What comes to mind when you hear the word boundary?
Quite literally, boundaries are lines. They keep things in or out. They help us communicate yes or no.
In our relationships, boundaries are the limits, rules and expectations we set for ourselves and others.
On paper, they seem pretty straightforward. IRL? Things often feel a little less black and white.
In part, this is because we all have different preferences about boundaries and different processes for setting them. Our boundaries are shaped by our culture, our families, our past experiences, our attachment styles, how entitled we feel to them, and how capable we feel of sharing them.
What’s Your Boundary Style?
Knowing that boundaries help us say “yes” or “no” let’s think of boundaries as existing on a spectrum. On one end is the NO category: rigid boundaries. On the other end is the YES category: porous boundaries.
If you struggle with boundaries, it can be helpful to identify your boundary style so you can be aware of it and practice setting boundaries from a balanced and centered place.
People with rigid boundaries:
Tend to say “no” more than they say “yes”
Are skeptical of others / others have to “earn” their trust
Are uncomfortable sharing personal information about emotions, family, etc.
Tend to take on challenges on their own
Put up walls to “keep people out”
Have low expectations of others
If you lean toward the rigid boundaries end of the spectrum you may also experience increased muscle tension or discomfort with physical touch. Your body language might say to others that you don’t want to be approached.
People with porous boundaries:
Tend to say “yes” more than they say “no”
Have difficulty expressing disagreement
Are compelled to please others
Fear abandonment / rejection
Tend to overshare early in relationships
Rely on others for advice and direction
If you lean toward the porous boundaries end of the spectrum you may feel lax in your muscles or “collapsed”. Your body language might express fear and insecurity. You might identify with the term “codependent”.
People with pendulating boundaries bounce back and forth between rigid and porous boundaries. They may open up and be vulnerable, and then quickly shut down and shut others out.
If you have pendulating boundaries, you might find your ability to set boundaries depends on whether you feel safe or are triggered, as well as other life factors that impact your emotions and stress level.
People with pendulating boundaries often report feeling disconnected from their bodies. You might be most aware of discomfort in your body. You might come across as "flighty" or "chaotic" to others..
It’s All About Balance
When I shared these categories with a client recently, they asked “Is this just another way to describe attachment styles?”
In a way, yes, and in a way, no.
A quick Dr. Google led me to a research article that described boundaries as the “observable manifestations of an individual attachment style/internal working model."
In other words, boundaries are one piece of our attachment style. Boundaries can give us a lot of data about our inner world, trust in relationships, and capacity to self-regulate during relational stress.
I’m always drawn back to the quote by Embodiment teacher Prentis Hemphill:
“Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.”
Prentis’ words remind me that rather than any one point on the boundary spectrum being “right,” boundaries are about balance. Boundaries are what help us engage in two very important pieces of life: maintaining a relationship with ourselves and maintaining relationships with other people.
While rigid boundaries may ensure that you are more protected from the harm that others can cause, the rigidity means you have to abandon the parts of yourself who desire and truly need connection to thrive.
And while a lack of boundaries may keep you in connection with other people, the porousness means that you also have to abandon parts of yourself who need your attention and leadership.
Practices for Your Boundary Style
Porous Boundary Tips
Another way to think of people who have porous boundaries is “underbounded.” If you are underbounded you likely feel focused on what other people want. You might feel outside of, or even in front of, your body somatically/metaphorically speaking.
For people with porous boundaries, it is important to remember that you are the only one who can ultimately make sure your boundaries are respected. If someone crosses your boundaries, it’s your responsibility to decide what you do with that. It can be hard to hold people accountable to your boundaries if your habit is to prioritize other people's needs.
Practice grounding techniques that help you feel strong, capable, and empowered, or bound to something (in a safe and comforting way). Practices like pressing your hands into a wall or leaning against a wall can give you an embodied sense of power or support. If there are other things that help you feel strong, such as lifting weights, running, singing or dancing, these are great things to practice while keeping your right to boundaries in mind.
Rigid Boundary Tips
People who have rigid boundaries can also be thought of as “overbounded.” You might feel tense around others, more of an observer than a participant, or as though no one could ever really know you.
If you are overbounded, it’s important to trust that the discomfort you experience in intimacy isn’t always a danger signal. Having a growth mindset can be helpful to trust that closeness can feel different in the future. But you don’t have to force yourself to swing in the opposite direction. You can control the pace at which you open up and who/where you do it. And there will absolutely be times where you can lean on your ability to hold boundaries.
You can practice grounding techniques that help you tolerate the physical discomfort that comes with vulnerability. Pay attention to the sensations you feel in your body while also paying attention to things that communicate safety to you: look around the room to help your body remember where you are, let yourself pace or shake it out, or explore having a fidget toy in your hands.
Pendulating Boundary Tips
If you pendulate between rigid and porous boundaries you might not feel like you know yourself very well. People might describe you as unpredictable. You mean well, but you never quite feel centered.
The beautiful thing about pendulating boundaries is you have access to setting boundaries and being flexible. Both are important, but the key is to choose the best type of boundary for the situation and your needs.
You can practice things that require balance. It can be as simple as standing on one leg. Make it harder by bringing your eyes higher up a wall or closing them completely. You can also explore balance by moving side to side and occasionally stopping at different points along the way.
In Your Relationships
Regardless of your boundary style, trust that balance will take time. As Dick Schwartz, Internal Family Systems Therapist says, slow is fast. You don’t have to push yourself over the edge.
If you have porous boundaries, challenge yourself to pause before saying yes or taking something on. Try saying, “Let me think about it/check my calendar and get back to you.”
If you have rigid boundaries, challenge yourself to first open up to people where you feel safer or safe enough. Work your way up like you’re climbing a ladder.
In your relationships you can “name” where you are, metaphorically speaking, and advocate for yourself. Likewise, you can acknowledge and honor your partner’s attempts to grow by meeting them in the middle.
When partners have different boundary styles (or different attachment styles) things often feel like tug of war. But in order to move forward, you both have to drop the rope.
Because therapists can’t get enough of metaphors, I explained it to a client with porous boundaries and an anxious attachment style this way: as your avoidant attachment styled partner works towards being more comfortable with vulnerability and intimacy, you have to let them get comfortable with the temperature of the water. Right now, the water feels really cold, and they are just beginning to dip their toes in. If you throw them into the deep end, they’re just going to climb out of the water and want to leave because they’ll feel disrespected.
I could add on to this metaphor by saying to the partner with an avoidant attachment style and rigid boundaries that their anxious attachment style partner kind of feels like going to the beach or pool and refusing to swim. Why be in a relationship if we can’t enjoy the closeness of it?
Remember, our boundary styles are shaped by a number of factors, including our past experiences. While boundaries are protective - they protect us from being taken advantage of, and they also protect us from being alone - they are also connective. They help us celebrate what is ours as much as they help us communicate what is mine.
Balanced and Centered Boundaries
Boundaries require inner strength. Both setting them and respecting them for others.
Setting boundaries is easier when you are clear on your identity, values, and self-worth. You know where to pull from.
Respecting other people's boundaries is easier when you feel secure in who you are. Your self-perception is less susceptible to the insecurity that someone's boundary means something about you.
Somatic skills can be a huge help in identifying your values and feeling more confident about who you are.
If you're mixed race or in an interracial relationship and you want to work on uncovering who you are underneath your trauma, feel more confident, and build thriving relationships, schedule a free consultation for therapy today.
Photo by sergio souza: https://www.pexels.com/photo/top-view-photo-of-basketball-court-2291004/