How Boundaries Can Be Harmful (if you’re doing it wrong)

The word “boundaries” can be kind of dangerous because people hear the advice that they should implement boundaries so they try it with great intentions, but since they don’t fully understand the concept as a whole, it can sometimes backfire and be counterproductive.

It’s a lot like when folks try to start eating healthy and they buy things that say “healthy” on the label. Most health/nutrition experts will tell you to steer clear of something that says “healthy” on it. (Zero calorie soda or gluten free pretzels probably aren’t doing you any health favors.)

So let’s take a look at boundaries so that you’re not trying to improve things but accidentally creating a counter-pressure.

Starting at the heart of the word, a boundary simply means a line between two different things… a delineation… the availability of contrast.

What does this mean for human functioning?

The truest, purest definition of boundaries for our purposes is the line where one person ends and another person begins. So if there’s Person A and Person B, a boundary is what separates the one person from the other. Let’s call this an “I / Thou” boundary. The boundary is the “/”.

Think of it like territory. If you’re driving and someone cuts over into your lane, your boundary has been violated. If you’re at home and someone (uninvitedly) comes onto your property, your boundary has been violated.

Psychologically, boundaries also imply territory. Your territory is your “I.” If someone crosses into your “I,” your boundary has been violated.

Therefore, in this sense, a boundary violation is psychological violence. Not good!

So here’s how people get tripped up:

Sometimes people think of a boundary as a “yes / no” boundary rather than a “Person A / Person B” or “I / Thou” boundary. They think of it as a line between yes and no instead of a line between person and person. If you do this, you’re running the risk of actually violating boundaries and being violent while thinking you’re implementing good boundaries. Aahh!

For example, “yes, I will allow you to do something,” or “no, I will not allow you to do something,” is grossly incorrect. That’s not boundaries. That’s violence and tyranny. That will hurt all of your relationships.

It could still work to think of a boundary as a “yes / no” boundary as long as you’re holding true to the more general and pure definition of “I / thou.” For example, “yes, I will do this.” Or, “no, I will not do that.” Even though it’s a yes / no boundary, it’s still healthy (and effective) because you’ve stayed on your side of the I / thou boundary. You are moving your own “I.”

I hope that’s helpful. It’s a bummer when people try and do healthy things but it accidentally moves things backwards and creates a counter-pressure only because the understanding isn’t complete.

The Other Side of Power – The Larger System at Play

My last post emphasized “the existential responsibility” side of the coin. I’d like to spend a little time on the other side of the coin in the service of the whole.

This also provides a nice segue to talk about psychological health in general. As I’ve said prior, the goal is response-ability. The growth of a human depends on its ability to respond effectively in its environment.  Abilities can fit nicely into sets of polarities or opposites, with a continuum running between.  Seeing abilities in sets of opposites is very useful in order to ascertain where one is stuck, off-balance, or has an INability.

Health (or even happiness?) can be summed up succinctly as the ability to perform both extremes of an ability-continuum coupled with the ability to recognize the situation and what it calls for.

1) Ability to reach the extreme ends of an ability-continuum
2) Ability to recognize what the situation calls for


We become the most unhappy when we’re in situations where one of those two things is off.  We either (1) lack an ability that’s being called for or (2) we misinterpret the situation and respond “out of touch.”

At root, this is psychological digestion at the boundary of organism and environment.  Food and senses touch (see the mold, smell the milk gone bad, taste a chemical out-of-place taste).  Senses help to determine whether it’s worth putting it inside us. Teeth do the work at the entry.  In the end, it boils down (ha) to whether we have the full ability to take in and whether we have the full ability to keep outspit out.

If we’re not fully able in those polar skills, we’re in danger of swallowing something bad for us or rejecting something good for us.  Even if we have full abilities but then we misinterpret the situation, it’s the exact same danger.

I hope that makes sense.  It can be hard to see abilities as sets of opposites until you get used to it.

So back to the coin.

Existential responsibility:  “Yes, this is my situation.  Yes, I have created it.  Yes, I am responsible for what happens next.” Basically a God-like attitude, yes?  Is this good?

It’s an ability.

Polarity? Continuum?

“I am powerless against the forces much, much bigger than myself.  Forces other than myself will determine how things unfold from here on out.”

Is that good?

It’s an ability.

Rather than look at this particular polarity as beliefs (nouns), please try to look at them as verbs or abilities (in the sense of taking the stance or, more abstractly, being with the belief).  One could move to the far side of the continuum to touch the extreme pole and then one could move all the way to the other side to touch the opposite pole.  They’re polar abilities and they both have a perfect function…  depending on what the situation calls for.

I will often say to parents, “we want to teach your kids there are powers much bigger than themselves.”  I usually feel the need to clarify with, “I’m not talking about God or the police.”  This isn’t about following societal laws or being religious.  It’s about the realization there are powerful laws (natural laws) and how, if we don’t follow them, things don’t go well.

This belief (or the lack thereof) seems to be buried so deep down there sometimes.

It has a couple of fuzzy twins like “being an exception” or “I shouldn’t have to.” Those are very, very close to what I’m talking about in this post but they’re not exactly what I’m talking about.

I’m talking very simply about the realization that we’re not God.  We didn’t create these rules.  And when we don’t play by the rules, things don’t go well.  We can’t deprive ourselves of sleep for a period of time and then expect things to go well.  We can’t put junk in our bodies and then expect to feel good.  We can’t sit in a chair 99% of the time and then expect not to get a nasty case of Chair Pain Syndrome.  We can’t be selfish in our relationships and then expect to have warm, deeply satisfying relationships.

I’m talking about the genuine surprise within a person after they go on a 30 year drug binge and then can’t understand why their system is misfiring.  I’m using an extreme example (albeit a true one I’ve seen time and time again) to illustrate a concept that can be very subtle and buried but can still be very destructive.  My hope in writing this piece is it emphasizes this belief (the “I am not God and I didn’t create these rules so I really can’t bend them” belief) and it supports people to refrain from doing destructive things.

I love the word-play with being “care-full” – not “careful” in the sense of hyper-cautious, scared, mistrusting, but care-full in the sense of trying to be fully in touch with these powers that are much greater than ourselves and then taking-full-care to move with them, not against them, because we will lose every time.

So back to the coin.

The polar abilities.  The whole coin.

The ability to be open to the possibility I have created my situations and I am fully responsible for what happens next and the ability to acknowledge, respect, and move in harmony with powers much, much greater than myself…  followed by the ability to recognize what the situation calls for.

We’re back to the serenity prayer.  The courage to change the things you can.  The serenity to accept the things you can’t change.  And the wisdom to know the difference.

Please be care-full and play by the rules.

Contact Boundary and Serenity Prayer

Grab a piece of paper.  Write “Not Me” on it.

The world existed before you did.

[ The serenity to accept the things I cannot change ]

Now write “Me” on the paper.

You have arrived with the world.

[ The courage to change the things I can ]

Now draw a circle around “Me” in order to distinguish between “Me” and “Not Me.”

[ And the wisdom to know the difference ]

This “wisdom to know the difference” is, in gestalt terms, the ‘contact boundary.’  It is the line that distinguishes You from The World. If you wouldn’t have drawn the circle, how would you know where one ends and one begins? The clarity, function, and effectiveness of that ‘line’ is the difference between feeling powerful and feeling helpless, between feeling peaceful and feeling deep chaos.  What can you control? What is yours?  What belongs to other people?  What are the laws of the universe? What can you control?

[By reading this post you are acknowledging you’ve read and agree to the first post disclaimer]

Jesus, Perls, Einstein – Mission Statement – First Post, Disclaimer

I’m wondering if there is value in starting a blog.

If so, I don’t know for whom the value would be – current clients, potential clients, casual readers, other gestalt therapists, myself, other therapists who want to learn more about gestalt principles, etc.  Truthfully, I am not sure if I have a preference of a target audience.  One of the tenets of gestalt therapy is ‘creative pre-commitment,’ the idea of moving one’s energy into a space, having beneficent intentions, without an attachment to the form of the outcome. (This part of gestalt is consistent with parts of yoga.)  I am beginning this blog with this creative pre-commitment.  We will see what shape it takes.

As a personal disclaimer and as an expression of my resistances to starting this blog, I don’t consider myself a strong writer.  I consider myself a strong therapist, thinker, teacher, believer, creative to a fault, but not a strong writer.  I’m often disappointed in the flow of my written words once I look back at them.

There’s also a professional/legal disclaimer at the bottom of this post, to which I plan to point for every subsequent post.  There are lawyers in the world.

I also plan to listen to music whenever I want to get the writing juices flowing.  I’m going to list this music in a jocular way as “This Piece Pairs Best With: [song].”  (Performance Enhancers were used in the creation of that last sentence: jocular / thesaurus).  This piece, for example, pairs best with: Eluvium – New Animals From the Air.

A mission statement seems like a fitting first post.

Gestalt Development Center, and all of my movements as a human being, rest on three pillars from three heavy-hitters.

John wrote how Jesus redundantly asked Peter, “do you love me?”  Then, when Peter kept affirming he did, Jesus kept repeating the instruction, “then feed my sheep.”   It is a brief, circular, redundant passage which drives the point home.  Secondly, Fritz Perls said, “all we’re ever doing is backfeeding,” when he was summing up gestalt therapy in a very tiny nutshell.  I love the word-connection of ‘feeding’ and the overlap of a deep, religious mission with the technical application of a complex therapy theory.  I am much more familiar with the works of Jesus and Perls than I am of Einstein and, honestly, I don’t even know if this is an accurate Einstein quote (didn’t Abraham Lincoln do a facebook status about being frustrated with all the misquotes?)  The quote that I’ve seen attributed to Einstein is, “in the end, I hope you can say you’ve given more to the world than what you’ve taken from it.”  Those are the three interlocking pillars.

There is a ‘giving’ and ‘feeding’ component to my work and this makes me feel very good about the beautiful moments I have with my clients.  I truly believe when gestalt therapy is done well, both the client and the therapist receive very rich rewards, whether these rewards are framed for the afterlife or whether they are emphasized in the immediate, psychological growth of the people involved.  There is absolutely no need for a gestalt therapist to have a religious connection to doing the work (Perls was an avid atheist and would describe the neurosis of a person who ‘always believed God was looking at them’) but, for me, it does.  There is also no need for a client to have a religious goal in therapy but, for some clients, it does.

As far as future posts, two offshoots of these thoughts can be (1) the overlaps and contrasts of gestalt therapy and Rogerian therapy.  Both have the common value of ‘backfeeding’ but, when other ingredients  like energy flow, horizontalization and systems theory are added, gestalt can sometimes have a different emphasis of what is backfed.  (2) Why both participants (therapists and client) benefit from gestalt therapy – an examination of growth, authenticity and the contact boundary.  There’s a good chance those will be future posts for the next time I sit down and put some music on.

Thanks for reading.  Take care and best wishes.

– Kip

[ [ Professional/legal/semi-jocular-but-also-serious disclaimer:  Consult with a qualified professional before you actually make any choices or take any action in your life.  These posts are not medical advice and should not be used as such. These posts are not a crisis hotline. If you are in crisis, please do not comment for assistance – please call 911 or your local county crisis number.  If you are a client of the Gestalt Development Center, your work is special to us and we hold your privacy dearly. You are more than welcome to interact with these posts online but please understand this publicly announces your affiliation with us and we are, as such, not liable for breaching your confidentiality. Confidentiality is our professional duty to keep, not yours. You can do as you wish.  ] ]