The garden fence: an analogy for understanding boundaries

What are boundaries?

Boundaries are the limits and rules we set for ourselves within relationships. They are what we define as ‘OK’ and ‘not OK’ and help us to communicate what we need, want and find appropriate or not. For example, it could be a boundary in professional relationships (i.e. “it is OK for my colleagues to banter with me but it’s not OK for my colleagues to speak disrespectfully to me”). We also have similar boundaries with family members or romantic relationships and friendships. 

Boundaries vary from very strict to lose and they will be different for each person. Healthy boundaries are an important part of self-care because they help us control how other people respond to us and what we accept and don’t accept from others. Learning to create healthy boundaries with others is a key skill everyone should know but is rarely taught. 

Some people hold their boundaries too rigidly or too loosely, while healthy boundaries are normally somewhere in the middle. Loose boundaries can lead to anxiety, stress, codependency and our actual needs not getting met. For example, someone with loose boundaries might prioritise other people’s needs and let them walk all over them. They also notice they are very affected by other’s feelings and find it hard to separate their own thoughts, feelings and values from others. People who hold their boundaries too rigidly are often anxious about intimacy and close relationships with others and can be independent to the point of never or rarely asking for help. They hold themselves at a distance and are private and very self-protective. You can see how both of these styles can affect the relationships those people have with others.

The Garden Fence analogy

Counsellors love a metaphor and the garden fence is one of my favourites for helping to talk about boundaries! Imagine a garden surrounded by a fence. The fence represents your boundaries with others. Fences can look all different – some are tall, high brick walls you can’t see through and others are so low you can barely see them. For those who hold their boundaries very rigidly they are hiding behind these high walls and the people outside the wall can barely see them. Other people might be invited up to the wall but can’t proceed any further. It might as well have a “Keep out!” sign hung on the this fence and barbed wire all around. This can make it almost impossible to have meaningful connections with other people and be very isolating. 

Those with loose boundaries have low walls you can step over easily. They will have no control of who comes into their garden and what they do – they could trample all over your garden. It’s not clear where their boundary ends and other people’s begins. This can lead to resentment about the lack of respect for your space from others. 

A healthy boundary will look like a typical garden fence – it marks your property clearly for you others and you can see your neighbours over it but its high enough to offer security. You can invite those you choose into your garden through the gate in your fence and you can let them out the same way. 

The good thing about this analogy is that it is simple to visualise what boundaries are and how they work for you. 

Adjusting your boundaries

Recognising what your boundaries are with people is important as you can then have a choice about what you do with them. We have different boundaries with different people – we might not open our garden gate for those who we chose to keep at a distance and welcome in those we chose. If you find that you are anxious about emotional intimacy and keep others at a distance, you could consider loosening your boundary a little with a chosen few and see how this feels. Likewise, if you have very loose boundaries and find other people taking advantage of you and feeling resentful, you could try slowly strengthening a few boundaries causing you the most distress. This can take some self exploration and/or therapy to understand why you hold your boundaries this way and some support to create healthier ones that better meet your needs. 

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others”

-Brené Brown

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