Many popular books have been written about boundaries.
Boundaries are extremely important and can be very subtle.
Boundaries affect every aspect of human life, and are often poorly understood.




What are Boundaries?

The dictionary defines a boundary as “something that indicates bounds or limits; a limiting, or bounding line.”

A boundary, in human terms, is where you end and I begin. To compare it to your yard, the boundary is where your yard ends and your neighbor’s yard begins. Your neighbor decides what type of flowers to grow in his or her yard; you do not tell him what to grow, and vice versa. Within relationships, it can sometimes be challenging to recognize and respect boundaries, however.

Boundaries basically mean that we respect another person’s rights. Any type of abuse would be considered a boundary violation. Being disrespectful in any way is a boundary violation. But boundary violations can be far more subtle than that.

As an example, if a parent disagrees with how an adult child is living her life, it may be tempting to try to tell the adult child what to do, but that is no longer appropriate. If the offspring is open to suggestions or advice, this is, of course, okay, but not to try to control. It can be painful to see a loved one making choices that you know will end up hurting them, and not be able to intervene. Knowing how to tread on that very fine line can be a real challenge.

When children grow into adults, the family goes through a transition, whereby the “children” become responsible for themselves, including their own mistakes. New boundaries are formed within the family, and family members must learn to relate to each other differently. Most families seem to go through this transition quite smoothly.

What is enabling?

A lot of attention was drawn to the concept of boundaries through the Al-anon movement, when the concept of “enabling” became part of our everyday language. Al-anon is a 12-step program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, and it is for the partners, friends and relatives of alcoholics. At first, people did not understand why the partners, relatives and friends of alcoholics would also need a 12-step program.

Helping someone is a positive thing. But, when one begins to take responsibility for someone else’s problems, and/or shield them from the consequences of their actions, then the other person has less pressure, less incentive, to change. Often, experiencing the consequences of their actions is the very motivation they need to change the behavior. An example would be a spouse who calls work for an alcoholic, and makes up a reason why the alcoholic spouse cannot go to work that day. As well-meaning as this can be, it makes it that much easier for the alcoholic to continue in the same course of action, because he does not need to deal with the situation, the consequences of his actions.

Of course, boundaries are not only important in the realm of alcohol abuse; this is merely being used as an example.

Alcoholics Anonymous: The Serenity Prayer

Alcoholics Anonymous, or A.A., is a wonderful organization that has helped thousands, probably millions of people. The Serenity Prayer is in some ways the cornerstone of the A.A. philosophy:

God grant me the serenity

To accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

This prayer is many things, but it is partially a prayer about boundaries. To know the difference between the things I can and cannot change, is very important for all of us.

Usually the things we can change have to do with ourselves. The things we cannot change have to do with other people. We cannot change other people’s choices, decisions, problems, or the situations they choose. We do not have the power to change them. Even if we did, it would be a disservice to them, because it would be taking away the other person’s opportunity to learn and grow. In the long run, it would not really be helping them.

Each person must confront and solve his or her own problems. Again, this does not mean that you cannot help. If someone asks, “Would you give me a ride to my A.A meeting, I have no way to get there,” it can be very appropriate to say yes. However, it would not be appropriate to say, “I am going to wait until the end, and drive you home, because you might leave early, and you really need this meeting.” It would be appropriate, if you wish, to ask if they would also like a ride home. If the answer is no, it can be quite appropriate to say, “OK. Please let me know if you need a ride again. I am more than happy to drive you.” In this case, the person has asked for help, and is not asking you to take responsibility for his issues.

It is basically the difference between helping, or offering advice, and trying to control.

Internal Boundaries

So far we have discussed interpersonal boundaries. However, there are internal boundaries, which develop as we grow from babies to children and into adults. If a child grows up being treated with love and understanding, he/she will develop healthy boundaries. However, if there is trauma, abuse or mistreatment of any kind, the child may grow up to have poorly defined boundaries, which will affect everything he or she thinks and feels.

For example, someone who has been abused may have difficulty distinguishing what is appropriate in a relationship. He or she may project his fears onto other people, finding it difficult to trust anyone, and may misunderstand what others are saying or doing. In the reverse, the person may project positive hopes and fantasies onto someone he or she does not know well, imagining the person has all types of qualities that he or she does not really have; it may be difficult to assess whether the other person is sincere or trustworthy.

These are some obvious signs of faulty internal boundaries. But we have all had the experience of taking something personally, for example, which had nothing really to do with us; or misconstruing someone’s behavior or words, based on our own fears, and then later realizing that was not what was meant. These are more subtle examples of the same process.

Much of what psychotherapists do is to clarify boundaries in the client’s life. This is especially true in couples and family therapy, but it is also very important individual therapy. And it is a task well worth undertaking. Ultimately, people get along much better when they do respect each others’ boundaries.


What This Means

Respecting boundaries basically means respecting someone’s rights. It means to be respectful, and it also means not to be abusive in any way. Child abuse must always be reported, because the child is not able to defend himself. Most states also have laws against elder abuse, and there are avenues to take if it happens. In addition, most states have laws against the abuse of animals, and this, too, can be reported.  What is being said here does not mean that we should ever allow child, elder or animal abuse. Here we are talking about something quite different.

It is important to know that, when it comes to personal choices about your life, you decide; and you do not even have to give an explanation why, if you do not want to.

Also, you can care about someone very much, and still not try to solve his or her problems. You can choose to give them a ride, but you do not have to; and if you choose not to, this does not mean that you care about him any less.

If you are chronically allowing someone else to violate your boundaries, or if you need help clarifying where the boundaries are in some of your relationships,  that may be a very good time to seek help.


Alcoholics Anonymous The Big Book Fourth Edition (2001) New York, New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.

Beattie, Melody, Codependent No More, second edition (1992) Center City, MN: Hazeldon Foundation.

Fensterheim, Herbert and Baer, Jean, Don’t Say Yes When You Want to Say No: Making Life Right When It Feels All Wrong (1975) New York, New York: Dell Publishing.

Katharine, Ann, Boundaries Where You End and I Begin: How to Recognize and Set Healthy Boundaries (1991) New York, New York: Parkside Publishing Corp.

Miller, Angelyn, The Enabler: When Helping Hurts the One You Love Third Edition (2008) Tuczon, AZ: Wheatmark.

Smith, Manuel, When I Say No, I Feel Guilty (1975) New York: Bantam Books.