Managing Interpersonal Boundaries, pt. I

by Tom Horvath, PhD, ABPP

Interpersonal boundaries are part of the rules we establish about how to interact with other people. We can compare interpersonal boundaries to being in a house. The house protects us from the outside, and on the inside we protect our warm or cool air, our possessions, and our privacy. Houses have walls, roofs, doors, windows, window coverings, pipes, wires, and vents, which allow us to be highly flexible about what comes in and what goes out. In this blog we focus on keeping inside what needs to stay in. In a parallel blog we focus on keeping outside what needs to stay out. In either case, I am the one ultimately responsible for managing the boundary. I need to be prepared for others who may not know or respect the boundary I have established. I need to know how to maintain my boundaries, despite their behavior.

Let’s focus primarily on information about ourselves, and whether we release too little or too much. Think about all the information you consider “private,” including financial, sexual, health, relationship, and historical information. Sometimes we decide to volunteer information, and sometimes people ask us questions: How much money do you make? What substances do you use? What is your sexual orientation?

Keeping information “inside” is easy: Don’t say it! But how do we decide how much to say?  On the one hand, our information can be used against us. On the other hand, if we do not release any information, no one can get close to us. We may momentarily feel motivated to say too much in the hope of furthering a relationship, but ultimately we realize it was an “overshare,” or “TMI.” One option in newer relationships is to talk about how we feel about something. As we see that our feelings are treated with respect, we can feel more confident about releasing other information also.

To summarize: An internal boundary is a line we decide not to cross, to keep private information private, in order to protect ourselves. With each individual we interact with, and in each situation, we need to decide how much information is enough, and how much is too much. When we balance our release well, we grow closer to individuals who are good for us, and we stay safe from people who may not be.