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Healthy & Unhealthy Boundaries — Their Impact on Our Lives

25Nov 2007

I’ve been thinking about boundaries lately, and observing how significantly they impact our daily lives. The lack of boundaries in relationships (or attempts to overstep established boundaries) seem to be a frequent cause of relational tension.

Obviously, there are different levels at which to consider boundaries — at the geopolitical level (e.g. the border between the United States and Mexico), in interpersonal relationships (as wonderfully explained by Cloud and Townsend in their books), and even our physical bodies (our skin provides a boundary between our body and the world around us).

I would like to use the example of our physical body to illustrate a few points about some characteristics of boundaries, and the purposes of boundaries.

First, we need to acknowledge that one purpose of a boundary is to distinguish between A (an object or person)and non-A. This is my body and it is not the same entity as the environment around it. I am me, and I am not you. We are separate beings. Although this seems simple and straightforward, there are many examples and levels at which distinguishing between A and non-A is not that clear cut. When I breathe in, is the air that is in my lungs part of me or is it still separate from me? When I perspire, at what point does the moisture cease to be part of me? The reason this issue needs to be addressed relates directly to the second point about boundaries.

Boundaries serve as a permeable “border” through which we both protect ourselves from the environment and also the mechanism through which we obtain resources and sustenance. Our skin is not a solid piece of fabric which keeps everything out nor keeps everything in. It allows the flow of information and resources between our body and the world around us — it takes in information and things we need (sunlight, moisture) and exhales information (redness of skin when irritated) and unnecessary materials. This is true in relationships as well, either at the personal level, organizationally and politically.  We do not exist as self-sufficient beings independent from the world around us.  We interact and interchange with those around us — this is the nature of relationship.

In organizations (companies, community groups, churches, etc.) , boundaries (sometimes known as membership) help define who is and who is not part of the group.  Who can participate?  Who can provide input for direction?  Who has the rights of membership?  Who, as leaders, are we to care for and look after?  If membership in a group is unclear, then the processes of the organization become confusing and the resources can be squandered on those who are really not a part of the team.  What is required of members — what resources are they expected to bring to the organization?

Boundaries have a very direct relationship to responsibility (and often in the context of role definitiion).  What (or for whom) am I responsible?  I often see the issue of responsibility become a major source of tension in relationships — within families, family-owned businesses, companies, between businesses and customers, and businesses and vendors.  Individuals and companies who do a good job of clarifying expectations and responsibility in their relationships with others tend to have happier, non-conflictual relationships.

Let me cite some common problems with boundaries that I observe.

  1. Parents continuing to take responsibility for their children’s lives, in inappropriate ways or beyond the normal stage of life for that responsibility.  Most commonly, parents of adult children continue to take responsibility for their children’s financial well-being — rescuing them from a series of poor decisions or “helping them out” so their children will not have to experience some difficulty in their lives.

  2. Children placing responsibility (or blame) on their parents for their (the child’s) life experience.  Sometimes this is financial (“I lost my cell phone but don’t have the money to replace it.  You have money.  Therefore, you should get me a new phone.”)  But it is often at the emotional level — “I’m not happy.  I want x.  If you really cared about me, you would do x for me.  Then I’ll be happy.” 

  3. Family members confusing family and business roles.  One of the core challenges of family owned businesses is clarifying and maintaining appropriate boundaries between the family system and the business systems (ownership and management).  Often I see patriarchs wanting to help their adult children earn a good living (better than they would be able to get on their own in the marketplace) and put them in a position within the business that the individual is not qualified to handle responsibly — to the detriment of the business.  As a business owner, this is their right.  They can do whatever they want with the business they own.  However, in addition to hurting the business, this choice often leads to unintended negative consequences within the family and also often undermines the personal development of their child.

I would encourage you to reflect on the relationships in your life and examine the boundaries you have established (or attempt to).  Is the boundary too permeable?  Do you let in “toxins” from others that you need to keep out?  Or do you create such a firm boundary, keeping others at a distance and not letting them “in”, that you isolate yourself from the resources you need to live a healthy life?  Do you feel others try to place responsibility (or blame) on you that really isn’t yours to carry?  [If so, you may want to review my previous entries on dealing with dysfunctional individuals.] Additionally, in your work, pay attention to the relationships your company or organization has with others.  Are the boundaries well defined?  Is it clear who is responsible for what?  If you have ongoing conflicts with customers, vendors or strategic partners, then I would suggest you need to look closely at your boundaries, or how they are not being clearly communicated to others.

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