Personal Boundaries – Part I: An Introduction To Boundaries

Medieval City Walls

Do you have boundary problems? Have you been told that you need better boundaries? Do you have trouble understanding boundaries or defending your boundaries? You are not alone.

I recall first hearing the word “boundaries” in about 1981. I finally thought I understood them in about 1995. Fourteen years of confusion and struggle resulted in this series of articles. If you are puzzled, I offer you my sympathy. If you want to learn about boundaries, I offer you what I have learned.

I’ve found that there are two ways to look at boundaries: from the point of view of an individual (you and me), and from the point of view of a relationship (2 or more people).

Personal Boundaries

This article is about boundaries from the point of view of an individual. In it, I try to answer the following questions:

  1. What are boundaries?
  2. Why do I need boundaries?
  3. How do I know my boundaries are invaded?
  4. What does it mean to “set your boundary?”
  5. Who’s responsible for your boundaries?
  6. What are the different types of boundaries?
  7. How do I learn to handle my boundaries better?


The word “boundary” has so many uses that I want to give you my definitions right up front. In the rest of this article I will explore and reinforce these definitions.

  • A Boundary is an imaginary line that separates my stuff from your stuff. On one side of this line are my possessions and on the other side are your possessions.
  • All Boundaries have sides: my side and your side. A boundary is personal and is a necessary part of integrity and self-esteem.  I like the idea that a boundary is not a tool of selfishness, but is a critical element of SELF-ishness.
  • Setting Boundaries takes place when I establish in my mind where my boundary line is, or when I tell you where my boundary line lies.  Example:  “This toothbrush is mine.”  “I’d like you to know I consider that toothbrush mine.”
  • A Boundary Invasion takes place when you are doing something I don’t want with things that are on my side of my boundaries. “You picked up and used my toothbrush.”
  • Defending my Boundaries is when I spend some effort keeping you on the other side of my boundaries. “Put down my toothbrush.”  “I am locking my toothbrush in this cabinet.”

The Castle

Over the years, I have come to draw a picture whenever I start to teach the subject of boundaries.  I think that we each live in a castle. Our selves, the things we treasure, are inside. This is similar to a village inside the castle’s walls. Our boundaries (the walls, the moat, the drawbridge, the great gate, the soldiers and the alligator) exist to establish, set aside and protect our village – our selves. If our wall does its job, we can live a peaceful and enjoyable life.

Boundary Invasions: Becoming Upset

Whenever my boundaries are invaded, I will become upset. My “upset” is an expression of feeling invaded. If I watch my level of upset, I can be aware of the invasions in my life. If I watch my level of upset, I can begin to identify my boundaries that I am not setting or defending well. The smoke in my castle picture represents “feeling upset.” When I get upset, I believe that somehow I have let fire into my village. My village – my self – is on fire! At the moment, I don’t necessarily know how I’ve let this happen. I just know that I am upset – on fire. The principle is: Your Boundaries Are Invaded When You Are Upset, and (as you will see later) you have let someone invade your boundaries.

Al's Castle Invasion Illustration

How did the fire get inside?  Well, in keeping with the castle analogy, somebody threw a flaming torch or shot a flaming arrow over my wall. Something that somebody did outside me got past my defenses and into my special place. The proof is in the “upset” – the flames.

Someone pulls into the lane in front of me, and I get upset. Someone says something about my looks, and I get upset. Someone asks me a question, and I get upset. I think about someone hurting my dog, and I get upset. Each of these are boundary invasions as indicated by the “upset.”

Al's Flaming Torch Illustration

Sometimes I feel upset around “nice” people. How can that happen and why? What I have come to realize is that some people can “magically” make their attempted attacks seem innocent to me. These “magicians” may not even be aware that they are doing anything. Still, the proof is in the “upset” – the flames and the smoke from the village in my castle.

Al's Magic Fire Torch Illustration


I’ve found that not all upsets are from just today’s “boundary invasions.” I can feel upset when I recall previous boundary invasions. For example, my name – Turtle – is quite funny to many people. When I was a kid, other kids would frequently tease me. It hurt. When I remember hiding from other kids, I get upset at the memory of my lack of courage to stand up. I can get upset just thinking about people invading my boundaries.

I can even get upset when I am invading someone else’s boundaries. An example would be that I want my brother’s comic books. He won’t share them. I get upset. Sometimes I want my wife to listen to my thoughts. She doesn’t want to, and I get upset. This calls for discussion. I will share more about this later, but the idea is that boundaries are being invaded.

The Components of Boundaries

Take a look at my above picture of the castle. There are five different parts to Boundaries: 1) the Moat,  2) the Alligator, 3) the Gate and Drawbridge, 4) the Wall, and 5) the Soldiers.

The Moat

When I want peace and quiet, I sometimes go take a walk in the woods. A moat is like a physical distance. Sometimes I need lots of distance – a wide moat. Sometimes I don’t need so much distance – a narrow moat.  I recall one Christmas as a little kid feeling embarrassed (upset) on Christmas day when all the people were watching me open presents. I decided to take all my unopened presents to my room upstairs. That was like putting a large moat between me and the people whose eyes seemed to be invading me. Working with clients, I often meet people who seem to have almost no sense of self. Perhaps they come from a family where no one had boundaries skills. I sometimes suggest a period of time living alone away from the family – 500 miles for a year. This would be a very large moat. I think of the moat as the passive portion of my boundaries that I can take advantage of to protect myself from upset.

The Alligator

In that moat are some powerful critters. They will do things, on their own, to help me stay away from upset.

I often work with domestic violence situations. Clearly the victim wants some peace and quiet. A restraining order activates the police who will often strongly act to keep the perpetrator away from the victim. I think of the police as alligators, helpful for a person needing a larger moat. I work with domestic violence so often I actually visualize the police as helpful alligators when they drive by.

The Wall

Another part of my boundaries are things I have built or bought. I think of the wall of my house, the walls of my bedroom, work room, office, the sides of my car as castle walls. The fence around my property is a type of wall.  The program on my computer that eliminates bad email is a kind of wall. The term “firewall” is a computer word for a program that keeps other people outside my house from using my computer. Walls can be more or less effective and may be strong in some directions, and may be weak and have large holes in other directions.

The Gate and the Drawbridge

I think of the Gate and the Drawbridge as controllable parts of my Walls and my Moat. When I take a walk away from my wife, I think that I am raising my drawbridge and putting more moat between us. When I come back, I think I am lowering the drawbridge, letting her come across my moat – I am closer. When I close and lock my doors, when I hang up the phone, I think I am closing the gate. When I open my door, when I answer the phone, I am opening the gate. When I don’t answer the phone, I am leaving the gate shut.

The Soldiers: Boundary Skills

Each of us has active power to control and change our boundaries. I visualize this active component as “soldiers walking the walls.”  These soldiers open and close the doors. They raise and lower the drawbridge. They feed, or call up, the alligators. They are the ones who put out the fire in my castle – they soothe my upset.  Like the other components of boundaries, they protect me from invasion or upset. They do things. If they are well trained, they don’t need to be told their job. They will do the right thing automatically. They just need to be well trained. I think of these soldiers as my Boundary Skills.

Boundaries For Couples

Although this series of articles focuses on boundaries for individuals, I have written another article on boundaries from the framework of a couple. In it, I try to answer the following questions:

  1. Why does my partner drive me crazy at times? And why do I drive my partner crazy at times?
  2. What to do when I get upset with my partner – when I lose it?
  3. What to do when my partner gets upset – when they lose it?
  4. What to do to help prevent myself from losing it and help prevent them from losing it?


Taken from Boundaries for Individuals: The Essay  © Al Turtle 2004.

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One Response to Personal Boundaries – Part I: An Introduction To Boundaries

  1. Pingback: Boundaries In Marriage - Part I: Couples In Intimate Relationships - Marriage AdvocatesMarriage Advocates

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