Boundaries—Where You End and I Begin
© 1991 by Anne Katherine
Boundaries bring order to our lives, empower us and protect us from the ignorance, meanness and thoughtlessness of others.
Big diseases like cancer, fibromyalgia, autoimmune diseases, some types of depression and people with chronic low self-worth are often associated with boundaries issues. The types of personalities exhibiting these types of diseases often can’t say “no” to anybody. I’ve often recommended Anne Katherine’s book over the years and have not had one client tell me they didn’t like it, so I’m now sharing it with my readers.
In my opinion, a basic human premise is that we all just want to feel valued, loved, heard and respected. When these basic needs are not met, dis-ease happens and these diseases disrupt the emotional, physical and spiritual well-being of the person.
In her book, Anne Katherine state, “You have the right to privacy. You get to choose what thoughts and feeling you want to share and with whom. Boundary violations may be deliberate or accidental. Either way, the violation is harmful to the being.”
I was in the consult room with a new client many years back when I had an office where people physically came to see me (unlike now where I only work on the telephone). The door was open and a man who has nothing better to do than to visit our business for an hour each day walks in. He raises his voice over my own as I’m talking to my client and says, “Have you gained weight?” Gee, what every girl wants to hear. . .I glance at my client with that “can you believe that?” kind of look. Being too kind and having weak boundaries, I actually answer him! “Not that I know of” and he says, “Yes. . .I think you have. Several pounds it looks like.” I say nothing and go kick the door shut so I can concentrate on the paying customer. “Can you believe that?” She asks me. “Uh, no. How absolutely rude!” I reply. That’s a boundaries violation.
Note, this is NOT acceptable behavior. People who tell you that you look bad or fat are intruding on your boundaries. If you allow these demeaning comments, you have poor boundaries and may want to work on them.
The role of the person defines the range of appropriate behavior. Even in a marriage there are times when “us” and “not us” are appropriate. Too much togetherness is called enmeshment. Let me give you an example.
A man emails me to make an appointment for his wife. When she calls, he is on the other phone and does not allow her to give input about her own health. He has already determined that she will do the treatment he feels most comfortable with.
This is WAY out of line. The woman is not chattel. She sounded intelligent and she was not deaf. She should have been encouraged to make her own choices. When I emailed her a month later to ask how she was doing her husband wrote back! He told me how she had gone to a specialist (which she finally got across to her husband that she needed to do for herself thank goodness,) but that she had decided against his wishes and was taking the medication her medical doctor suggested. This is a boundaries violation.
Your health is YOUR choice. I encourage all my clients to stand up for what they believe is best for their own body. It’s our job as healers to help the client make educated choices. We as healers are there to enlighten those areas of fear or lack of education when it comes to making choices, but once a person has made up their mind to do a treatment it’s not our job to convince them to change their mind and their treatment. Really. And if that client eventually wants to try something else, then that’s OK too.
Anne Katherine, author of Boundaries, Where You End and I Begin © 1991 relates that we have spiritual, sexual and relational boundaries. Exercises and examples are at the back of each chapter and her book has many easy-to-understand case examples that are wonderfully helpful. Here are some summary clips from her book:
Types of boundary violations:
The Intrusion Violation: Asking inappropriate and personal questions within the context of the relationship or violating physical or emotional boundaries. So, asking a fellow worker about their sex life is NOT OK.
The Distance Violation: When emotional and physical intimacy is inappropriate within the context of the relationship. People need safe nonsexual physical contact in order to define themselves. Cuddling, hugging and holding are part of close relationships (within the context of a relationship). So, for example, when you’re in a relationship it’s not OK to pretend they are not with you out in public and it’s not OK to leverage affection for what you want somebody to do for you.
Enmeshment defined: When a couple becomes enmeshed, the individualities of each partner are sacrificed to the relationship. One partner usually gives up opinions, perspectives and preferences to take on their mate’s views. One partner does the thinking and sets the limits making themselves feel more valuable and more important. The person who needs to feel more valuable of course, in my opinion, has major self-esteem problems.
Ultimately, each person should be whole and intact and not need the partner to complete them before coming into a relationship. They choose to live together because of common interests, morals and values. There is a balance of shared interests and only a few differences for the marriage to be healthy.
Enmeshment endangers the self-worth. It is an attempt to feel and think as if you were the other person so that you feel accepted—like you’re not good enough already and constantly need somebody to validate your worth by pretending to be somebody you’re not. When this happens you become a brainless servant with no life of your own. You are also not being and using the special gifts you came to earth this time around to share with the rest of the world.
It’s not OK to be told how to vote, which clubs to join, who should be your friend and which healers are on the “approved” list to visit. These are boundaries violations. It’s not OK to have to change your opinion to mesh with the person you live with so they will feel happy and comfortable and not make your life hell because you have your own opinions. Enmeshment means someone’s personality is being squashed!
Enmeshment is when we give up our entire wants, needs and dreams and become hostage. As Anne describes in her book, “the main goal when a person is a hostage is to survive until they can escape or be rescued.” Being hostage disallows progression of personal development.
Physical Boundaries: You have the absolute say over who touches you and how they touch you. You do not have to endure any kind of contact that you don’t like.
In my own practice I find that women with atypical pap smears have poor physical boundaries. Abnormal paps are often a result of enduring unwanted sexual contact. It is not OK when your boss pats you on the behind or fondles you under the table (no matter what sex you are). This is sexual harassment and there are laws to protect you from this form of boundary violation.
Emotional Boundaries: Weak boundaries equal a weak self-image. Age and maturity define appropriate emotional boundaries. It’s not appropriate to discuss deep personal concerns with your young children. Children need a safe environment to discuss their feelings without being judged to develop emotional safety. Adults that share inappropriately are called Leaky Parents. A child exposed to adult problems thinks they are supposed to have the maturity to handle them so they have the tendency to worry about the problems that they can’t even fix. The healthier way to handle adult problems is to share with other (safe) adults.
What strengthens emotional boundaries? The right to say “no” and the freedom to say “yes.” Other things that strengthen emotional boundaries include respect for feelings, supporting uniqueness and expression/acceptance of differences.
Things that harm emotional boundaries include ridicule, contempt, sarcasm, mockery, scorn, belittlement, insistence on conformity, heavy judgments, abuse of any kind, abandonment, threats and stifling communication.
When you feel you have to pretend to be someone you’re not to feel accepted, you don’t have healthy emotional boundaries. Examples of weak emotional boundaries include:
- Smiling at jokes you find offensive.
- Pretending to hold opinions/views contrary to your real views.
- Concealing conflicting opinions.
- Working too hard, too long, not resting when tired and not being able to say no and to set limits so that you can please others.
- Using chemicals like nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, sugar, pills or drugs to avoid yourself .
- Using addictions/compulsions to avoid yourself (food, exercise, shopping, TV, computer games, sex or sports).
Boundaries that are too flexible:
When you allow others to encroach on your boundaries you may feel overwhelmed with life. These people allow the environment and the latest drama/trauma/needs of someone to take priority in their lives. Each new demand distracts them from what they want or truly need to do making them appear disorganized. Parents with boundaries that are too flexible end up making their children feel like they are never a priority. They deprive their children of a sense of security from having a specific schedule with clear limits and definite standards. These parents end up raising selfish children who never learn to respect the needs of others.
It used to annoy me after my best girlfriend from childhood had a baby and was never available to talk to me on the phone without the baby disrupting and breaking into our conversation. During the occasional 15 minute phone call she’d say, “Sandy honey, mommy’s on the phone” about 8 times. I thought this would settle down after the little girl learned proper etiquette but when I called her a couple of years back after losing touch for 15 years or so Sandy was in her early 20’s and still interrupting! I stopped calling after that. What’s the point? I was only a distraction on the end of the telephone and not important enough in her life to be able to spare a few minutes of conversation to catch up. Her boundaries were just too flexible for my security standards.
Sexual boundaries: Professions and people who have roles that carry power need to be very careful when it comes to sexual boundaries. Professions such as therapists, doctors, rabbis, priests, pastors, counselors, bosses, leaders, and teachers are associated with building trust.
Breaching sexual boundaries causes severe and long lasting life-affecting emotional boundary issues. Trust for entire professions can be damaged. An example would be the Catholic Church issues in the news these last few years. Knowingly permitting any kind of sexual abuse teaches the child to be a victim and a predator by destroying all kinds of boundaries.
I don’t know what the statistics are out there because people don’t talk about these things as a general rule and certainly in my practice people find me who are in the process of working through their issues, but it seems to me about 40% of my clients have been sexually abused at one time. Usually it’s some form of incest and it’s not only the female clients. Sexual abuse is widespread and very real.
I find it appalling that adults who are supposed to be looked up to within the family unit would so betray that trust to sexually abuse a child or ignore the abuse done to their own child and chose total denial of what is happening. When you teach a child that “children should be seen and not heard” or convince them they need to spend time with a person they definitely do not want to associate with just because “everyone love’s cousin Elmo” or whoever it may be, there may be a reason for the child not wanting to be with that person. Children don’t talk about abuse. They don’t have the words to describe how someone is making them feel uncomfortable or “icky”. It’s up to us to monitor and watch for this type of activity and to prevent it if possible or work through it and protect our children from future abuse.
It’s not my job to judge whether or not the perceived sexual abuse really happened or not. If the client feels they have a memory of being abused, then that is their emotional reality and I respect that. If they heal themselves, they will go out and help others to heal (either intentionally or unintentionally). We’re all in this boundary thing together. We all make mistakes. We all may at times knowingly or unknowingly abuse other people’s boundaries, but it’s our responsibility to ask for forgiveness and work to rebuild trust where that is possible.
“Sexual boundary violations include inappropriate touching, speaking or looking at a person that sexually gratifies one person at the expense of another who is unwillingly exploited.” Says Anne in her book.
If these types of violations occur in the family home, the child does not learn to set limits. Eventually affection gets confused with sex. The child learns to use sex to get nurturing or may fear that affection will cause sex. Often sexually abused children will exhibit eating disorders-usually overeating and morbid obesity. Overeating increases weight and the extra fat acts as a wall of protection.
Of course weight issues usually have multiple causes but often a person who has experienced sexual abuse will not be able to keep the weight off when dieting until they have overcome and conquered the abuse issues and have learned to establish appropriate and healthy boundaries.
How to teach healthy boundaries:
- Encourage your children to talk about their feelings. This helps to develop healthy emotional boundaries. Give them the proper words to explain how they are feeling.
- Teach your children that it’s OK to trust their feelings and that it’s OK to tell older people that they do not feel comfortable talking about or doing certain things.
- Validate the child’s feelings in a way that allows them to feel like they have been heard. For example, when a child says, “I’m scared!” don’t respond with “No, you’re not.” If your child, partner, friend or spouse says, “I don’t feel comfortable around that person,” don’t answer with, “Oh, that’s not true.” Or, “You just don’t know them like I do.” Or, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
No one owns your body. The different roles we play carry built-in limitations. Appropriate behavior in a mother may not carry over when she becomes a supervisor or boss.
If you see yourself as having weak boundaries and you are now an adult, it’s not too late to start repairing your own boundaries. As you heal, your children and people around you will also heal. The final chapter in Anne Katherine’s book on boundaries lays out six exercises you can do today to help build healthier boundaries. For many, this is a must-read and very important book.