Healthy & Unhealthy Boundaries — Their Impact on Our Lives

June 4, 2014 9:30 am Published by

I’ve been thinking about boundaries lately, and observing how significantly they impact our daily lives. The lack of boundaries in relationships (or attempts to overstep established boundaries) seem to be a frequent cause of relational tension.

I would like to use the example of our physical body (our skin provides a boundary between our body and the world around us) to illustrate a few points about some characteristics of boundaries, and the purposes of boundaries.

First, we need to acknowledge that one purpose of a boundary is to distinguish where an object/person starts and ends.  This is my body and it is not the same as the environment around it. I am me, and I am not you. We are separate beings. Although this seems simple and straightforward, there are many examples and levels at which distinguishing between “A” and “non-A” is not that clear cut. When I breathe in, is the air that is in my lungs part of me or is it still separate from me? When I perspire, at what point does the moisture cease to be part of me? The reason this issue needs to be addressed relates directly to the second point about boundaries.

Boundaries serve as a permeable “border” through which we both protect ourselves from the environment and also the mechanism through which we obtain resources and sustenance. Our skin is not a solid piece of fabric which keeps everything out nor keeps everything in. It allows the flow of information and resources between our body and the world around us — it takes in information and things we need (sunlight, moisture) and exhales information (redness of skin when irritated) and unnecessary materials. This is true in relationships as well, either at the personal level, organizationally and politically.  We do not exist as self-sufficient beings independent from the world around us.  We interact and interchange with those around us — this is the nature of relationship.

In organizations, boundaries (sometimes known as membership) help define who is and who is not part of the group.  Who can participate?  Who can provide input for direction?  Who, as leaders, are we to care for and look after?  What is required of members — what resources are they expected to bring to the organization?

Boundaries have a very direct relationship to responsibility.  What (or for whom) am I responsible?  I often see the issue of responsibility become a major source of tension in relationships — within families, family-owned businesses, companies, between businesses and customers, and businesses and vendors.  Individuals and companies who do a good job of clarifying expectations and responsibility in their relationships with others tend to have happier, non-conflictual relationships.

I would encourage you to reflect on the relationships in your life and examine the boundaries you have established (or attempt to).  Is the boundary too permeable?  Do you let in “toxins” from others that you need to keep out?  Or do you create such a firm boundary, keeping others at a distance and not letting them “in”, that you isolate yourself from the resources you need to live a healthy life?  Do you feel others try to place responsibility (or blame) on you that really isn’t yours to carry?

Additionally, in your work, pay attention to the relationships your company or organization has with others.  Are the boundaries well defined?  Is it clear who is responsible for what?  If you have ongoing conflicts with co-workers, customers, or strategic partners, then I would suggest you need to look closely at your boundaries, or how they are not being clearly communicated to others.

Boundaries are natural and good to have.  When used appropriately, they keep us healthy and growing! But, in an unhealthy work environment, our boundaries can be disregarded—people push past the boundaries we set up and become intrusive. Or they can have problems with their own boundaries and share too much (inappropriate) information.

See our most recent book, Rising Above a Toxic Workplace, for more information about healthy and unhealthy work relationships.

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June 4, 2014 9:30 am

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