Barbara Fish Counselling Services ... helping your life work

Crossing Boundaries

Helping Your Life Work

Volume 10, Issue 5

May 2014

One of the few scientific concepts that I recall from high school concerns the process of osmosis, in which fluid moves through a semi-permeable membrane from one side to the other in what I thought was a unidirectional path. But in researching it just now, I discovered that the flow could emanate from either side of the membrane, depending on the level of concentration on the other side.

Our personal boundaries might be equally porous and symbiotic. We may never have developed strong boundaries to protect our core self, thereby allowing others to invade our personal space at any time. At the same time, we may not acknowledge the needs of others to maintain their personal boundaries and may trespass into their space uninvited. When we consider our own porous boundaries, there are a number of possible reasons for having arrived at this state. If we lack confidence in who we are and what we believe in, it is easy to allow others to enter into our sphere of influence. If we want to win the affection and approval of others, or take care of their needs above our own, we may also leave the door wide open for whoever wants to enter. If we lack a sense of entitlement to ask for what we want and to say no to that which we don't, we allow everyone else's rights to take precedence over ours.

On the other hand, if we often find ourselves invading the space of others, there may be other reasons, such as our need to know, to be included or to control. For example, when friends and loved ones are looking stressed, we may be eager to find out what’s wrong. Even when they say that they don’t want to talk about it, we may persist in bugging them so we can get to the source of whatever the problem is. By so doing, we may be invading their need for privacy, and may be causing them to share more than what they wanted to. While we may think it is for their benefit, perhaps it is really more for us, so that we can feel like we are actually 'doing' something to help them feel better. By always being available to 'assist' our loved ones, we may inadvertently contribute to undermining their confidence to figure things out for themselves.

This is particularly true in parenting our children. In her book, Kids Are Worth It! Giving Your Child the Gift of Inner Discipline, parenting guru Barbara Coloroso described three parenting styles: The Brickwall, The Jellyfish and The Backbone. As the names imply, the Brickwall parent is stern, rigid and unwilling to bend to the child's requests. The Jellyfish is spineless and allows any and all things to control how he or she operates. And the parent with Backbone is one who is strong enough to be assertive and disciplined or flexible as needed.

In learning to strengthen our boundaries, we may want to develop more of a Backbone approach. We can still demonstrate our love and affection with our loved ones, for example, by politely asking if they want our help and accepting their answer. And if our willingness to volunteer to do for or take care of others is very strong, we may practice saying no and allowing things to unfold as they will. This will be a challenge for those of us for whom caretaking is our main identity. It will require us to look after ourselves more than others, which may feel uncomfortable and possibly selfish.

If you would like to talk about difficulties that you may be having with your boundaries, please give me a call.

Barbara Fish, M.Ed.
Personal and Career Counsellor
“Helping Your Life Work”

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For more information, or to book an appointment at her Toronto office,
please contact Barbara by telephone at 416-498-1352 or by email at