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Boundaries and Dysfunctional Family Systems

A boundary is a barrier; something that separates two things. Walls, fences and cell membranes are examples of physical boundaries. Psychological boundaries can be said to exist too, even though such boundaries have no physical reality. Psychological boundaries are constructed of ideas, perceptions, beliefs and understandings that enable people to define not only their social group memberships, but also their own self-concepts and identities. Such boundaries are the basis by which people distinguish between “We” or “I” (group members; insiders; part of “Us”) and “Other” (outsiders and examples of what is “not-self”). Each person can be said to have a psychological identity boundary around themselves by which they distinguish themselves from other people. Like other boundaries, this identity boundary both separates people and also defines how they are linked together. This is to say that the act of drawing the boundary itself provides the basis for saying that one person is separate from another psychologically, but does so only by drawing a distinction between those two people, which implies a relationship, never the less. Self cannot exist without also “Not-self” existing, just as figure cannot exist without ground against which to contrast. Identity necessarily includes social relationships which are built into the self to varying degrees.

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10 Laws of Boundaries

Ten Laws of Boundaries

According to the authors, John Townsend and Henry Cloud, there are ten laws of boundaries:

  • The Law Of Sowing and Reaping – Actions have consequences.     If someone in your life is sowing anger, selfishness, and abuse at you, are you setting boundaries against it?  Or are they getting away with not reaping (or paying the consequences for) what he/she sowed?
  • The Law of Responsibility – We are responsible TO each other, not FOR each other.   This law means that each person refuses to rescue or enable another’s immature behavior.
  • The Law of Power – We have power over some things, we don’t have power over others (including changing people).  It is human nature to try to change and fix others so that we can be more comfortable.  We can’t change or fix anyone – but we do have the power to change our own life.
  • The Law of Respect – If we wish for others to respect our boundaries, we need to respect theirs.  If someone in your life is a rager, you should not dictate to him/her all the reasons that they can’t be angry.  A person should have the freedom to to protest the things they don’t like. But at the same time, we can honor our own boundary by telling them, “Your raging at me is not acceptable to me.  If you continue to rage, I will have to remove myself from you.”
  • The Law of Motivation – We must be free to say “no” before we can wholeheartedly say “yes”.One can not actually love another if he feels he doesn’t have a choice not to. Pay attention to your motives.
  • The Law of Evaluation – We need to evaluate the pain our boundaries cause others.  Do our boundaries cause pain that leads to injury?  Or do they cause pain that leads to growth? 
  • The Law of Proactivity – We take action to solve problems based on our values, wants, and needs.  Proactive people keep their freedom and they disagree and confront issues but are able to do so without getting caught up in an emotional storm.  This law has to do with taking action based on deliberate, thought-out values versus emotional reactions.
  • The Law of Envy – We will never get what we want if we focus our boundaries onto what others have.    Envy is miserable because we’re dissatisfied with our state yet powerless to change it.  The envious person doesn’t set limits because he is not looking at himself long enough to figure out what choices he has.
  • The Law of Activity – We need to take the initiative to solve our problems rather than being passive.In a dysfunctional relationship, sometimes one person is active and the other is passive.  When this occurs, the active person will dominate the passive one.  The passive person may be too intimidated by the active one to say no.  This law has to do with taking initiative rather than being passive and waiting for someone else to make the first move.
  • The Law of Exposure – We need to communicate our boundaries.   A boundary that is not communicated is a boundary that is not working. We need to make clear what we do or do not want, and what we will or will not tolerate.  We need to also make clear that every boundary violation has a consequence.  A boundary without a consequence is nagging.

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Boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify for themselves what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around them and how they will respond when someone steps outside those limits. Boundaries are not rules for someone else to follow.

You’ll see the word  “boundaries” quite frequently here at Out of the FOG.  Sometimes they’ll be described in terms of  “your stuff<—//—>my stuff.”  But what does that mean?  It means the ability to recognize what is our responsibility (and what is truly within our power to control) and what isn’t.  Boundaries are an essential ingredient to creating a healthy self . They define the relationship between you and everyone else around you. 

Healthy boundaries help us to create our own destiny. They ensure that we are taking responsibility for our own lives; that we knowingly accept the consequences and/or reap the benefits of our choices. And, just as importantly, they ensure that we let others do the same for themselves.  

Boundaries are not an attempt to make someone do something. They are not about getting the other person to understand and comply. Boundaries are about us getting clear inside of ourselves as to what is appropriate and necessary for our mental health, and then taking action accordingly.

A key to boundaries is knowing your inner self: your beliefs, desires, needs, and intuitions.  When you know your inner self, it will become nearly impossible for someone else to manipulate you.  None of us who were controlled by someone with a personality disorder had healthy boundaries in place.


Personal boundaries

Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify for themselves what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around him or her and how they will respond when someone steps outside those limits.[1] They are built out of a mix of conclusions, beliefs, opinions, attitudes, past experiences and social learning.[2][3][unreliable source?]

According to some in the counseling profession, personal boundaries help to define an individual by outlining likes and dislikes, and setting the distances one allows others to approach.[4] They include physical, mental, psychological and spiritual boundaries, involving beliefs, emotions, intuitions and self-esteem.[5] Jacques Lacan considered them to be layered in a hierarchy, reflecting “all the successive envelopes of the biological and social status of the person”[6] from the most primitive to the most advanced.

Personal boundaries operate in two directions, affecting both the incoming and outgoing interactions between people.[7] These are sometimes referred to as the ‘protection’ and ‘containment’ functions.[8]


According to Nina Brown’s self-help book, there are four main types of psychological boundary:[9]

  • Soft – A person with soft boundaries merges with other people’s boundaries. Someone with a soft boundary is easily a victim of psychological manipulation.
  • Spongy – A person with spongy boundaries is like a combination of having soft and rigid boundaries. They permit less emotional contagion than soft boundaries but more than those with rigid. People with spongy boundaries are unsure of what to let in and what to keep out.
  • Rigid – A person with rigid boundaries is closed or walled off so nobody can get close to him/her either physically or emotionally. This is often the case if someone has been the victim of physical abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse, or sexual abuse. Rigid boundaries can be selective which depend on time, place or circumstances and are usually based on a bad previous experience in a similar situation.
  • Flexible – Similar to selective rigid boundaries but the person has more control. The person decides what to let in and what to keep out, is resistant to emotional contagion and psychological manipulation, and is difficult to exploit.

Gestalt therapy uses the parameters confluence/withdrawal to denote personal boundaries, the ideal of being able to move between connection and separation at will being jeopardized by either weak boundaries (and enforced confluence) or over-rigid boundaries (enforced withdrawal).[10]


According to Hotchkiss, narcissists do not recognize that they have boundaries and that others are separate and are not extensions of themselves. Others either exist to meet their needs or may as well not exist at all. Those who provide narcissistic supply to the narcissist will be treated as if they are part of the narcissist and be expected to live up to those expectations. In the mind of a narcissist there is no boundary between self and other.[11]

Loss of boundaries

Freud, following Gustave Le Bon, described the loss of conscious boundaries that could occur when an individual was caught up in a unified, fast-moving crowd.[12]

Almost a century later, Steven Pinker took up the theme of the loss of personal boundaries in a communal experience, noting that such occurrences could be triggered by intense shared ordeals like hunger, fear or pain, and that such methods were traditionally used to create liminal conditions in initiation rites.[13] Jung had described this as the absorption of identity into the collective unconscious.[14]

Rave culture has also been said to involve a dissolution of personal boundaries, and a merger into a binding sense of communality.[15]

In psychosis

The loss of personal boundaries, and the absorption of the self into a quasi-public world, is one of the key features associated with psychosis.[16]

Such boundary loss can move from the patient to the therapist in turn, to produce a temporary kind of countertransference psychosis: Carl Rogers has movingly described how in one such instance he “literally lost my “self”, lost the boundaries of myself…and I became convinced (and I think with some reason) that I was going insane”.[17]

Even on a lesser scale, without boundaries our identities become diffused – controlled by the definitions offered by others.[18]

Rebuilding boundaries

While a healthy relationship depends on the emotional space provided by personal boundaries,[19] co-dependent personalities have difficulties in setting such limits, so that defining and protecting boundaries efficiently may be for them a vital part of regaining mental health.[20]

Family therapists can help family members to develop clearer boundaries, by behaving in a well-defined way when treating them, drawing lines, and treating different generations in different compartments[21] – something especially pertinent in families where unhealthy enmeshment overrides normal personal boundaries.[22]

However, the establishment of personal boundaries in such instances may produce a negative fall-out,[23] if the pathological state of interdependence had been a central facet of the relationship.[24] This is especially true if the establishment of healthy boundaries results in limit setting which did not occur previously. It is important to distinguish between limits and boundaries in considering these situations. [25]


What some call the pop psychology truism that love requires firm personal boundaries has been criticised for promoting a kind of normalised eroticism[26] – for ignoring the role of what Bataille called ‘transgressions‘ and ‘limit-experiences’ in erotic life.[27]