The difference between boundaries and barriers

boundaries family friendship relationships Sep 11, 2018
image of fence

Creating and maintaining healthy boundaries are an essential part of creating a life in which you can thrive as an introvert.  But they can often be very tricky!  In this post we're going to be talking about what a healthy boundary actually is and the difference between boundaries and barriers.

What is a healthy boundary?

Boundaries are limits that you can place around the ways that other people are allowed to behave around you and how you will respond when someone steps outside these agreed limits.

Setting boundaries is an important aspect of establishing one's identity, but they are also an essential aspect of making healthy relationships possible.  The purpose of a boundary is to maintain a relationship in a way that is healthy for you.

Types of boundaries

You can have a boundary in any area where you have to negotiate how to relate to someone else.  We often think of boundaries as being physical (the amount of personal space you require or the types of touch that are acceptable to you) or emotional (freedom from emotional manipulation or from deliberate damage to your self-esteem).  But healthy boundaries can cover a great many areas, from spiritual to legal boundaries and everything in between.

Energetic boundaries are often an area in which I see many introverts struggling.  Your energy is the life-force that makes everything else in your life possible and when others do or say things that rob you of your energy (such as deprive you of your alone time, invade your privacy, create drama), it will be almost impossible for you to function effectively.  Therefore, learning to set boundaries in this area is particularly important for introverts.

Signs that you have a problem setting boundaries

Have you ever found yourself:

  • struggling to say 'no' to someone?
  • doing something you don't want to do simply because someone else thought you should?
  • feeling like a victim or a matyr?

These are just some examples of situations that may indicate that you have difficulty setting healthy boundaries with the people around you.

But if you find yourself completely on the other side of the spectrum - never being willing to compromise, wanting to be invisible, or never letting anyone get close to you - then that can just as clearly indicate that you have a problem with boundaries.

Getting the balance right can often be very tricky for introverts.  We're frequently sensitive and this can lead to developing coping mechanisms that either lead to people-pleasing or keeping people at a distance (or sometimes, if we're especially talented, both at the same time!).

The difference between a boundary and a barrier

When someone has isolated themselves from others in an attempt to become invulnerable, there are some who would describe this person as having overly rigid boundaries.  However, I believe that it is more useful to say that this person has put up barriers against other people.  I also believe that understanding the difference between boundaries and barriers is an essential aspect of creating successful relationships.

The essential difference between a boundary and a barrier stems from their purpose: The purpose of a boundary is to maintain a relationship in a way that is healthy for you, whereas the purpose of a barrier is to shut down a relationship.  Boundaries seek to establish open channels of communication, barriers remove any chance of this happening.

At their core, barriers stem from fear and defensiveness.  They are an appropriate response to a particularly toxic person who we have good reason to believe won't respect our boundaries.  But, more often, we can have a tendency to jump straight to creating barriers because we don't trust ourselves to set healthy boundaries.

Reasons introverts may struggle to distinguish barriers and boundaries

If they are conflict avoidant

Some introverts can be very sensitive and prone to people-pleasing (particularly, though not exclusively, if they are also feelers in the Myers-Briggs system). If you like to keep people happy then it can feel deeply uncomfortable to do the personal growth work that is required to have a difficult conversation with another person where you have to tell them that they are violating your boundaries.

The point of setting boundaries is not to hurt or disappoint others, but when we initially set boundaries the other person can sometimes feel hurt or disappointed anyway. It can feel easier to just tolerate the behaviour, but then you end up getting pushed to a point where you can't tolerate anymore and then feel that you have no choice but to cut this person out of your life entirely.  But really, is it the other person's fault if they didn't even know that they were violating your boundary in the first place?

If they have been badly hurt in the past

Many introverts are quite independent people, so when we feel vulnerable it can be easy for us to convince ourselves that we don't need other people and that the best way to protect ourselves is to keep everyone at a distance.

We may tell ourselves that we are keeping ourselves safe, but the fact we are doing so using barriers rather than boundaries is unlikely to lead to happiness in the long term.

If they fear rejection

Sometimes people will say something like, 'If I set boundaries, I might as well kiss that relationship goodbye.'  Particularly if you're feeling insecure, then it's possible that you might let the fear of that outcome prevent you from setting healthy boundaries. But if you are unable to maintain boundaries that are important to you in a relationship, then this already is not a healthy relationship - is your unhappiness really a price worth paying for maintaining an unhealthy relationship?

Not all people in life will agree with where you have drawn your boundaries.  Sometimes this may be because you have been very rigid with your boundaries and there may be some room for negotiation.  But sometimes a boundary may be very important to you and completely incomprehensible to someone else and in this instance it is going to be difficult to maintain a relationship in a way that is healthy for both of you.

If they were never taught to set healthy boundaries

This one might seem obvious - most people struggle to set healthy boundaries unless they have been taught how to!  But when introverts are feeling insecure or overwhelmed they are far more likely than extroverts to retreat into their inner world for safety, and this can often look like creating barriers so that there is no risk of anyone entering the inner world which has become the only place they feel safe.

Why barriers are a problem

Barriers are like a shield that you drag around with you all of the time, ready to defend yourself from attacks.  But the truth is that living with that level of defensiveness fosters anxiety and insecurity and is not at all healthy.

In contrast, boundaries enable you to relax.  You can trust that you will protect your own boundaries and that the world knows this.

Standing by your boundaries can be difficult and it takes practice.  So I've also written a follow-up post about how to set the healthy boundaries that are such an important part of creating a life in which you can thrive.

But before you move on, I'd love to know how this post resonates with you.  Had you heard of the difference between boundaries and barriers?  And which do you think you are using most often in your life?

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