Managing External Boundaries
by Tom Horvath, PhD
When we talk about having boundaries, we can talk about managing external boundaries and we can talk about managing internal boundaries. This blog will discuss the management of external boundaries. To better understand external boundaries, it helps to understand the concept of interpersonal boundaries. Interpersonal boundaries are the rules we establish for ourselves about how we interact with other people. We can compare interpersonal boundaries to having a house. The house, with roof and walls, protects us from the outside, and keeps our possessions together. But there are also doors, windows, window coverings, pipes, wires, vents, and so forth, which allow us to be flexible about what comes in and what goes out. In this blog we focus on protecting ourselves from the outside. A parallel blog will focus on keeping inside what needs to stay there.
We prevent violations by establishing boundaries. For instance, who can touch us and how, who can enter our living space and how far, whom we respond to online and whom we do not, whom we will accept advice from and whom we won’t, and so forth. The challenge is often that these boundaries need to be communicated and enforced, and communication and enforcement may be difficult.
Although we may think of a boundary as a rule we place on others, we actually place it primarily on ourselves. If you touch me in a way I do not want, do I communicate that fact to you? Do I choose an effective course of action if you keep violating this boundary? Do I consider how to inform you of my boundary even before you might violate it? Do I engage in inaccurate mind reading or wishful thinking, and assume you will know what my boundaries are?
Flexibility and Rigidity in Managing External Boundaries
An external boundary is a line someone else should not cross. It is up to each of us to choose, revise, communicate, and enforce these boundaries. If we are not effective in doing so, we can end up violated and in much pain. This situation would be like living outdoors, homeless. On the other hand, if we have so many boundaries that no one can enter “our space,” we end up isolated. This situation would be like living inside a concrete bunker, with only a door, and with no windows, no light, no fresh air. As in many aspects of life, maintaining helpful boundaries is a matter of balance.