The cells in every tissue and organ of your body have boundaries, too—semi-permeable membranes that selectively allow in certain substances while remaining closed off to others. It’s a way of being conditionally open, so as to maintain a balanced equilibrium internally.
Psychologically, people aren’t much different. If too much is coming in (other people’s needs, criticisms, control, etc.) you are likely to feel overwhelmed, supersensitive, stressed out, anxious, flooded with negative emotions, on edge, or even a little numb. Everything is too much—you may find yourself overeating to fill the void, self-medicating, overworking, overextending yourself, or feeling like life is one drama after another, with people’s emotions so close they almost feel like they could be your own.
While a porous membrane between you and the big wide world puts you in closer contact with everyone and everything else, it also shuts you out—from yourself. Being disconnected from your own needs, you may even subconsciously hope that letting others walk all over you will somehow redeem you, give you value, or inspire others to take care of you. Weak boundaries, whatever they are, result in an energy imbalance.
People with poorly defined boundaries may constantly feel exhausted. Why wouldn’t you? If your energy is constantly being used to further someone else’s agenda, while your own goals go ignored, how could you feel anything other than depleted and run-down?
Overly rigid boundaries signal an energy imbalance, as well. A cell in the body may be too open to water and absorb it indiscriminately, leading it to swell and swell, eventually bursting. But a membrane that never allows any water to enter will suffer the opposite problem: it will slowly start to shrivel and shrink. The psychological equivalent is loneliness.
Some people shut out what is hurtful and harmful, but go too far and shut out the good and the bad. By closing themselves off to everything, they lose out on intimacy, closeness to others, a sense of community, a feeling of belonging, and being appreciated, witnessed, and valued by the group.
Loneliness, isolation, and deep feelings of alienation can all arise from boundaries that lack flexibility. This is the person who errs on the side of saying “no,” never takes risks, never allows themselves to trust others, and defaults to the position of thinking that everything in life is a potential threat, rather than practicing discernment according to their needs. Black-and-white thinking leaves no room for compromise, for patience, for tolerance, or for a resilient attitude—or even for fun and a sense of humor! We simply say, “I can’t cope with that,” and turn away from it—even if the thing we are turning away from is what we want deep down.
Those with healthy boundaries understand that there is always an implicit cost to intimacy—it’s the risk of being vulnerable. In loving, we always open ourselves up to losing that love. In showing ourselves to others, we risk them rejecting us. Nevertheless, human beings are not islands—a mature person understands that sooner or later, the potential pain of being social with other flawed human beings is worth the almost infinite benefits.
Overly rigid boundaries come with enormous anxiety and responsibility—a deep distrust and suspicion in the world and in others. These are the people who shoulder everything themselves, never asking for help, bravely marching on alone. Sometimes, we think of empowered people as pure individualists who need no one and who build their own way in life with zero help. But this is not a superpower. This is actually the picture of a person who is afraid of intimacy, and who is weaker because of this fear.
An empowered person is someone who knows how and when to ask for help, how and when to show vulnerability, and how and when to take a rest and let others care for them. While those with overly porous boundaries can get overwhelmed in others, losing any idea of themselves and their own needs, the person with overly rigid boundaries can feel like their small self is all they have in this big, anonymous world—a self that is unconnected, unloved, irrelevant to anything or anyone else. You never open up to others and they never open up to you. You live in world of strangers, like an alien amongst humans, with nobody to share yourself with.
Between these two unhappy extremes is where the healthy person lives. Their boundaries are those in the perfect Goldilocks zone—firm enough to keep you feeling comfortable, respected, and safe from all of those things that could potentially drain or harm you, and yet flexible and permeable enough to allow in love and intimacy from those people who you want to be close to. And here lies the real magic of good boundaries: the thing that keeps out the bad, but lets in the good, is the same thing.
This bears some careful thinking. One strategy is to open up all the way and let everything in (including the bad); the other is to close all the way and leave everything out (including the good). The longer a person has practiced one or the other, the harder will it be to snap out of it and learn to live in the mean. Old habits die hard, but the effort will be worth the fulfilling life that comes with healthy boundaries.
The lesson here is that to become boundary masters, we need to learn to work in the grey areas, in the wiggle room in between extremes, and in those nuanced spaces. We also need to understand some core truths about what it means to be human: that we are both individuals and social beings. That we are all alone and sufficient unto ourselves, and we are also desperately and forever interconnected with one another. That sometimes, being close and intimate is scary, and sometimes being a proud individual is lonely and pointless—and that we can navigate all of these things if we know ourselves and constantly commit to serving our own needs as we serve others.
It’s at the boundary between self and other that all of the interesting life stuff happens. If you have boundary issues, understand that you don’t merely have a psychological quirk that needs fixing—rather, you are doing important work in one of the most fundamental areas of the human experience. Remember to have compassion for yourself, as well as for others, as you figure it all out!