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aprilsimnel's avatar

What's the difference between a "personal boundary" and a "putting up a wall"?

Asked by aprilsimnel (30622 points ) November 19th, 2009

I’ve come to see recently that I don’t truly know the difference between a boundary and a wall.

I want to be more approachable, but I don’t know how to do this very well. I always want to keep people at arm’s length until I can assess whether they are a threat to me, especially men. This basic lack of trust in people is almost certainly is an old childhood defence mechanism, which was utterly necessary then. Jellies who’ve been here long enough know that I had good reason to be afraid of people in general and men in particular as a child.

But it’s not helping me now, not with jobs, relationships, making new friends… I need to know the difference between a wall and a boundary so I can be more approachable. I want to assert myself confidently in the world, stop worrying that I’m about to be used or hurt and feel confident that I can get away from people who make my “Spidey senses” tingle in a “self-assured adult woman” way, and not a “frightened little girl” way.

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10 Answers

nina's avatar

The difference is only in the point of view

oratio's avatar

I guess strict “personal boundaries” are about integrity, and “putting up a wall” as you say, alienating people. I guess mainly it’s about intent.

I realize I am not helping with this comment, but I can relate. I have – for other reasons – the same problem. I think. I have the options of living my life, or to box myself in and wake up in 20 years and wonder where my life went. I think that one has to just stop think so much, about maybe’s and what if’s. I read somewhere that we as an animal are risk takers. Survival skills include taking risks and reaping the rewards of it. In modern society we still seem to have the urge of taking risks. Mountain climbing, sky diving, gambling, race driving.

I suspect that denying ourselves the opportunity of taking risks is denying a key element of ourselves. It helps us gain confidence and self assertion. I feel knowing who you are and taking command of your private sphere is one of the most important aspects of life, and the way to form a state of integrity.

Harp's avatar

Great question! The difference is mutability.

Personal boundaries are a necessary way of preserving a healthy balance of power in a relationship. Until trust is established, the boundaries are rather firm and impermeable. Once trust is established, the boundaries are relaxed and can be nudged now here, now there, as the partners accommodate each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s trust that makes this flexibility possible. With full trust, the boundary can occasionally be lowered altogether, with confidence that neither partner will try to make a power grab. The boundary can, of course, also be refortified in response to a breach of trust. It’s mutable.

“The wall” is what happens when the boundary becomes petrified because of an inability to trust. It has only one state: impenetrability. The fear of having someone exercise unwelcomed power over you is so strong that you make every effort to make sure that the wall is unbreachable.

five99one's avatar

Boundaries are easier to get over than walls.

Siren's avatar

@Harp: I like your answer.

Here’s my 2 cents: I think everyone has their own personal boundaries at work and in their social lives, and it only gets recognized when one feels it has been crossed, when you feel your personal space has been violated. Putting up a wall, on the other hand, is something you are doing on your own instinctively, sort of not allowing people the opportunity to get to know you better, even if on a superficially friendly level.

I think you can start by establishing your own boundaries for yourself to others by example. You talk about what you want to talk about or what you are comfortable talking about in social and work settings, and people will follow your cue. As for putting up a wall, it’s a state of mind, and I think a knee-jerk reaction. Some of us do it in awkward social situations when we suddenly feel insecure and not the life of the party. I’ve had that happen on occasion where I suddenly “clam up” at a party. But if you feel you’re doing it on a regular basis to the point of “putting up a wall”, just try baby steps every day to talk to people a little bit. Maybe after a while it will start to feel natural and you won’t be worrying as much about trusting people, but just enjoying the moment of dialogue and communication.

MagsRags's avatar

You mentioned your “spidey sense”. Maybe it would help to visualize that like one of those invisible dog fences? Not to take that anaolgy too far, but you’ve got that to protect you, so it’s OK to let yourself be seen and to interact with others, knowing that you’ll be able to use your power to call a halt when someone crosses the line. When you have a solid fence up, you can’t see the view or be seen by others.

Buttonstc's avatar

I think that boundaries are based in assertiveness and well reasoned and thought out ahead of time.

Walls are based in fear.

It is especially difficult for those of us whose natural boundaries have been violated at an early age have difficulty in knowing how to recognize and maintain healthy boundaries rather than reflexively just hiding behind walls for protection.

I heard a really gods description of this by a speaker at an ACOA group. He had grown up in a severely dysfunctional alcoholic home.

But what he said rings true for anyone who has had their boundaries trampled while in childhood for any reason.

He said: “We spend so much of our time guessing at what normal is.

When children have been violated and had their innocence and sense of trust shattered, it leads to them having to resort to many sub optimal ways of dealing with life. What was once an effective coping mechanism enabling survival now turns into an unhealthy way to go through life.

One cannot be constantly in “fight or flight” mode and hyper vigilant all through the rest of life. But trying to create normal or even figure out what it is is so daunting.

The natural odds of things is for children to be safe and sheltered by the adults in their lives so that they can learn what life is all about. When an adult violates the natural boundaries of childhood and harms them physically or emotionally, their ability to trust is forever compromised.

Children have a right to be free frm fear of those whose role it is to care for them. But once that trust boundary is violated that fear enters in and results in being the basis for their reactions in much of the rest of their lives.

There are a few things that I’ve found helpful.

The first is to remind myself that I am no longer a powerless child. I have choices. I can choose to create a healthier “family of intention” to replace my dysfunctional family of origin. Biology is not destiny.

Secondly, in whatever choices I make or actions I take, it’s usually best to avoid the rigid, black and white dichotomy of labeling as right or wrong. It’s far more helpful to determine if it is healthy or unhealthy for me. This helps to avoid the pattern of self-blame that we are so used to.

That’s just a brief encapsulation of a few of the realizations that several years of therapy brought.

And I will use one of my favorite quotes which I saw on a button at a clown convention.

” it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. ”

YARNLADY's avatar

Boundry = a negotiable line that can be crossed
Wall = stop

PandoraBoxx's avatar

I think the difference has to do with communication. You let other people know what the boundaries are up front, and what the gate is. Walls appear out of nowhere, with no explanation, and no communication. With boundaries, you give other people the chance to meet you half way before you become unapproachable.

For example, if you’re not interesting in having sex with someone you date until you’re sure you’re attracted to them, telling them upfront that it isn’t going to happen until you’re sure you’re attracted to them “that way” is setting boundaries. Rebuffing their advances without saying why is putting up walls.

If you would prefer that people not share TMI about their sex lives, say that you’re not comfortable with that as a topic of discussion at work, and that you would prefer to change the subject is setting boundaries. Avoiding people because they talk that way without telling them why you’re avoiding them is putting up a wall.

noraasnave's avatar

Walls are all about survival.

Boundaries are all about healthy living.

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