Bound•ary noun ˈbau̇n-d(ə-)rē
Something that shows where an area ends and another area begins; a point or limit that indicates where two things become different.
Merriam-Webster’s definition of boundary elicits images of a line, a fence, a border, some form of demarcation: this thing ends here and that thing begins there. Boundaries exist within relationships, too: this person ends here and that person begins there. We all have boundaries – ideas of where I end and another person begins – and those boundaries vary widely. Where do our boundaries come from? The families we grew up in (our “family of origin”), the experiences in our lives, our culture, our religion, our personalities – all of these and more influence the boundaries we have (or don’t have).
Dr. Nina Brown, a counselor, professor and prolific author, describes 4 types of boundaries people have: soft, rigid, spongy, or flexible. She expounds on these concepts in her book Coping with Infuriating, Mean, Critical People and includes some questions to help identify which boundaries you tend to use.
Brown describes soft boundaries as those that are blended with others’ boundaries. It’s difficult to tell where one person ends and the other begins.
Is it difficult for you to say no and/or to follow through with it?
Do you think you have too much empathy for others?
Do you get caught up in others’ emotions and find it difficult to let go of them?
Do others take advantage of you because you are softhearted?
Do you feel compelled to help someone else feel better when they’re in distress?
If you answered yes to the questions above then you likely have soft boundaries.
Rigid boundaries are the opposite of soft boundaries. Rigid boundaries are strong, hard, clearly defined and enforced lines between people. Everything and everyone is kept out and away.
Is it easier to say no than yes when asked to do something (even a social activity)?
Do you keep to yourself?
Would others say that it’s hard to get close to you or connect with you?
Are you afraid of being hurt or of not knowing who you can trust?
An answer of yes to these questions may show that your boundaries are generally rigid.
People with spongy boundaries have a combination of soft and rigid boundaries (like a sponge) but do not control what comes in or gets blocked. Boundaries are inconsistent and can be erratic.
Do others say that you are wishy washy or that they don’t know when you can be approached?
Do you wonder why you let some people take advantage of you but not others?
Do you often think that you can connect to someone but then are unable to?
At times do you feel walled off from others?
Do you feel uneasy or worried about getting caught up in or overwhelmed by others’ emotions?
Again, answering yes is a sign that you may be living with spongy boundaries.
Brown’s final type is the goal for healthy relationships and life – flexible boundaries. People with flexible boundaries decide what and who to let in and what and who to keep out. Flexible boundaries have elements of control, intentionality and choice. Some questions to consider are:
Do you make choices/decisions about what you will or will not do?
Are you able to say no and stick to it?
Can you keep shame and guilt at bay when others try to manipulate you?
Do you rarely find yourself doing things you do not wish to do?
Do you see others as separate and distinct from yourself?
Can you receive support and help from others?
Answering yes to these questions is a worthy goal if yes is not the answer at this time.
As author Nathaniel Branden has said, “The first step toward change is awareness.” As we are aware of different types of boundaries and which ones we generally use, we can begin to choose other ways of relating – of defining where I end and another person begins – in a productive, healthy way.