Managing Interpersonal Boundaries

This article is by Tom Horvath, PhD, ABPP and published by Practical Recovery


Interpersonal boundaries are part of the rules we establish about how we interact with other people. In this blog we focus on protecting ourselves from the outside. In a parallel blog we focused on keeping inside what needs to stay there. In both cases we can compare interpersonal boundaries to a house, which protects us from the outside, and keeps inside what needs to be there.

We prevent violations to ourselves by establishing and managing 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 often is 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?

Managing boundaries can become highly complex depending on the authority relationship we have with an individual, particularly if we are younger and inexperienced about relationships. Even though an individual may have legitimate authority over some aspects of my life, it does not mean that individual has authority over other aspects of my life. For instance, a physician has been authorized to touch me in highly personal ways as part of a physical exam, but not to touch me in all ways. If as a younger person I allowed someone to violate my boundaries, because I did not fully understand the situation, I nevertheless can maintain healthier boundaries now.

To summarize: 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.

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