If we’re going to talk boundaries, we might as well start with driving. My driving, your driving, and especially everyone else’s driving.
The late comedian George Carlin famously quipped that “anyone who’s driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac.” After all, who hasn’t felt the frustration of being stuck behind a slow mover or the outrage of almost being hit by a road hog?
Whether they’re Sunday drivers or backseat drivers, tailgate drivers or distracted drivers, those who speed up when we’re trying to pass or those who stop when they’re trying to merge, all types of drivers share the road with us. The opportunities for all of us to get in each other’s way — and to tick each other off — are simply endless.
Yet the truth behind Carlin’s joke is that each one of us typically believes that we’re driving at the perfect speed, and, more important, if everyone else could only drive the way we do, we’d all be safely home in time for tea.
A possible explanation for this collective delusion is that we can’t bear the reality of how dependent we are on the driving skills of others to stay safe on the road. We unconsciously inflate our own semblance of control to help ourselves feel better. But no matter how we try to fool ourselves, the truth remains: We are all completely interdependent and interconnected, not only on the road but in all aspects of life.
This brings us to the slippery topic we call boundaries. Boundaries help us navigate the traffic of our personal relationships. They help us draw the line between what’s mine and what’s yours. They determine where I end and where you begin, how I manage myself and my needs in the presence of you and your needs, and how we manage relationships so that all feel respected and safe.
The Three Types of Personal Boundaries
Here’s the key:
As adults, we can adjust how much we give of ourselves and how much of others we absorb, even if they are not operating with clear boundaries themselves.
We learn about personal boundaries in our families of origin, so it makes sense that it was a family therapist who first drew them on paper. When Salvador Minuchin met with families, he would watch for clues about how they operated: who sat next to whom, who responded to questions, who interrupted, who took up more emotional space than others, and who would shrink to keep the peace.
Armed with his observations, Minuchin would then draw a family map depicting the three types of boundaries he saw at work: the clear boundary, the diffuse boundary, and the rigid boundary. To understand how they function, we need to get back on the road.
1. Clear Boundaries
Clear personal boundaries look a bit like lane dividers on the highway — long, thin stripes with gaps between them. The stripes help us stay in our lane, while the gaps tell us that we may change lanes if we choose. If we do switch lanes, we have a responsibility to other drivers to make sure that we don’t run into them, or force them to brake or swerve to avoid us.
Observing clear boundaries on the road means remaining in our lane, adjusting our speed to go with the flow of traffic, checking our mirrors and blind spots, and clearly signaling our intentions (that’d be our blinkers, people) before changing lanes so that nobody is taken by surprise.
When we maintain clear personal boundaries, the long stripes distinguish where we end and where others begin. The gaps allow us to relate — sharing parts of ourselves with others and receiving what others choose to share with us. There is clarity about what belongs to whom, so we can hold on to the essence of who we are — with all of our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, stories, and value systems — while still allowing others to be close to us if we choose.
Clear boundaries free up cognitive and emotional energy. They also allow us to be welcoming and curious toward others, including those who may be different from us or who do things differently than we do.
During conflict, clear boundaries enable us to acknowledge the importance of the relationship, take responsibility for any harm done (whether intentional or inadvertent), and invite conversation about how to meet everyone’s needs moving forward.
Here’s the key:
As adults, we can adjust how much we give of ourselves and how much of others we absorb, even if they are not operating with clear boundaries. For example, if we know someone can’t keep a secret, we stick to public topics. If someone loves to chat and we’re short on time, we don’t tempt them with open-ended questions. If we’re interacting with someone who tends to emote in big ways, we can be kind without trying to comfort, offering them the chance to feel their competence.
2. Diffuse Boundaries
Think of a time you were driving along, minding your own business, when the lane markers suddenly jogged sharply, disappeared, or were replaced by disparately placed cones. That’s what a diffuse boundary looks like.
We may intend to stay in our lane, but it’s hard to see where the lines are, and we can inadvertently merge into someone else’s lane or find them veering into ours. Roads without predictable lane dividers are trickier to navigate: Everyone must be on high alert and ready to adjust, which is chaotic and exhausting for all involved.
Diffuse boundaries in life:
The exchange of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and value systems — as well as physical or sexual touch — is so overwhelming that it’s hard to know what’s ours and what belongs to others.
Diffuse boundaries in life look a lot like diffuse boundaries on the road: It’s unclear who has the right of way, and at least one person must constantly anticipate and adjust to whatever the other might decide to do. Such relationships may be described as “enmeshed,” “engulfed,” “fused,” or “merged.”
If we operate with diffuse boundaries, we may struggle to maintain our own feelings and point of view in the presence of other people. Their anxiety causes us to feel anxious, or their anger makes us feel small and afraid. Meanwhile, a kind and comfortable person causes us to feel a sense of secure well-being.
We may mistake this sensitivity to others as “empathing,” but being caught in an endless cycle of reaction to other people’s thoughts and feelings is more likely the hallmark of a diffuse boundary. A healthy empath can read a person or a room without needing to respond in any way.
3. Rigid Boundaries
On the road, solid, continuous lines mean Do Not Cross. These are deployed when it’s too dangerous to switch lanes, such as in a narrow tunnel, or on two-lane roads where oncoming traffic isn’t visible. The Do Not Cross line means you need to stay in your lane, because a collision would have serious implications.
Rigid boundaries in life:
We are in close proximity to the other person, but any attempts at relationship get rebuffed.
The rigid boundary is the opposite of the diffuse boundary, and it’s the rigid boundaries in life that give the whole concept a bad name. When we exclaim, “I’m drawing a boundary!” we rarely mean “Our relationship matters to me, and I’d like to discuss how we could do it better.”
Instead, we mean something closer to “I’m cutting you off, because I’m too conflict-avoidant to ask if we could do this differently.” Such abrupt disengagements can be confusing, even traumatizing, especially if they awaken old wounds.
What’s more, the person being ostracized often has no idea the other was unhappy.
The only time a rigid boundary is called for is when repeated requests for a clear boundary have been ignored, or when the line-crossing is so egregious that it causes significant harm, such as in the case of threatened or actual physical or sexual violence. Otherwise, it’s more appropriate to begin the work of creating healthier boundaries.
The Childhood Road Trip
If no one modeled clear boundaries for us when we were children, we may have no idea that they’re even an option. As adults, we might find ourselves bouncing between the diffuse boundary, where we feel routinely overwhelmed by other people’s needs, and the rigid boundary, where we meet our own needs at any cost, including at the expense of others.
This makes sense if you think of growing up in a family with diffuse boundaries as an endless road trip. We’re strapped in the back seat between the poking of one sibling and the whining of another, hearing the fight between our parents in the front. Add to that the driver’s refusal to stop for a bathroom break, and we have absolutely no control over our well-being or our destination.
Naturally, when we get our license as a teenager, we feel entitled to crank up the music and drive wherever and however we like, without a second thought for anyone else on the road or who else might need the car.
But we don’t need to drive like our teenage self to have some control over our well-being.
A Road Map to Better Boundaries
The following strategies can make strong, clear boundaries much easier for us to find, even if no one ever showed us the way.
1. Match your words with your energy.
A little-known fact about boundaries is that they have less to do with what we say and more to do with how we say it. Ideally, our words and our energy match, creating congruence. If our boundaries are diffuse or rigid, congruence is unlikely.
This is best illustrated by the sentence “I’m fine.” How we say this can mean anything from “I’m doing well, thanks for asking” to “I’m actually not fine, and maybe we could talk about it later” or even “I’m not fine, I’m furious, and it’s all your fault!”
A mismatch between our words and energy requires others to decode our statements, which can create confusion and anxiety. It also indicates that we’re operating from a diffuse boundary.
Alternatively, if we slam out of the house and turn off our phone, we’ve just created a rigid boundary, cutting off the relationship altogether.
If we’re not fine, and especially if we’re angry or hurt, and we would like to operate from a clear boundary, the best move is to own it and ask for some time. This could sound like, “Thanks for asking how I am. I’m not OK, but I need a bit of time alone before I can talk about it.” This congruent way of communicating honors us and the relationship.
2. Offer truth, good wishes, and no excuses.
People know when we’re lying, fudging, avoiding, or agreeing resentfully. Thanks to the energy accompanying our words, it just feels icky. So, what to do when we need space for ourselves, but we still want to protect the other’s feelings?
One useful formula is Truth, Good Wishes, and No Excuses. Start by being honest, and avoid any kind of excuse. Saying, “I can’t come because my sister will be here” not only invites negotiation (“Bring her along!”) but also creates the potential for judgment or hurt feelings about your priorities (“You could see your sister anytime”). Skipping the excuses avoids both of those detours. Conclude by offering goodwill to care for the connection.
These are some examples of clear-boundary responses that follow this formula. Notice how they create space and honor the relationship at the same time:
Declining invitations: “I won’t be making it, but I hope you have a lovely time.”
No second date: “It’s not a fit for me, but I wish you all the best.”
When a meeting runs long: “I have a hard stop at 5, but I’d love to chat another time.”
Saying no to a request for a favor: “That’s not going to work for me, but I hope you find a solution!”
Deflecting an intrusive inquiry: “I really appreciate your concern. It’s so kind of you to ask.” Full stop.
3. Take up your space, your whole space, and nothing but your space.
When we talk about people with “bad” boundaries, we usually mean those who take up too much space: talking incessantly, standing too close, emoting too dramatically, and eating more than their fair share of the pie. Someone who parks a noisy, gas-guzzling truck across two parking spots or drags an oversize roller bag onto the plane.
Yet while the “too-much-spacers” do impinge upon the rights and needs of others, they also take care of their own needs, and they’re genuinely baffled by those who don’t.
It’s important to recognize that those of us who don’t take up our space or care for our needs create just as much of a burden on a relationship as the gas-guzzlers. Whether we call our diffuse boundaries self-sacrifice, martyrdom, or codependence, our burnout and resentment also land on everyone else’s shoulders.
If we want to do something truly relational, we must first make sure we can give our time, energy, or service freely, without strings or expectations.
For example, heroic, “selfless” acts can almost never be repaid. We might think we’re helping when we offer a kidney to a distant relative even if it will put us out of commission for weeks, or when we allow our sister’s family to stay rent-free in our home for a year while we sleep on the couch. Such grand gestures can create a chasm of indebtedness that makes it almost impossible to maintain a balanced relationship.
If we want to do something truly relational, we must first make sure we can give our time, energy, or service freely, without strings or expectations. Then we honor the other person’s boundary by asking their permission before we help. Finally, we give them the dignity of returning the favor — or at least paying it forward.
“Your playing small doesn’t serve the world,” writes author and spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson. Indeed, one of the greatest acts of love — which is also the greatest demonstration of clear boundaries — is taking up our space, caring for ourselves, and meeting our own needs, thus freeing up everyone in our lives to do the same.
Improving our boundaries
If we’re going to improve our boundaries, we might as well start with driving. My driving, your driving, and especially everyone else’s driving. After all, who doesn’t appreciate a wave of thanks for letting someone into our lane, or some humor when we’re waiting on each other at the stop sign? The opportunities to extend grace and space to ourselves and our fellow travelers — whether anxious drivers or running-late drivers, professional drivers or vacation drivers — are simply endless. And the truth behind Carlin’s joke remains: There will always be those driving faster and those driving slower, yet all of us deserve to make it safely home for tea.
Sidebar: Energetic Boundaries
Our heartbeat generates an electromagnetic field that can be detected up to three feet away from our bodies on all sides, surrounding us in a sphere of energy — what could be described as an “energetic boundary.” This may be what we pick up on when we enter a room and can feel that a fight just happened, or someone is in shock, or something just isn’t right.
According to the research organization HeartMath, stressful emotions such as anger, frustration, and anxiety create an erratic, herky-jerky heart rhythm that is broadcast in this energetic field, putting everyone in our immediate sphere on edge.
Conversely, emotions such as compassion, appreciation, and love create a smooth, wavelike rhythm that invites everyone into a calmer, gentler state of being.
Breathwork, meditation, yoga, and the use of biofeedback devices can help us become more aware, not only of the rhythm of our heart but also of this energetic space we take up — our energetic boundary. When we learn to bring our heart into coherence, it helps us manage what enters our energetic space, as well as what we broadcast to others. (Learn more at heartmath.org.)
This article was written by Jane for the November 2022 issue of Experience Life magazine.
It was nominated for a national award. receiving an honorable mention.
View the online version, with cross-references to other articles, here.