Posted on 31st March 2021 at 16:06
The term 'boundaries' is another that has moved from therapy parlance into everyday dialogue and as with other such terms, has suffered some misinterpretation - and therefore misuse - in the transition. It is frequently interpreted as keeping people out or under our influence when, in fact, it is more to do with keeping us in.
How comfortable we are asserting ourselves, articulating our feelings and expressing our needs starts very early in our development. Paediatrician and child psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott (1896-1971) described the first three years of life as one of the most critical and precarious stages of development when an infant grows into a child, with an increasingly separate sense of self in relation to others. In the early stages of infancy (up to 6 months), a baby is unable to differentiate between itself and its mother in what Winnicott described as merging. The infant is unable to distinguish between the “me” and “not me”.  ‘Good enough’ parenting in a holding and nurturing environment, allows the infant a personal existence to build a continuity of being that in turn, allows individuality and a true self to emerge. Impingements to this process through lack of ‘good enough’ caregiving, does not allow continuity of being and the personality is built on reactions to this impingement, forming the basis of false self living. 
Another paediatrician and child psychoanalyst, Margaret Mahler (1897–1986), used the term separation-individuation to describe how an infant maps its sense of self in relation to others through interactions with caregivers from birth to three years of age. By placing relationships in a central role in development, Mahler believed that how we integrate pleasant and frustrating aspects of our experiences with another person, leads to a stable sense of self that can tolerate fluctuating emotional states within the self and with others.
So when we feel others are violating our space or pushing our boundaries, it may mean we have not been able to define where they stop and where we begin. We think that it is others that make us feel and believe things. What may instead be happening, is that we are reacting to having chosen to appease someone out of duty, fear, guilt, co-dependency, perhaps even survival. Construction of an appropriate boundary relies on our sense of true self and deployment of agency, that is,our ability of to act independently and freely make our own choices. It enables us to press pause to allow ourselves time to assess and consider whether someone’s request or demand is within our capacity and aligns with our core values. Let’s take a workplace example of when a colleague comes to you with a problem they are having and you feel obliged to drop what you are doing and help them. You spend so much time helping that person with their problem that you are now behind in your own work and are feeling stressed and under pressure. If you have been identifed as a helpful type, you may have more than one person making such requests in any given day. Consider pressing pause when your colleague presents their problem. First assess the urgency of the problem and whether the person bringing it has the capacity to solve it themselves. If so, tell them to leave their request with you and you will get back to them naming a time that suits you. You are not saying no (and then feeling guilty about that) but you are telling the person you will help them a time that suits you. It is up to the other person then to try and solve it themselves, find someone else to help them or hold their tension and come back to you at the appointed time. Taking this approach consistently, will manage the expectations of the other person and may lead to a change in their behaviour but the behaviour change came from you first by setting the boundary to protect your time and productivity.
This is an example of a physical boundary as it involves your time and space. Our body is also a physical space and examples of violations to that boundary include standing too close, inappropriate touching, barging into our office/room when the door is closed. Privacy is also a physical boundary, shared in these examples, but also includes actions like someone looking through our phone, opening our mail or reading our diary without our explicit permission or through a sense of entitlement.
Emotional boundaries require us to separate our feelings from another person’s feelings. We allow them to be violated when we allow them to be dictated by others, when we sarcrifice our own needs to please or submit to another, when we blame others for our problems or take on responsibility for theirs. 
Setting boundaries is part and parcel of building resilience and preventing burnout. There are variations regarding how boundaries are managed among genders and within families, cultures and professions  a discussion of which is beyond a short article such as this. Perhaps just to add here though that the theories of Winnicott and Mahler mentioned above, reflect the value of an individual self, functioning independently in the presence of others, a view characteristic of Western cultures. Interdependence and connection to others are valued in some non-Western cultures however, and centre around interpersonal awareness of the self with others and where self-esteem is measured by the ability to fit in and promote cultural activities that keep relationships in harmony. 
Finally, a mention of boundaries in the therapeutic relationship between therapist and client/patient. In terms of the therapist, it centres around the ethics code of “do no harm.” Boundaries also maintain the framework of the therapeutic agreement that protects both parties, provides clarity and enables the work to take place. An appointment is made and basic information is taken to confirm identity (name, date of birth, address) and enable further care if required (e.g. GP details). Consent is obtained to hold details in line with GDPR requirements and the law of the land. In the private sector, an appointment is paid for at the time of booking or attendance. The content of the session is focused on the client and their experiences.
To sum up, we are in charge of establishing healthy boundaries to protect our self-esteem and our identity as an individual, with the right to practice free choice. Our success at doing this has its roots in early infant development. Most of us experience difficulty in setting healthy boundaries all of the time or when to identify when our boundaries are being crossed. Concern regarding the effect on a particular relationship is a common theme. If you feel you need some support in this area, please get in touch here.
1. Winnicott., D.W. (1960) The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship. In The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment. London. Karnac (1984) Pp.37-55
2. Winnicott., D.W. (1958) The Capacity to be Alone. in The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment. London. Karnac (1984) Pp.29-36
3. Mahler, M. S., Pine, F., and Bergman, A. (1975). The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant; New York: Basic Books
4. Camin, S. Setting Emotional Boundaries in Relationships https://roadtogrowthcounseling.com/importance-boundaries-relationships/
5. Knapp, S. J., Gottlieb, M. C., & Handelsman, M. M. (2015). Boundary issues. In S. J. Knapp, M. C. Gottlieb, & M. M. Handelsman, Ethical dilemmas in psychotherapy: Positive approaches to decision making (p. 101–115). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/14670-007
6. Matsumoto, D., Kitayama, S., and Markus, H. (1994). Culture and the Self: How Cultures Influence the Way We View Ourselves." in People, ed. D. Matsumoto. California: Brooks Cole.
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