Dear Neil: I have been told I have poor boundaries—and that I occasionally violate other people’s boundaries. Could you address the issue of boundaries: What are they? How do they differ from pushing people away? When is it appropriate to push people away, and how does that differ from having appropriate boundaries?
Questioning in Seattle
Dear Questioning: An emotional boundary is a symbolic membrane that gives us protection from being used or controlled by others—their words, insinuations, demands, criticisms and emotions. When we can stop such control attempts, we are not compelled to act, think or feel in ways we do not choose. A healthy boundary also stops us from being excessively of others.
Many people have not learned how to have healthy boundaries to protect themselves. Instead, they use walls.
Walls are made up of strong emotions and/or behaviors that create a solid, impenetrable barrier or defense designed to keep people far away. Someone using a wall of anger, for instance, often rages in a very threatening way. Another person may emit a non-verbal message that s/he might soon burst into a formable rage, even though the person isn’t raging at the moment. But other people will keep away for fear of triggering an explosion.
There is a wall of fear, which is when a person withdraws and becomes isolated. There is also a wall of silence, where someone won’t talk about things, or where they’ll use silent treatment on others.
Some people use walls of words, which are continuous monologues that sound like a bottomless sack of words, and are therefore meaningless to the person listening to them. The person who uses a wall of words often wasn’t listened to as a child, and thinks that talking is reaching out for intimacy. But a wall of words will end up blocking the very intimacy they seek.
Although walls can protect us and keep people out, they keep closeness and intimacy out as well. Walls thus isolate us and keep us from connection with others.
Effective boundaries offer us a measured amount of protection, but not so much that we lose contact with our feelings and vulnerabilities. If we do not have healthy boundaries, we find ourselves continually manipulated, strong-armed or bullied, or we overcommit ourselves because we can’t say no.
Healthy boundaries work under most circumstances unless you are dealing with a major offender—someone who attacks you (physically, sexually, verbally, emotionally or psychologically) with great power. In such cases, you may need a wall.
Or if someone becomes angry and refuses to honor your feelings and requests, you may need to use a wall. Being nice and letting the person abuse you without mentioning it, so as not to hurt the person’s feelings, doesn’t work. An offender will not pay any attention to your niceness, and a wall will stop some people who will not pay attention to your emotions or wishes otherwise.
Source: Compelled To Control by J. Keith Miller (Health Communications, Inc.)