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Personality: Self concept · Personality testing · Theories · Mind-body problem

Personal boundaries is an aspect of psychological boundaries and are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify for him- or herself what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around him or her and how he or she will respond when someone steps outside those limits.[1]

'Personal boundaries define you as an individual. They are statements of what you will or won't do, what you like and don't close someone can get to you'.[2]


'Personal boundaries include physical, mental, and spiritual boundaries'[3] - (for physical boundaries see personal space and proxemics). 'Mental boundaries pertain to beliefs, emotion, and intuition...Spiritual boundaries pertain to self-esteem [&] sense of identity'.[4] Together they constitute "psychological boundaries".

According to Nina Brown,[5] there are four types of psychological boundary:

  • Soft - A person with soft boundaries merges with other people's boundaries. Someone with a soft boundary is easily manipulated.
  • 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 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 physically, emotionally, psychologically or sexually abused. 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 - This is the ideal. 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, manipulation and is difficult to exploit.

'Without a psychic boundary, we would be like drops of ink diffused in a pool of water - easily absorbed into other people's definitions of us....It is our freedom to define ourselves'.[6]

Narcissism and boundaries

According to Hotchkiss,[7] 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.

As one ex put it, 'If you had firm boundaries in the face of a narcissist, the relationship wouldn't last'.[8]

Loss of boundaries

R. D. Laing considered that the loss of personal boundaries was an aspect of psychosis. 'The loss of the experience of an area of unqualified privacy, by its transformation into a quasi-public realm, is often one of the decisive changes associated with the process of going mad...the "loss of ego boundary" theory'.[9]

Carl Rogers has openly described the effects of what he called 'an incredibly lengthy, poorly handled therapeutic relationship which I had with a severely schizophrenic girl....I got to the point where I could not separate my "self" from hers. I literally lost my "self", lost the boundaries of myself...and I became convinced (and I think with some reason) that I was going insane'.[10]

Rebuilding boundaries

'To be healthy, every intimate relationship needs space and personal boundaries...mental and emotional'.[11] Co-dependent personalities in particular have difficulties maintaining such boundaries, and for them 'it's essential to learn to define and protect your boundaries in effective ways'.[12]

Family Therapy can sometimes help family members 'all to develop clearer boundaries by seeing them together and behaving in a very clear and definite way', drawing lines and 'putting the generations in separate compartments'[13] - something especially pertinent 'in unhealthy symbiotic families...[where] there are no personal boundaries'.[14]

At the same time, 'creating personal boundaries may cause some relationships to crumble',[15] especially where the boundary enmeshment had been a central relationship key - where 'the symbiotic a dependency relationship...pathological symbiotic relationships'.[16]

See also


  1. Boundaries definition,[unreliable source?]
  2. G. B. and J. S. Lundberg, I Don't Have to Make Everything All Better (2000) p. 13. ISBN 978-0670884858
  3. Timothy Porter-O'Grady/Kathy Malloch, Quantum Leadership (2003) p. 135
  4. O'Grady/Malloch, p. 135
  5. Brown, Nina W., Coping With Infuriating, Mean, Critical People - The Destructive Narcissistic Pattern 2006. ISBN 978-0275989842
  6. Patricia Evans, Controlling People (Avon 2002) p. 33 and p. 37
  7. Hotchkiss, Sandy & Masterson, James F. Why Is It Always About You? : The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism (2003)
  8. "Claire", in Simon Crompton, All About Me: Loving a Narcissist (London 2007) p. 105. ISBN 978-0007247950
  9. R. D. Laing, Self and Others (Penguin 1972) p. 36
  10. Carl R. Rogers, Becoming Partners (London 1973) p. 35
  11. Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (London 1990) p. 160
  12. Janae B. Weinhold et al, Breaking Free of the Co-Dependency Trap (2008) p. 198
  13. Robin Skinner/John Cleese, Families and How to Survive Them (London 1993) p. 93 and p. 213
  14. Weinhold, p. 192
  15. Weinhold, p. 198
  16. Richard G. Abell, Own Your Own Life (1977) p. 119-122

Further reading

  • Black, Jan & Enns, Greg Better Boundaries: Owning and Treasuring Your Life 1998
  • Bottke, Allison Setting Boundaries with Your Adult Children: Six Steps to Hope and Healing for Struggling Parents 2008
  • Cloud, Henry & Townsend, John Boundaries Workbook: When to Say Yes When to Say No To Take Control of Your Life 1995
  • Cloud, Henry & Townsend, John Boundaries with Kids 2001
  • Cloud, Henry & Townsend, John Boundaries in Marriage 2002
  • Linden, Anne Boundaries in Human Relationships: How to Be Separate and Connected 2008
  • Katherine, Anne Boundaries - Where You End And I Begin: How To Recognize And Set Healthy Boundaries 1994
  • Katherine, Anne Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day 2000
  • MacKenzie, Robert J. Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child : Eliminating Conflict by Establishing Clear, Firm, and Respectful Boundaries 2001
  • Richardson S Cunningham M Broken Boundaries - stories of betrayal in relationships of care 2008

External links

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