Personal Boundaries and Authenticity

In my work as a counselor, I sometimes meet persons who are confused about personal boundaries. Poorly defined personal boundaries make our lives unnecessarily difficult, and they thwart our authentic expression. Given that having defined, yet flexible boundaries is a skill of personal authenticity (see Some Psychological Skills which Enable Authentic Living), it warrants that we take a closer look at boundaries.

Boundaries give definition to things. Boundaries enable us to perceive objects, for without boundaries, our senses could not discriminate one thing from another. Whatever exists as a separate object, exists by virtue of its boundaries (i.e, atoms and living cells). Even experiences have boundaries which are their beginnings and ends.

Boundaries articulate differences. Personal boundaries define where you and I begin and end. They articulate the differences between you and I which render our uniqueness. As persons, we appropriately have boundaries around the different domains of our life experience including: spiritual (including beliefs, practices), intellectual (opinions, values, thoughts), emotional (feelings, emotional ‘space’), physical, and possessions (including time and money).

In practice this means, my spiritual beliefs and practices may differ from yours, as may my political views, philosophy, and point of view on any matter. We may feel differently about this or that. We may touch, when permitted. Our possessions are our own; we may share them or not, as we choose.

We might say that we have a healthy sense of boundaries when we respect the boundaries of others. We accept the uniqueness which Being manifests through others, and therefore allow others to think, feel, and act differently than ourselves. We do not pressure others to conform with our viewpoint, for to do so would be a boundary violation.

Similarly healthy boundaries also demonstrate as our respect for our very own personal boundaries. It is okay that we believe, think, value, feel, and act differently than others. That is our privilege, just as it is the privilege of others to be themselves.

Sometimes others will ridicule us for thinking as we do. Sometimes others may laugh at our feelings, perhaps suggesting we’re crazy for feeling as we do. At other times they may blame us for their own feelings, “What you did made me feel “X”. When so coerced or blamed, we can invite others to see a therapist, for we are comfortable with the truth of our own experience, and we are not responsible for how others react.

Healthy boundaries are flexible. Inflexible boundaries are walls which seal us like closed systems from growth and mutual enrichment. In nature, closed system decay into chaos; open systems thrive and grow. The earth itself is an open system which receives energy from the sun.

In relationship, we are not two circles relentlessly bumping into each other. We are not “boundary cops” who ceaselessly patrol for boundary violations. Instead we might be thought of as two interpenetrating spheres of living experience whose flexible boundaries share and negotiate together our experience.

Relationship sometimes allows us to enjoy the fulfillment of dropping boundaries, coming together, and merging. Yet we remember that merging again will be followed by separation and the resumption of boundaries. Although in relationship, still we also live individual lives which may express through different career paths, interests, and circles of friends.

Beneath the veil of appearances and boundaries, a unity of Being exists which spiritual and contemplative traditions suggest we can experience personally. To experience that unity, the ego and its inherent boundaries must drop. Yet before the ego can be dropped, it must first exist.

Do you respect your own boundaries and the boundaries of others? Are your boundaries flexible or inflexible?

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