Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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The Importance of Personal Boundaries



Do "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors?" … The Importance of Personal Boundaries


Did Robert Frost advocate good fences? These often quoted words were written in Frost's poem "Mending Wall."  In the poem you will see that Frost attributed this belief to his neighbor:  "And he likes having thought of it so well He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."  Frost himself confessed that "Spring is the mischief in me", thinking: "He is all pine and I am apple orchard. My apple trees will never get across and eat the cones under his pines." 


The value of this poem (in addition to the humor) is to stimulate you to make your own judgments about boundaries. As a therapist and not a literary critic, my intent here is to give you information about personal boundaries. The basic concept of course is that personal boundaries are demarcations of the limits or edges that define you as separate from others. Your identity and your individuality are defined and exist within these borders. Mental health experts will tell you that good boundaries are crucial to psychological health. In this article and others that follow I will provide information about many types of personal boundaries, problems in development of personal boundaries and strategies for resetting and/or maintaining appropriate boundaries.


Why should you care about boundaries anyway? You should care, for example, if your privacy has  ever been disrespected, if you have been controlled by others, if your individuality has been squashed, if you have been shamed or guilt tripped for expressing your own feelings or opinions, if you have been criticized for questioning authority, if you have had to allow or endure unwanted touch or abuse. In short, everyone has experienced boundary violations and this is why this topic is important for all of us.


Boundaries include personal space zones, physical body boundaries, communication boundaries and emotional and social boundaries such as familial, marriage, friendship, workplace and authority relationships. Most life problems can be conceptualized as difficulty in developing or maintaining flexible boundaries which protect you: your self identity, your integrity, your feelings and needs, your goals and values, your sense of well-being. As you read through these articles, consider the integrity and flexibility of your boundaries and think about what changes you would like to make. It's never too late to empower yourself to bring order and protection into your life.


Individuals and cultures have different definitions for their personal space zones: how close you can be to others and experience feelings of comfort and protection without anxiety about the intrusions of others. You should have physical body boundaries which allow or prohibit touching. You will of course have a different comfort zone when you define others as friends, lovers or strangers. As is the case of any boundary, you have the right and responsibility to define appropriate and acceptable limits for yourself, including who you choose to be close to you and when you can back off to avoid unwanted contact.  The concept of boundaries emphasizes your absolute right to make and enforce these determinations about your personal space and body even with family and lovers. It may be socially acceptable or necessary to allow temporary physical closeness with strangers in an elevator but not when walking away from the elevator.


Communication is an area where boundaries are frequently violated. You are not required to answer every question, nor are you required to reveal personal information or respond to inappropriate requests. You can be polite but still preserve your right to retain or disclose personal information. When others negate your statements, twist your meanings or send conflicting messages, you can choose to clarify communications or withdraw from further social interaction. A strategy to defuse unwanted questions is to provide a simple answer and then repeat the same answer if necessary.


Our emotional boundaries must be preserved because they are crucial to positive self identity and self-esteem. We must be able to differentiate our thoughts and feelings from those of others. Major problems arise when one person, especially a person in authority, tries to control, overpower or devalue another person's thoughts or feelings. We have the right and responsibility to define our feelings and needs and determine how we want to communicate these to others. Many types of negative influence harm emotional boundaries, including threats, abandonment, arbitrariness, or ridicule, as well as insistence on conformity or ignoring our needs. Derogatory humor is especially devastating to personal boundaries because it is concealed as "just joking."


I will continue with this article next month. For now, the take-away message is the importance of this issue. When you interact with others you are entitled to choose your actions to protect your personal rights and individuality. Excessive people-pleasing or passive submission to others is harmful to your self esteem and self identity. When you yourself are the authority figure, it is important to respect the dignity of others; over-control and dominance are harmful to others.


Note: The Southern Neighbor article was condensed somewhat from this article but also contained references to two excellent books on this topic both by author Anne Katherine, Boundaries,  and Where to Draw the Line.


So where's the humor in this topic? My readers like me to end my articles with humor. Actually a lot of jokes violate and are really not funny. Because this article started with a literary reference, I found a literary joke for your chuckling pleasure.


         What do people do at Walden Pond?..... Thoreau stones in the water.