Boundaries are like borders for your life. They give definition to who you are. When they function well, they separate out what you need from what you don’t need, much like a cellular wall that allows in the nutrients while it keeps out the toxins. While intact boundaries serve the function of protection and gatekeeping, they also draw into your life the things you need to sustain and support you. Healthy boundaries selectively let in the people, opportunities, and situations that benefit and nourish you.
How does this happen? Your boundaries define who you are and what you will and will not allow into your life. By your implicit and explicit communication, you broadcast to the world who you are, what you want, and how you can be treated. Most of us walk around without much conscious awareness of the way we transmit this information to the world, but whether we realize it or not, we do communicate this information in subtle and overt ways.
In relationships, healthy boundaries distinguish you from others and draw in healthy connection. Ideally if your boundaries function well, they repel unwanted and detrimental relationships and invite in nourishing friends, partners, and colleagues. If you have a strong intuitive sense of your boundaries, you develop an internal compass of when to open up and allow in interactions and when you might need to wisely close yourself off. This can become a fluid internal process.
Common Boundary Disturbances
The problem is that almost everyone suffers from boundary disturbances in one form or another because we all grow up in imperfect environments in which we don’t learn to read the language of our own boundaries. Even worse, when boundary violations occur, big or small, this leads to problems in relationships later on. People end up with boundaries that are too rigid, too permeable, or with gaping holes in their borders.
Some common indications of overly permeable boundaries are if you tend to take on too much responsibility in your relationships, you’re a chronic people pleaser, you feel overwhelmed by other people’s moods or needs, you have difficulty asserting your own needs, and you might even end up feeling resentful of the people you love. You might find yourself merging with other people and have difficulty defining yourself and your needs and desires. When boundaries are too rigid, you might notice you chronically feel lonely and disconnected, have you difficulty sharing your inner life with others, you don’t trust people, and you feel that people don’t understand you. You might also be good at giving to the people in your life but you don’t allow others to give to you.
Group Therapy Is a Perfect Setting to Work on Boundaries
The group therapy setting is a perfect place to address boundary disturbances. In group, we work differently with the person who chronically has overly rigid boundaries than the person with overly permeable boundaries. The overly rigid person does not allow others in to feed and support her so the therapist’s role is to help her slowly and safely open herself to others in the group to experience nourishment. We might understand what gets in the way of fluid boundary functioning for this person. For the person with overly permeable boundaries, the therapist work intently to help shore up his borders and strengthen his sense of self in his relationships so that he is not as easily influenced by others. Of course, there are those who can be both rigid and permeable so we might work in both ways with these people. The group is particularly helpful because people get the chance to explore and experiment with new behaviors in setting or loosening boundaries with the group leader and fellow group members.
Having intact boundaries takes some work but it is very worthwhile. Healthy boundaries are an important aspect of having a solid sense of self, and they create the container for living a life filled with satisfying relationships.