Personal boundaries 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.

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

Types

'Personal boundaries include physical, mental, and spiritual boundaries' - (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'. Together they constitute "psychological boundaries".

According to Nina Brown, 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 contagion, 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'.

Narcissism and boundaries

According to Hotchkiss, 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'

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'.

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'.

Rebuilding boundaries

'To be healthy, every intimate relationship needs space and personal boundaries...mental and emotional'. 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'.

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'- something especially pertinent 'in unhealthy symbiotic families...[where] there are no personal boundaries'.

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