Types and functions of boundaries and the resistance we may encounter

Setting boundaries generally is quite the complex task and what is a non-negotiable boundary for you may seem unreasonable to someone else. Your temperament can also affect your ability to set clear boundaries—you may be more sensitive than others, and this can affect your ability to ask for what you need. When we change our boundaries, there will often be resistance from those we’re asking to conform to our new expectations. This can make the task all the harder because often we are feeling vulnerable at these times. Having a good support network and understanding why these changes are important will help to keep your resolve. There are two types of boundaries—internal and external. Next I will give examples of each and their functions:

Internal Boundaries

Internal boundaries act as an alarm system. They are related to feelings, thoughts and behaviour. They protect us from other people’s feeling states and reactions, and protect others from our feeling states. Our internal boundaries inform the boundaries we enforce externally. For example if we have been abused in the past, we may internalise some of the blame for this and start thinking that we somehow contributed to the abuse, being unclear of ourselves and our boundaries. Then as an adult, if someone were to tell us we were „stupid and ugly‟, we might think it okay for them to speak to us like this, because we believe that we deserve it—we believe we ARE stupid and ugly.

A person who hasn’t had the same experience may know straight away that someone swearing or denigrating them isn’t okay and that they need to address this. People who are struggling with internal boundaries may stay in the situation. People with healthy intact boundaries may use specific boundaries like: „It is not acceptable to be treated like this‟, to inform their external boundaries. This might lead them to take a break from the other person and situation or they may even geographically remove themselves—their internal alarm system reminds them of what their values, rights and limits are in any situation.

We don’t always get it right, even when we have well-formulated boundaries and we know our limits. However, we do have cues for when our internal dialogue is letting us down and when our boundaries are being breached, because our gut feeling or intuition will let us know. Listen to your body and emotions. This is sometimes a difficult skill to master but once you do, it can help to give you extra warning that something isn’t right. Then you can examine the experience more closely to figure out what it is exactly that needs to change. Below, we discuss the functions of internal and external boundaries as well as why we might meet resistance from ourselves and others as a result of establishing new boundaries.

Functions of an internal boundary:

  • to protect our emotional well-being

  • to caution you when you are having harmful or negative thoughts towards yourself

  • to caution you if you think you might harm others

  • to alert you to when others are harming you or intending to harm you.

Resistance to setting internal boundaries

When we begin to establish boundaries in our lives, to say no where we used to day yes, we will often experience resistance from within. Sometimes we are unsure or fearful about setting boundaries. This can be difficult to overcome and can undermine our boundary work, and there are several reasons why this can occur:

Unmet needs—If we didn’t receive appropriate love and parenting as a child we can carry these childhood needs into our adult life, where we may try to fill this space inside ourselves through our relationships. These unmet needs are responsible for some of our internal resistance—behind the failure to set limits is the fear of loss.

Guilt—this has nothing to do with right and wrong. We can feel guilty for doing the right thing, for growing up, for just existing. If you were raised in a family where the message that saying “no‟ was bad, you may feel guilty—we feel guilty in the present because it taps into strong childhood messages. Even though it may not be your “fault‟ it is your responsibility to take control of these early messages and choose your response.

Fear of the unknown—It can be scary to move away from the familiar, the known. Fear can stop you from making changes. Ask for support from friends or professionals you trust.

Unresolved grief—If you felt loss as a child or in past relationships, you may be suffering from unresolved grief. This may be triggered by the prospect of losing someone you are very connected to now if you were to set a boundary with them. We may avoid setting appropriate boundaries for fear of feeling the sadness connected with previous losses.

External Boundaries

External boundaries protect us physically and sexually. They help us keep an appropriate physical distance from others—they also help us to respect the sexual boundaries of others.

Examples and functions of external boundaries:

Skin — Our skin is our primary boundary. It is what separates us from the world. If we have been physically and/or sexually abused, we may have more trouble developing a sense of control over our body.

Words — Words support us in identifying and clarifying to ourselves and others who we are, what we believe in and what we want. Clear verbal communication is essential in creating, establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries. Clear communication invites respect in our relationships.

Geographical distance — We can separate ourselves and use space as a boundary. It is very important to be able to make physical space between ourselves and another who is abusing our boundaries.

Time — We can use time as a boundary. If we are absorbed by a problem, having time away from it can help us regain balance and control. Taking time off from a person can also help us re-think, take stock and make new choices. 

External Resistance

External resistance is other peoples ‟responses” to us setting boundaries with them.

Anger — When you set a limit, anger may be the response from the person you’ve tried to set the boundary with. This is the most common type of resistance. This anger may be because the other person has not learned to delay gratification or they have not learned to respect other people‟ freedom and right to say no to them. Anger is not violence, it is just an emotion. When you encounter anger you need to get support and be clear about your limits, and remember that the person getting angry is the one with the problem. When we encounter anger in response to us setting limits, we may need to:

  • stay separate from it—don‟ rescue and don‟ take it on

  • avoid letting anger trigger our behaviour

  • allow the other person to express their emotion as long as they don‟ become abusive

  • have a support system in place; anticipate the anger and have a plan

  • avoid getting angry and stay assertive

  • use physical distance as a boundary protector if necessary.

If you keep your boundaries, those who are angry with you will have to learn self-control instead of other control. When they no longer have control over you they will have to find a different way to relate. They may choose to leave; this is a very real risk. They may also choose not to change their controlling behaviour and another risk at this time is that the controlling behaviours can increase. As long as someone can control you with their anger they probably will not change.

Guilt — Is anger in disguise. Guilt can be more destructive than anger because it is more subtle, but you can use the same “anger responses” outline above for guilt. If guilt messages work on you, you may need some support to uncover and look at your core beliefs. Do you really believe your core beliefs? What are they saying about you as a person? Are they serving you well? Are they providing you with safe boundaries?

The Centre for Human Potential has compiled a comparative list of the differences between having no boundaries and having intact, healthy boundaries. See if any of the statements below resonate with you:

When you give up your boundaries in a relationship you: 

  • feel uncertain about your rights

  • do not notice unhappiness, since enduring is your concern

  • alter your behaviour, plans, or opinions to fit the current moods or circumstances of another (live reactively)

  • do more and more for less and less

  • take as truth the most recent opinion you have heard

  • live hopefully while wishing and waiting

  • are satisfied if you are coping and surviving

  • let the other’s minimal improvement maintain your stalemate

  • have few hobbies, because you have no attention span for self-directed activity

  • are manipulated by flattery so you lose objectivity

  • make exceptions for a person for regarding things you would not tolerate in anyone else

  • try to create intimacy with a narcissist

  • are so strongly affected by another that obsession results

  • will forsake every personal limit to get sex or the promise of it

  • see your partner as causing excitement in your life

  • are hurt and victimised but not angry

  • act out of compliance and compromise

  • do favours that you inwardly resist (cannot say no)

  • disregard intuition in favour of the demands of others

  • allow your partner to abuse your children or friends

  • mostly feel afraid and confused

  • are enmeshed in a drama that is beyond your control

  • are living a life that is not yours, and that seems unalterable

  • commit yourself for as long as the other needs you to be committed (no bottom line)

  • believe you have no right to secrets

  • decide how, to what extent, and how long you will be committed

  • protect your private matters without having to lie or be surreptitious

After reading these, you may have noticed that you have more intact boundaries than you thought! Or perhaps you identified some areas for potential development in terms of setting boundaries. This leads us to the next section identifying Your Limits. This is the starting point for getting clear about what’s important to you and what you’ll tolerate from yourself and others, in terms of having healthy relationships. 

You can read Setting Personal Boundaries Part 1 here and Part 2 here