Boundaries are not “Rules” or “Walls”

Boundaries are one of the most important of all the Life Skills. They are essential if you are to protect your inner child, yet if you grew up in a family environment where there were few if any boundaries, it is more than likely that you won't really know what these things are.

Boundaries are not all that easy to explain, but they are easier to demonstrate. For a start, let's look what it's like if people don't have good boundaries, because that's probably something that you will find more recognisable as a familiar situation. As Pia Melody says "It feels just like I’m back home again!".

Let's start with a couple of cases from the 2000 edition of Growing Awareness


Tina has always felt very much controlled by her mother. As a child she remembers Mum forever telling her what to do, or what not to do. Tina’s Dad got the same treatment. In fact her Dad was even more controlled than she was.

Tina tried resisting but she soon learned that the result of resistance was continued punishment, until she gave in. Today, although Tina is married with a home of her own, her mother still acts as though she has a right to do what she likes in Tina’s house. She comes to visit without asking. She buys expensive furniture and has it delivered unannounced to Tina’s house. Tina hates her mother’s choice of furniture but is unable to say “No” to what her mother describes as ‘just helpful little gifts’.

Tina’s mother insists on having her own key to Tina’s front door ‘in case of an emergency’ but Tina knows her mother often uses it to get in at times when there is no one in the house, even though there is no need for this.

Tina has a problem with her boundaries, or to be more specific, when her mother wants to control her, Tina doesn't have any boundaries. Her mother also lacks boundaries in relation to her daughter.

This, by the way, is not saying it is Tina’s fault. She grew up in a home where no-one including her mother ever used boundaries to avoid impacting on other people’s privacy. Her father had none to protect himself. Tina had no way of even learning what boundaries were, let alone how to use them!


At the pasta restaurant next to the local movie theatre a pleasant looking elderly woman sat alone at one table with a second table pulled close to it. The second table was the only one vacant so I sat down there and immediately found myself drawn into conversation.

‘Was I going to the movies? What was I seeing?’ I named one ‘Y’ and was told immediately not to waste my time on it. A better movie she insisted was ‘X’ and I was instructed to see it. I ordered my meal and went to buy my movie ticket. When I returned she leaned over, took the ticket, checked it and nodded in approval when she saw that I had decided to see ‘X’ rather than ‘Y’.

We talked (or rather she talked and I listened) until my pasta arrived, while she outlined the entire plot of movie ‘X’ and explained the surprise ending in detail. I had been eating for about a minute when to my amazement, she leaned over, grabbed the cheese dispenser off my table and poured a large amount of grated cheese over my food, explaining ‘That’s the only way to eat pasta!’

The thing that intrigued me was that this woman may have demonstrated an excellent example of a lack of boundaries, but that it had all been done with goodwill and somehow I didn’t get triggered. As well, the movie ‘X’ was one of the best I have seen. I am on a low cholesterol diet but what the heck? The cheese tasted pretty good too.

At a deeper level, what i did was to invoke my grown-up boundary system and put up a protective shield around myself and Little John to block a negative over-reaction.

Signs of weak boundaries

What common elements do you notice about the people in these two case studies?

For a start one person assumes that it is quite all right for them to invade the other person's privacy. In the case of Tina's mother she probably assumes that she has every right to do this. However, like the cheese lady they aren't always people who are setting out to be intentionally controlling, they are just people who don't know or don't understand anything about other people's privacy. That’s usually that's because when they were children nobody around them used boundaries or explained to them about privacy.

The other common element is that the person whose boundaries are violated feels helpless or unable to do anything about this. In Tina's case as a child she was punished even for attempting to create any privacy (set some boundaries) for herself.

I also grow up in a family where they were absolutely no boundaries. At that time I felt at first that there was nothing I could do to protect my privacy when the "cheese lady" was invading my boundaries. But thanks to my protective shield (my boundary system) I was able to avoid reacting and managed to laugh it off.

Walls are not boundaries

Of course I could have got angry, or demanded that she stop what she was doing. Tina could have changed the locks on the door to keep her mother out altogether.

That's putting up "walls". Walls, especially walls based on control or anger are not boundaries. They may protect us but they also cut us off from the other person. The e only time we need to create walls is when we really do want to cut ourselves off completely from someone.

Setting limits and enforceable rules

Tina could have set up some "rules" about her mother not being allowed into the house. She could have told her mother " If you ever tried to have furniture delivered to my house without asking me first I will have it sent straight back again.” Rules and limits are not boundaries. They may protect us but the only way rules work is if there is an enforceable penalty that goes with the rule. "If you don't obey the rule then I will ……”

Notice that walls and rules are rigid and don't change whereas boundaries as explained below, are easy to adjust, to turn up or down according to the situation.

Developing Good boundaries

Using boundaries is a natural and normal activity. Developing good boundaries is also part of growing your own self-awareness and self empowerment. It's always harder to try something new if we feel we have no idea of how to do it. It's even harder if we tried to do it as a child and failed, even though the reason it didn't work might not have been our fault.

Now as a grown up you have the ability to develop really good boundaries and use them to protect yourself and your Inner child.

A good boundary can be anything you do or say or think or feel as long as:

· its energy reminds you of an aware grown-up, balanced and functional

· its positive

· its adjustable according to the situation

· it works for grown-up you as a shield or protection

· your inner child feels safe and protected when you use it

Its not a boundary (even a weak one) if:

· its a wall,

· it's not adjustable according to the situation

· its a rule or a contract with penalties for non-compliance

· it's driven by negative energy, criticism and judgment or anger

· its energy reminds you of a child, particularly a vulnerable child

Apart from that a boundary can be just about anything you think or do or say or feel that protects you and your privacy and keeps you from feeling vulnerable.

Boundaries can also protect you in situations where people do things without meaning to harm you which still cause you to react by feeling powerless or result in reactions of anxiety, fear, pain, guilt, shame or vulnerability.

Boundaries work both ways

If you have a good boundary system it will also work in the opposite direction, protecting others from your negative feelings. Tina's Mother had no boundaries so her sense of low self worth even though it was hidden by her over-controlling behaviour impacted on Tina. Grown-up Tina could learn to use her boundaries to protect herself.

However, a grown-up mother could also develop boundaries and self-awareness so she could see what she was doing and keep her old fears inside her own boundary shield instead of letting them out. Boundaries are meant to work both ways.

How well are your boundaries working now?

You can tell how well your boundary system is working by which of the following levels appears to be the most common for you or is the point in life where you spend most time.

No boundaries - zero level

When someone has no boundaries they feel very unprotected and vulnerable. They will be triggered constantly by what other people do and say to them. In Tina’s story neither mother nor daughter have any boundaries. Tina does not even have a few strong protector characters that could try their particular way of defending or fixing the problem. (Active A type characters often act as substitutes for boundaries.)

Tina does however have some other protector characters who are quite active, trying to at least help her feel better, for example the ones to come out and act on the village stage in traditional roles as victim or martyr, or who try unsuccessfully to plead and bargain with her mother in a way that really only reflects Tina's sense of low self-empowerment .

First level protection -self-awareness

A first step towards self empowerment is to recognise, acknowledge and face the reality that what we thought we were using as boundaries are not working. Even a little awareness will allow you to start looking for new characters who can play a more effective role in protecting you.

These characters night for example use problem solving strategies, debate, discussion, or any one of their other hundreds of skills. Notice however that a active protector character is still only a substitute for a real boundary. The fact that it is active tells you that your boundaries are not strong enough. The protector character is all you have but it’s a step forward in growing your self-awareness .

Second level protection - dealing with enmeshment, triggers and core beliefs

Protecting yourself after you have been triggered signals the beginnings of an effective boundary system. Start by learning to unmesh yourself emotionally from the person doing the triggering and from your own feelings and reactions.

Ideally each person involved should own the triggering action and only that. If other people cannot or will not own their triggering actions, you may have to set rules law limits or develop stronger boundaries such as physical distance.

However, you are the person who needs to own your feelings, your responses, your actions, your coping patterns and anything else that you do after you have been triggered. Learn to use the nine steps in Book 2 Section 4 to help you develop better ways of dealing with things when you are triggered.

Developing stronger boundaries

Pages 7-7 to 7-9 of Growing Awareness 2000 edition, explain some practical do-yet-yourself techniques for developing your own personal boundary system. Keep trying different ones until you discover which work the best for you in different situations or with different people.

Breaking enmeshment

If, after working on your boundaries, you still feel strong discomfort, intensity, or any other kind of negative emotion around your interactions with particular people (or events or things) this tells you that you are still caught up in enmeshment. It’s like being trapped inside a net with that other person when you wished you were outside it. This tells you that your boundaries are still not working as well as they need to.

Breaking the trap of emotional enmeshment with another person allows each person the chance to develop stronger boundaries. However if you work on this for a while and find your reactions are still amplified, that is they are much more powerful than you would have expected in relation to what the person is doing, this may be a pointer towards:

* deeper issues that may require professional help to teach you to develop more powerful boundaries

* the presence of a ‘carried’ or refugee character (guilt, fear, pain or shame that you ‘carry’ but which belongs to someone else, usually a parent). It is not yours.

This too is best dealt with by working with a trained self-awareness professional who can support you in returning the exiled refugee back to its original village (not your village)

Enmeshment free

When you reach this stage you can look at the same person, listen to them and be aware of just what it was about them that used to trigger you.

You will become aware at that point that you are free of any of the old emotional enmeshment with them. Even if they do something really unpleasant, you can look at them and tell yourself, as Pia Melody puts it: ‘Just being who they are is punishment enough!’

Different kinds of boundaries - One of these will work for you

Boundaries are really just energy shields that protect you from other people’s negative energy or control. But they also work the other way, by helping you to contain your own energies on occasions when these might be too strong for others. In an ideal situation, both parties have strong enough adult boundaries to protect themselves and each other at the same time.

On pages 7-7 to 7-9 of Growing Awareness 2000 edition, you'll find suggestions for different ways to create your own boundary system.

Keep in mind that using boundaries is a natural and normal activity. Developing good boundaries is also part of growing your own self-awareness and self empowerment. One of the main reasons people don't do all this already is because no one taught them how or gave them any examples to follow. It's always harder to try something new as long as we feel we have no idea of how to do it. It's even harder if we tried to do it as a child and failed, even though the reason it didn't work might not have been our own fault at all.

Another reason is that as a child most of us were told that it was wrong, selfish, or shameful to be assertive or have our own boundaries. Many of us were severely punished for daring to try to set a boundary. That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you having strong boundaries. It's just another example of the same situation we've talked about before, in our society most people don't want a kid to feel self-empowered or to be self-aware.

Intimacy happens when we consciously turn our boundaries down

When you and I are in our impersonal energy we are either exercising strong boundaries, or, if we don't have them, setting up walls, rules and limits to protect ourselves. That's why we say that impersonal is when we are more protected but less connected.

It's different when you and I are in our personal energy and feel closer and more connected we obviously can't be using walls, rules and limits. But, what about our boundaries?

If we want a really personal connection were going to have to drop our boundaries as well. The more both people drop their boundaries, the more connected they will feel and more intimate the connection will be. This can only happen when both people feel that it's safe enough to do this together.

The wonderful thing about boundaries (unlike walls and rules) is that they are easily and infinitely adjustable. We can turn them down a bit of the time and see how it feels. If it's still feels safe we can turn them down a bit more. If we start to feel too vulnerable we can turn them up a bit or adjust them in other ways until its just right for the occasion. The big difference is that we are doing this consciously, with a strong sense of self-awareness.

Boundaries and manipulation

In situations where other people are intentionally trying to manipulate you or gain an unfair advantage over you, boundaries may not always work, since the other person's motives are essentially less than honest. I will write more about this in a separate set of notes. In the meantime you may find you have to set up some walls, make some rules, creates and contracts or apply some limits. Keep in mind that if these are going to work they have to be enforceable. If there is no real or applicable form of penalty for non-compliance then it's not likely that the dishonest manipulator is going to be stick to your unenforceable rules.

Copyright © John Nutting 1996- - 2012 and © GROWING AWARENESS 1996- - 2012 All rights reserved World Wide

LAST UPDATE Friday, 13 April 2012 09:14

Don't worry about these copyright notices at the foot of each page. It just means I want to hang on to legal ownership of what I write for use in future books. Until that day, please feel free to copy and even adapt them for your own use and for friends as long as you acknowledge me as the author and owner of the copyright and you don't charge anyone for them. If you want to use them professionally or commercially (charge a fee for them) or for clients, each sheet you hand out must include full acknowledgment of copyright ownership as above and if you are benefiting as a result, I would appreciate an appropriate sharing.

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