Boundaries: With or Without?

Jeff Brown delivers this week's inspiration on the Spirituality page.

ByABC News via logo
April 8, 2011, 5:28 AM

April 8, 2011 — -- I grew up in a home without boundaries. We had walls between the rooms, and locks on the bathroom doors, but there were no relational boundaries between us. With our consciousness overwhelmed by emotional and economic challenges, there was no space to consider notions of healthy relating. Survival at all costs was our daily mantra. Like wild animals, we were either huddled together for dear life, or fighting one another for scraps. Healthy boundaries were a subtle consideration, a luxury that we simply could not afford.

This imbalanced way of being carried forward to my intimate relationships. Either I codependently fused with my partners, or I put on my emotional armor and ran away. My habitual range of emotion. Not surprisingly, my methods of detachment were identical to what was modeled to me as a child. Moments of closeness were inevitably followed by intensity and conflict. Back and forth between enmeshment and war -- what else did I know? And of course, conflict was far more than just habitual. It was also avoidant. There was no better way to avoid genuine vulnerability than being at war.

After 15 years of psychotherapy, I finally came to appreciate the profound significance of healthy boundaries in every area of life. As a general rule, if we are too rigid, we are over-boundaried. Imprisoned behind a wall of armor, there is no way for anything to touch us. But if we are too malleable, we are boundary-less. We are just a vessel for the world to fill.

People with healthy boundaries tend to live somewhere in between. They have found the sacred balance between assertiveness and receptivity. When they do move toward one polarity, they do so with intentionality. They choose to surrender, choose to assert. In all cases, their sense of self remains intact.

This is particularly important in our relationship lives. If we don't know where we end and the other begins, we will have a difficult time establishing healthy connections. Those of us with weakly formed boundaries will be easily manipulated and influenced, often confusing our partner's feelings for our own. Those of us with hardened boundaries will have a hard time opening our hearts to love. Our walls are simply too hard to penetrate. The sacred balance is an alchemical blend of structure and fluidity, almost like an open heart with a sturdy gate at the opening. We don't let just anyone in. We selectively open, letting our boundaries down only when we know that it is healthy to do so.