Differentiating Self From Others Through Boundaries


Developing effective communication and self-efficacy

A Lesson in Boundaries

Developing a cohesive sense of self is a arguably the most crucial developmental milestone one can achieve in a lifetime. Failing to do so can have a major impact on your mental health. Psychologist use the term ego-strength to describe an individual's degree of security with their identity combined with an awareness of personal values and morals.  The ability to align your sense-of-self with values through our behavior and interpersonal relationships is a good indicator of ego-strength.

Humans learn how to develop ego-strength through out their lifetimes; however, according to research the most crucial time period by which this takes place is during childhood. We do so by exploring the external world and how this relates to our internal experience. Children have high degrees of neuroplasticity, or a capacity to develop new neural networks within the nervous system. In other words, children's brains are highly impressionable and are directly influenced by the environment. In order to navigate this process in an adaptive way, children must learn how to effectively set boundaries through their relationships with attachment-figures.

Author and mental health consultant Pia Mellody describes boundaries as the "invisible and symbolic fences" that serve three purposes:

  1. To prevent people from invading our personal space
  2. To prevent us from invading the personal space of others
  3. To give us each a way to embody our sense of "who we are"

Boundaries are not inherent. Infants, by default, do not have boundaries. Think of an infant. They have no qualms invading personal space because they are unable to differentiate the self from others. Without the appropriate modeling of behavior by adults, children will often grow to have difficulty with boundaries and be at higher risk of developing maladaptive defense mechanisms and mental health problems later in life.

"When an individual has no boundaries, he will be offensive in his expression of self and be too vulnerable in receiving the reality of another. When he has a wall for a boundary system, he prevents meaningful intimate exchange and is invulnerable." - Pia Mellody

Our past is something that is out of our personal control. What we can control is how we chose to move forward with these experiences to inform our future behaviors. This takes patience and practice.

Setting personal boundaries within our relationships can be a challenge. Being mindful of how to effectively communicate these boundaries can help to improve outcomes. Gaining insight into the ways by which you engage in interpersonal relationships through psychotherapy can also be beneficial. The following format can be a helpful tool in practicing to set boundaries with others:

Sensory Data (observable behavior)

  • "When I saw..."
  • "When I heard you say..."

Thoughts (always speak from the "I" position)

  • "What I made up about that is..."
  • "What I believe about that is..."
  • "What that has triggered from my past is..."

Emotions (which are generated from our thoughts)

  • "And about that I am feeling..."



Eight Basic Emotions

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Pain
  • Joy
  • Passion
  • Love
  • Shame
  • Guilt

In the Future (vulnerable request)

  • "What I would like/prefer is..."

Using these skills may feel uncomfortable or awkward. That is okay. A good rule of thumb is that if something is uncomfortable for you, that you are likely doing something right because it offers an opportunity for growth and change. The words used can be flexible, but the message is the same. I value myself enough to express my needs and desires. Being able to identify and express those needs to others is important, but perhaps more so is the ability to let go of the outcome.