Mark Sichel

Article Summary:

Overview of setting and dealing with boundaries.

Setting Boundaries

According to the Oxford English Dictionary a boundary is defined as follows:

  • boundary – A thing which serves to mark the limits of something; the limit itself, a dividing line.

    Notice the absence of the word “rejection” in that definition? That’s because boundaries — whether physical, psychological or emotional — are NOT rejections. Nevertheless, people frequently interpret boundaries as a rejection, or are afraid to set boundaries for themselves for fear that someone else will interpret their boundary as a rejection. To set the record straight once and for all: a boundary is not intended as a rejection, nor should it be interpreted as one. But why, then, are boundaries so misunderstood?

    At the crux of the Great Boundary Misunderstanding is the common inclination to interpret a boundary in a black-and-white way, because of the fear of rejection. If Dan*, an adult, lets his parents know that he will visit them twice a month, but no more than that because his work will suffer otherwise, he is setting a boundary. If Dan’s mother responds by complaining that they never see him anymore, she is dealing with Dan’s boundary in a black-and-white fashion.

    Black-and-white thinking means that there is no gray — no middle ground. In the case of Dan’s mother, there is no “sometimes,” there is only always or never. Clearly, since Dan is visiting twice a month, his mother’s claim that she never sees him is not true. Dan’s mother is simply afraid that Dan’s action of putting a limit on the number of his visits is somehow a rejection of her or the family. When Dan says: “I can’t visit as much as I used to, because my job is so demanding,” his mother hears: “I don’t like you anymore and no longer want to spend time with you.” Is that, in fact, true? Is Dan rejecting his family? Or does he simply need a little more time and space for himself in order to succeed at work?

    We all need a different amount of space at different times in our lives. To clearly define that space for ourselves and the ones we love is a healthy and reasonable thing to do. Dan’s boundary is not a rejection. Dan’s mother is only reacting in a negative black-and-white fashion, because she’s afraid that it is. Better communication on both sides would make Dan more comfortable with the healthy boundary he has set and alleviate his mother’s fears of rejection.

    The boundary dilemma and the fear of rejection becomes a compounded problem for many people in recovery. Dysfunctional families are often dysfunctional in large part because they DON’T set healthy boundaries. As a result, during their crucial years of development, the children of substance abusing or dysfunctional parents very frequently ARE rejected by their loved ones. Children from dysfunctional families commonly develop a hypersensitivity to rejection as a result.

    Furthermore, because the children of alcoholic or dysfunctional parents generally experience NO boundaries or TOTAL barriers growing up, they never learn to recognize what a healthy boundary is. Therefore, as adults, each time a loved one sets a boundary for them, they experience tremendous fear that the boundary is, in fact, a barrier that indicates total rejection.

    Even more difficult for the adult in recovery than fearlessly accepting a loved one’s boundary, is fearlessly setting a boundary for himself. This is particularly true when the adult’s family is still actively abusing addictive substances. A substance abusing family is firmly in the grasp of black-and-white thinking in this respect and will often tell the adult child that his boundary is mean, uncaring, unfeeling, and thoughtless, when in fact it is not.

    However difficult it may be for a given individual to deal with boundaries, the fact remains that boundaries are a healthy, normal, and necessary part of life. Boundaries are a way to manage one’s life and one’s interpersonal relationships — a way to set limits. The next time you need to set a boundary, or accept a boundary that someone else has set, just remember: a boundary is simply a boundary and not a rejection.

    *The names of all clients have been changed to protect their identities.

    Mark Sichel is the author of the best selling and highly acclaimed book, Healing From Family Rifts. Mark has been a practicing psychotherapist, teacher, consultant, and speaker since 1980. In 1999, in an effort to reach a larger audience, Mark created, a self-help website that was awarded the prestigious WWW Health Award for excellence in patient education in the Fall of 2000. Mark is available for consultation and speaking engagements internationally and can be contacted via his website,

    Read all advice by Mark Sichel; Find more Self Help experts

    More advice on Self Help
    » Life Change: Tips For Living The Life Of Your Dreams
    » Bad Mood or Unhappy? How to Bust Out of a Bad Mood
    » all Self Help articles