Friday, December 4, 2009

Interpersonal Boundaries What are They?


. . While his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it.

When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, "Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you?
"Why were you searching for me?" he asked. "Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?"

Luke 2:43, 48-49

Lately I have been thinking about interpersonal boundaries. In counseling it comes up frequently as an issue. How much control do we have over the daily decisions of our lives? Who makes the decisions and why? Who suffers the consequences? How much do I share of myself and my opinions with those around me? How comfortable am I with conflict and how do I go about dealing with unresolved disagreements between myself and others? All of these questions have to do with interpersonal boundaries. I thought I would spend a few weeks focusing on these types of questions from a psychological and biblical perspective.

Why biblical? I think Jesus is the best example of how to maintain appropriate boundaries. He grew up in a large family and later lived and worked with twelve quirky guys. He frequently dealt with demanding people. People either loved or hated him. Wherever he went he drew crowds. Jesus had experience with maintaining healthy interpersonal boundaries.

Let's first define interpersonal boundaries. It is really a fancy way of defining where I begin and you end. The most obvious interpersonal boundary is our skin. I physically begin where I have skin. My external body defines my physical space. But I also have a psychological boundary. Just as my skin shapes and defines my physical space, my psychological boundary shapes and defines my interior world or my "Self" (who I am and who I am not).

Most of us don't spend much time observing and knowing our psychological "Self," whereas, it is a national preoccupation to spend energy on our physical selves. Just watch how many television commercials during primetime hours are about clothing, dieting, teeth, and hair. Despite this obsession with exterior attractiveness, many of us don't really know ourselves. How much sleep do you actually need? What is your favorite color? What foods do you really like to eat? What emotionally rejuvenates you? Too many of us don't know the answers to these simple questions. Yet these answers help to make up what defines and shapes us.

Jesus at the age of 12 already knew himself perfectly. He didn't stay behind in Jerusalem out of disobedience, it was goal-directed behavior. He knew his purpose and wasn't afraid to pursue it, despite the possibility of upsetting his parents. He let his purpose direct and define him. I find Jesus' question to his parents interesting. "Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?" Both parents knew that Jesus was God's son and that he came for a special purpose, yet they forgot and were surprised by his behavior. Jesus didn't let this parental oversight change his direction. He wasn't intimidated or emotionally manipulated by others. Jesus' interpersonal boundaries were well formed.

How can you and I improve our interpersonal boundaries? Begin to pay attention. What bores you? Fatigues you? Excites you? What do you like and dislike? Why? When? What do you spend most of your time thinking about? Why? If you became as invested and interested in your interior self as you are with your physical self, you will begin to know yourself. Why is knowing your "Self" important? Why spend all this effort and time? You can only begin to have better boundaries when you know what and who you are protecting. Just as our skin acts as a barrier, we need psychological barriers too. But you can't resist or invite something through your interpersonal boundary unless you know what belongs to you or is a part of you. If you want healthier boundaries, then this is the place to start. Have fun with it!


  1. Thanks Kerry, I sure enjoyed your post. Sometimes I wish I could see my emotions more clearly, like they had some skin on them :D