Every organism must have healthy and functional boundaries if it is to survive, let alone thrive. When their genetic code has not been altered and there is no toxicity preventing their optimal functioning, cellular membranes instinctively know; what to let in as nutrients; how to use these nutrients to maintain and grow the cell; how to discharge the waste and toxins; and how to protect themselves from invaders that put their survival at risk. On a bigger scale, full-fledged animals —humans included— do the same. When our upbringing has not drastically altered our ability to have healthy boundaries, we intuit and differentiate from the people around us who are protective, safe and nurturing, and those who are toxic and put our survival at risk. Without proper boundaries, no organism can survive and grow into its full potential.
There are three types of boundaries which serve us well to know about: rigid, porous and permeable. These categories of boundaries apply both to the cellular realm as to our interpersonal relationships. Let us define and explore them further.
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Rigid boundaries: People who have rigid boundaries do not let anything in or out. When boundaries are constantly rigid, it doesn’t matter if what is on the outside is neutral, safe and nurturing, or toxic and poisonous, nothing comes in. On the flip side, nothing gets out either. Old beliefs, past painful emotions or traumas are not released either. Toxicity builds in. Rigid boundaries create a close system. This applies to individuals, families and societies as well.
Porous boundaries: Conversely, people who have porous boundaries all or most of the time let everything come in whether it serves them best or injures them greatly. There is either no distinction between what is nurturing and what hinders the self. No ability to welcome in the good and keep the bad and toxic out. People who live with constant porous boundaries are at the effect of the outside world without much agency on how to shut off the negative and bring in and keep in the positive.
Permeable boundaries: As we can easily imagine, people who have permeable boundaries have healthy boundaries. They can navigate the entire realm of being totally rigid at times and totally open at other times. The huge difference is that they choose to be open and let in what and who they know to be good for them, and shutting off what is not. Additionally, they can let new information affect and transform them so that they can evolve, and release the old, outdated and toxic which doesn’t serve them anymore and might in fact, hinder their personal growth. Their ability to do so allows them to remain engaged with an ever changing, organic world; all the while, maintaining and renewing an inner structure that best serves best in the present.
As we can see in the graph above, permeable boundaries are the happy medium between rigid and porous boundaries. If we are lucky enough to have permeable boundaries, we are better suited to navigate the world without undue stress. We are neither isolated from others nor do we feel co-dependence on others. We know, at our core, that we are inter-dependent with each other and that it is a good thing! We know who we are, how to get our needs met and how to communicate them clearly without shame, guilt and guilt trips on others. We acknowledge both our need for community and for alone time. We know how to be intimate in relationships, when and with whom to be totally transparent and vulnerable. We also know, often times more intuitively than mentally, who are the people with whom we should have more closed-off boundaries. We can sense and feel the people who are not safe for us: those who are more manipulative, cunning or toxic, and those who are too needy and draining. We know how to have more impersonal boundaries with them, without needing to make them bad or evil. Yes, having healthy, aka permeable boundaries make life and relationships easier! Fostering strong permeable boundaries is a noble and fruitful endeavor if we are to enjoy our lives, and the people and the world around us.
If we do find ourselves more polarized on one side of the spectrum —rigid or porous boundaries— what are we to do? If such is the case, as it is for many of us, here are a few steps that it might serve us well to begin our journey towards having healthier, more permeable boundaries.
- Identify our propensity to be more rigid or porous, our stronger and weaker suits we often unconsciously embody.
- Catch ourselves in action. When and with whom our most frequently used type of boundary serves us very well and when and with whom it does not.
- Identify what life (early) experiences lead us to live with rigidity, or total openness in our relationships. When did I begin to not trust others to be there for me, to be more shut-off from others? Was my family system open or close to the outside world, to other ways of being?
- Begin to relax the type of boundary that is the strongest in us, especially when it is not as needed as it might have been in the past. When I find myself keeping things too close to the vest with people who I know do not judge me, even care about me, may I dare to not be so walled-off? If it is my tendency to ask others to take care of me when I am slightly dysregulated, might I do my best to take care of myself first, and evaluate afterwards if I still need someone else to help me out?
- Learn to integrate the type of boundary that is the weakest in us by doing what doesn’t feel as “natural” for us. For example, learn to say “no” when your tendency is to say “yes” without even thinking if you mean it or not? Do the opposite if you are on the other end of the spectrum. Say “yes!” more freely, before leading with an unconscious and rigid “no”!
If we don’t know what type of boundary we live from, we are at the mercy of our boundaries, instead of our boundaries being there to protect us and help us thrive and evolve. Like cellular membranes in our body, we may let in toxic “agents” that can greatly hurt us, while keeping out nurturing “foods”, which would help us enhance our sense of belonging and our experience of growth. If we are to live fully the essence of OUR lives, it behooves all of us to know, protect and mend our boundaries, for no organisms can survive and thrive without proper boundaries!
Nathan Bergeron, LMFT, L.Ac. ©