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University of Basel

This side and that. (02/2023)

This far and no further!

Interview: Noëmi Kern

In everyday life, we set boundaries with our fellow human beings to a greater or lesser extent. Developmental psychologist Alexander Grob explains how this can strengthen our own identity.

A couple in a swimming pool with a swimming hoop separating them.
A principle of interpersonal relationships: If both sides respect the space of the other, an encounter at eye level is possible. (Photo: 123RF, anekoho)

UNI NOVA: What do boundaries mean in the field of psychology?

Alexander Grob: In psychology, a boundary is understood as a mental demarcation between two people or between different groups. Boundaries promote self-awareness and form the basis of identity. Developing, challenging, and, if necessary, fine-tuning one’s own opinions in contrast to or in agreement with other people is the foundation of personality development. There is much evidence in psychology that, over time, groups and individuals create and further differentiate their own systems of norms. Norms developed by groups help the members distinguish themselves from other groups. In this way, the identity of one’s group is strengthened. A person must fit in with these norms if they want to belong to a certain group.

Why is it important to set boundaries?

Setting boundaries signals: “This far and no further. This is my own special realm, where I am the boss. You have no business here.” A person who doesn’t or can’t set these boundaries is in danger of being overwhelmed, not heard or even used by others. Then that person develops a feeling of: “What I think and say is not important to others. Others don’t listen to me. It doesn’t matter what I do; others decide about me.”

The more precisely and clearly a person communicates in accordance with their own feelings and the more sensitively their counterpart responds to the signals of this person, the more beneficial their encounter will be to personality development. What is key here is that both parties recognize and respect the difference — i.e., the boundary — between them. If one person oversteps the boundary and determines how the other person is supposed to perceive a feeling or an issue, the person affected experiences this as a threat to their integrity and sometimes as an attack.

The healthy reaction is then for the threatened individual to close themselves off, thereby setting a boundary. In everyday life, open boundaries are more comfortable than closed ones. However, both kinds can promote personal development and are equally integral to identity development.

To what extent do boundaries support identity formation?

Particularly in adolescence and young adulthood, it’s about exploring who you are in your relationships with other people, but also without them — this includes parents, partners, friends, teachers, supervisors, etc. This is about fine-tuning: On the one hand, there is the question of other people’s expectations of you, whether you can and want to meet these expectations, or whether you dismiss them. On the other, it’s about discovering to what extent fulfilling these expectations corresponds to or contradicts your own life plan. If you don’t set boundaries, the process of developing your own identity becomes more difficult.

Why do boundaries have the potential for conflict, especially between adolescents and their parents?

Parents are often in the situation of “overpowering” their adolescent children, just as children often “overpower” their parents. For parents, this is often the expression of a sometimes exaggerated concern for the child.

For example, if parents don’t know where and with whom their child spends their free time, or if the child does not come home at the agreed time and then disappears into their room without a word of greeting, the parents become concerned. The next day, they interrogate the child and want to know what exactly happened. At the same time, the child doesn’t want to speak: “Screw you; I'll be 16 soon and then I can go out with whoever I want, for as long as I want.” To reassure their parents, young people in these situations often invent untruths or make future promises that they can’t keep. Basically, both sides in this example have failed to respect the other’s boundary. The risk is then that the situation escalates.

Is this just part of the process of becoming independent, or could it be done differently?

The above example makes it clear that young people need boundaries. But parents, and people in social networks in general, need boundaries, too. A new balance is needed between parents and children.

This involves respecting the other as a person with their own needs, a person who takes responsibility for their own autonomy. Parents should recognize and talk about the fact that their reason for crossing the boundary is their fear for the child. So, “I want to know where and who you were out with, because I’m so worried. I realize this is my fear.” The adolescent, on the other hand, wants to try out new spaces by themselves and doesn’t want to share this with their parents.

When the anxiety on the part of the parents and the desire for independence on the part of the child are addressed, a new kind of encounter takes place. Then, it’s no longer necessary to mark the boundary. Rather, it’s a matter of letting the other person share your own experience and also exploring with them where your own responsibilities and those of the other person lie.


More articles in this issue of UNI NOVA (November 2023).

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