaries is not that people with rigid boundaries are selfish jerks and people with weak boundaries are too giving.
The difference between people with rigid boundaries and people with weak boundaries is the technique they adopt to cope with not having a steady sense of who they are, what they want, and how they deserve to be treated.
People with rigid boundaries, for example, don’t let others influence them or inspire them to cooperate because they are terrified of being engulfed – that someone else’s mere presence can overtake them. That is why they lock their front gate.
People with weak boundaries, in contrast, invite others in to fill in the gap where their self should be. They believe that surrendering to the influence of others completely will help to give them the self-definition they desperately crave.
(This is not to be confused, by the way, with being a Highly Sensitive Person or an empath. Although members of both groups may struggle with disentangling their own feelings from the feelings of others, it absolutely possible to be highly sensitive and/or empathetic and also have a solid sense of self).
The key, then, to solving boundary problems is first and foremost to cultivate a solid sense of self – to discover yourself fully.
And this is no small feat. In fact, it is the most difficult journey you may ever choose to embark on, but it will make all the difference in the quality of your life.
It can be an exhausting process at the beginning because initially it requires that you consider and reflect on each and every interpersonal interaction that you have.
If you have an uncomfortable interaction with your boss, a friend, or a spouse, you must ask yourself:
What was my role in this?
Why did I behave the way that I did?
What did I want, deep down, to happen when I behaved that way?
Was it inappropriate for me to want that? Was it reasonable?
How can I communicate that more directly next time?
To find yourself, you have to take a hard look at yourself. And if you’ve been avoiding that, it’s because you’re afraid that you’re not going to like what you find.
And you might not. There may be aspects of your behavior that make you cringe.
But only when you scrutinize yourself with a fine toothed comb, compassionately of course, can you start to put together a real sense of your strengths, your weaknesses, your desires, and most importantly of all when it comes to boundaries, what is fair for you to ask of others.
If you can’t take that inventory, your unconscious negative feelings about yourself will always prevent you from negotiating confidently around your preferences and needs.
You’ll also never develop an efficient mechanism to evaluate feedback from others against what you know in your bones to be true about yourself.
Healthy Boundaries: Observing Your Self So That You Can Define It to Others
Healthy boundaries are possible when you know yourself better than anybody else.
But if that’s true, then why would someone with healthy boundaries score between a 4 and a 6 on the question “On a scale from 1-10 (1 low, 10 high), how likely are you to incorporate someone else’s feedback into your sense of self?”
Wouldn’t someone who knew themselves better than anyone else score a 1?
The answer is NO because the on only way you can know yourself better than anybody else is if you are always willing to take a look at yourself.
If someone tells you something about yourself that surprises you, it deserves your consideration.
Who is this person and how credible are they?
Hmm, is this true about me? Let me think about that…
The more fearless you are about this process, the faster and easier it will happen.
You’ll identify malicious criticism almost instantly and let it roll right off your back, you’ll confidently go after what you want, and you’ll be respected and loved by high quality people.
Unhealthy Personal Boundaries are one of the 5 Connection Crushers, and they totally demolish nourishing and enjoyable relationships.
But if you embark on the arduous and very brave process of self-discovery and confrontation, cultivating quality relationships will be just the very beginning of the improvements that will come to your life!
What kind of boundary problem have you struggled with the most?