Boundary Breakdown: An Introduction to Boundaries for Beginners

Boundaries has become a real buzzword in popular psychology, and these days in almost all of my couples therapy sessions someone cites "boundaries" as one of their issues. But what the fuck does that even mean?

Given that it is a foundational skill for interpersonal relationships, I thought it was time for me to write this in-depth introduction to boundaries.

Introduction to Boundaries

Before we dive into this introduction to boundaries, let's take a look at their functions.

Boundaries support us to;

  • manage our time, energy & attention,
  • become good decision makers,
  • tap into our intuition,
  • explore & express  our needs, desires & dreams,
  • navigate relationship expectations,
  • live in alignment with our values,
  • explore full self expression.

Most of us know what it looks like when someone has poor boundaries, but not as many understand the specific skills that are required to identify, maintain, articulate, and negotiate healthy relational boundaries.

This introduction to boundaries will cover definitions, typical challenges , and ways to evaluate your own ability to navigate boundaries.
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Defining Boundaries

Of course any introduction to boundaries has to start from the beginning; a definition of terms.

In its simplest, most literal form, a boundary is a divide between "this, and that". Those things that are divided could be tangible, idealogical, relational and more.

 "Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously" This is the definition from Prentis Hemphilll, and is the definition we'll be using in this introduction to boundaries. It's a great relationally relevant definition!

In a socio-cultural context boundaries are a set of rules and/or agreements, and behaviours or expressions,  that are followed by most of the people in that society or group.

We can also consider some types of familiar boundaries; this will help in our definition, as well as provide some metaphors to draw from as we explore relational boundaries.

Here are some structural examples;

We have a fence around my garden. This is a wire mesh fence that keeps my dogs out of the vegie patch, but it also has gates on it. The mesh has a large weave so that air, sun, and insects can fly through.

We also have a more rigid boundary, a Colorbond fence around my home & property. That is taller and serves to maintain privacy, to define the property, to keep other people out, and to keep the dogs safe.

There are varied boundaries between rooms in the house which can be rigid (like walls), more flexible (like doors), or permeable (like open plan areas).

We could also look at some of the biological boundaries such as the implied boundary of trees between suburbia and bushland, the boundary of skin that separates my insides from the outer world, or the cellular boundaries within organisms which define the separate structures.

In this introduction to boundaries it's interesting to notice that some boundaries require shared cultural understanding, while others function regardless of the meaning attached to them.


What is the Difference Between Boundaries & Discipline?

An important distinction for this introduction to boundaries is the difference between boundaries & discipline.

Relationally, a boundary is the line between what is, and what is not okay. That boundary may or may not be; consciously acknowledged, implemented, articulated, maintained. That means that it is absolutely possible for an individual to have boundaries they are not aware of, and that they don't align towards behaviourally.

In my couples therapy work, I use the word 'discipline' in the sense of the spiritual application of that word; A spiritual practice or spiritual discipline (often including spiritual exercises) is the regular or full-time performance of actions and activities undertaken for the purpose of inducing spiritual experiences and cultivating spiritual development. ~Wikipedia (15th November 2021)

While this is a definition in the context of spirituality, I map that across to all personal & relational contexts in my life. So, discipline is the regular performance of actions and/or activities undertaken for the purpose of exploration & experimentation, as well as to cultivate outcomes and experiences. That could be anything from a daily tea ritual, to speaking my partner's love language, to my non-linear movement method practice.

And finally, in this context of an introduction to boundaries, I define discipline as having no association with punishment or enforcement, it's just about practice.

What that means in this introduction to boundaries is that we can explore our engagement via the various aspects of awareness, discipline, implementation, articulation, and evolution. We may have different levels of skill in each of these different facets at any given time. It's important for me to note this, because I often see a correlation drawn between rigidity of boundaries and discipline which I don't think is helpful.

What is the Difference Between Boundaries Versus Rules?

A boundary is about power within me to make my decisions. A rule is about power over your decisions.

It's really important to get that distinction within this introduction to boundaries. We're talking about power dynamics and their expression in relationships.

Read More: Boundaries Versus Rules: Navigating Cooperative Power


Levels of Relational Boundaries

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There are three levels of relational boundaries;

  • Intrapersonal
  • Interpersonal
  • Extrapersonal

These three levels each require the same fundamental skill set, but the complexity of implementation increases as the variables become more dynamic and the people involved increase.

This introduction to boundaries will explain these three levels, and help you see your strengths & gaps.

Intrapersonal Boundaries

The first level in this introduction to boundaries is INTRA-personal Boundaries. That means; what is and what isn't okay for you to think, feel, say, and do, for & within yourself.

For example, consider your level of awareness & control of what is and isn't okay in;

  • The stories you tell yourself about your life
  • Your self-esteem
  • How you speak to yourself
  • How you structure your time
  • Where you direct your attention
  • How you manage your energy
  • How you respond to your internal cues
  • Your behaviours in different life contexts
  • Your personal wellness & vitality
  • How you regulate your own emotional state
  • How you relate to stress
  • The way you behave with money
  • Your pursuit of pleasure
  • Your sexual self

This level of boundary is often overlooked because relational boundaries tend to create the most stir. It's also the most important place to begin, because this is the place where all of your boundaries originate.

Your level of skill in handling intrapersonal boundaries will dictate how well you manage your most precious resources; your time, your energy, and your attention.

Clues you may need to do some skills development beyond reading this introduction to boundaries;

  • you feel exhausted or burnt out
  • you feel numb or checked out
  • your emotions are dialled way down, way up, or both
  • you feel like you are out of control in an area of your life (finance, career, relationships, health, recreation)
  • there's never enough time
  • you often second guess yourself
  • you have low self esteem


Part 2 of this Introduction to Boundaries will focus on the skills required to develop good intrapersonal boundaries.


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Interpersonal Boundaries

The second level in this introduction to boundaries is INTER-personal Boundaries. That means; what is and what isn't okay for you to think, feel, say, and do, for & with other individuals. This now expands the context & complexity because we are now encompassing the boundaries belonging TO you, TO them, and BETWEEN you.

For example, consider your level of awareness & control of what is and isn't okay in;


  • The stories you tell yourself about other people
  • What you think & say to others
  • Your self-esteem in the presence of another
  • How you structure your time with others
  • Where you direct your attention with others
  • How you manage your energy with others
  • How you respond to your internal cues with others
  • Your behaviours in different life contexts, and with different people
  • How you regulate others emotions
  • How you relate to stress in the presence of another
  • How you relate to others stress
  • The way you relate to money - yours, theirs, and shared
  • Your engagement with yours, and their pleasure
  • Your sexual engagement with them

This level of boundary tends to create the most stir. What that means is that the behaviour of others is likely to violate your boundaries, or stir up emotion about your interactions which may effect the way you now enact your personal boundaries as well as any relational variations.

Your level of skill in handling interpersonal boundaries will dictate how deeply you connect, your relational self-esteem, the safety you experience with others, and your capacity for compassion. In couples therapy we work mainly in this relational realm.

Clues you may need to do some skills development beyond reading this introduction to boundaries;


  • you feel resentful or guilty about the role of others in your life
  • you experience shame and/or blame in your relationships
  • you feel used by others in relationships
  • you feel angry at others
  • other people don't respect you
  • your partner breaks the rules or their agreements often
  • you have a hard time trusting other people
  • you have a hard time saying no
  • other people say you're inflexible
  • you feel isolated or lonely
  • you have few close relationships
  • you are successful at work, but don't have many friends
  • you give in too easily / you find it hard to compromise
  • folks in your life are given to drama


Part 2 of this Introduction to Boundaries will focus on the skills required to develop good interpersonal boundaries


Extrapersonal Boundaries

The third level in this introduction to boundaries is EXTRA-personal Boundaries.

That means the boundaries that you have in a variety of different contexts & environments. This might include with groups of people in your community or workplace. It could be boundaries that govern your interactions with animals, plants,  the natural environment. It could be be the boundaries that you have interfacing with computers and technology. It could even be the way you manage your life within the social structures of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy.

This is important because your level of skill in managing your own extrapersonal boundaries will dictate your behavioural flexibility, and your capacity to move competently between different contexts.

The scope of this kind of interaction is well beyond this introduction to boundaries, but it's in this space where we play to explore the deepest expression of a well boundaried person.


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Exploring Permeability of Boundaries

Let's look at the permeability of boundaries. A boundary can think be on a spectrum from completely porous and flexible, to utterly rigid.

On the porous end of that spectrum is no boundary at all. For example, something with the rigidity of a soap bubble doesn't keep a lot out and it doesn't last for very long.

At the other end of the permeability scale is an inflexible, rigid, impermeable boundary. A brick wall, for example, is a pretty solid boundary which has little to no flexibility.

This introduction to boundaries will describe some of the behaviours you see in people across that spectrum.


What Are Loose or Permeable Boundaries

People with porous or no boundaries often struggle to differentiate themselves from others in their lives. They have little sense of their own likes, dislikes, needs or desires, and are not very skilled at identifying or articulating boundaries to themselves or others. Folks with loose boundaries often feel resentment and/or guilt  towards others. This resentment is often expressed through passive aggressive behaviour and other indirect means.

Clues you may need to do some skills development beyond reading this introduction to boundaries;

When this kind of loose boundary shows up in couples therapy, one of the biggest issues relationally is that their partner feels overburdened.

They feel like they have to mind-read and guess what's happening in their relationship and in their lives. They often overcompensate, and feels responsible for making them both happy.

According to Sunnie Giles in her book The New Science of Radical Innovation, some characteristics of people at this end of the boundary spectrum are;


  • "They let others encroach on their space by not respecting their own feelings, or they expect too much from others.
  • They define their self-worth through other people's opinions of them.
  • They give too much to others until they are completely depleted, ignoring their own needs. Often, they don't realize they are letting others violate their boundaries; they justify their actions as being nice, charitable, or serving others."


What Are Rigid or Inflexible Boundaries

People with rigid boundaries often struggle to connect meaningfully with others. They can seem cold, and may see themselves as being more 'logical' than 'emotional' in the way they approach life.

Clues you may need to do some skills development beyond reading this introduction to boundaries;

When this kind of rigid inflexible boundary shows up in couples therapy, one of the biggest issues relationally is that their partner feels disenfranchised.

One person is unilaterally making the big decisions around career or where you live or how you spend money, and so on. There's no flexibility and there's no accepting of influence.

Sunnie Giles says some characteristics of these folks are;


  • "They are distant, isolated, and withdrawn; they do not experience the rich joy that comes from feeling their emotions deeply and connecting with others.
  • They don't let others influence them at all, adhering to their thoughts even when presented with contradicting evidence.
  • They find it difficult to tolerate differences of opinion or different ways of doing things; hence, they tend to insist on "their way or the highway".

What Are Healthy Boundaries

Ideally, boundaries are strong AND permeable. That means that each individual has a clear sense of what they want, what is good for them, and also has an eye on the contextual elements that require flexibility and/or reconfiguration of boundaries.

Giles writes "Here is how people who have  strong yet permeable boundaries act:

  • They do not try to increase their sense of self-worth through another's approval, validation, or praise.
  • They don't look to others to fulfill their emotional needs to be happy or whole, because their self-concept is defined by a deep conviction that they are good inherently, not because of other people's opinion of them.
  • They can clearly articulate who they are and what they like and dislike because their self-concept has not been subsumed into another's.
  • They do not dispense advice to others unless they are invited to do so.
  • They do not feel guilty about articulating and meeting their needs; they don't sacrifice their needs or self-respect to meet others' needs.
  • They let others into their hearts and are open and flexible.
  • They are not aloof but have a rich range of emotions.
  • They don't withdraw from conflicts passive-aggressively but work through them even when confronting others is difficult.
  • They are tolerant of differing opinions, rather than interpreting difference as rejection.
  • They are flexible, adaptable, and balanced between compassion for others and their own self-respect.
  • They freely exchange love and compassion while remaining firmly grounded in a secure identity and concept of self-acceptance."