What Are Your Boundaries and Containment Styles?

Boundaries are a vital part of the relationship we have with our environment and ourselves. They serve two primary purposes – to protect us from the outside world and to protect the outside world from us. In other words, they allow us to not be harmed by or to do harm to others. 

A combination of vulnerability, protection, and containment are the cornerstones of healthy boundaries and components of authentic connection. We have boundaries to help keep us safe from physical (we decide who, what, where, when and how someone else can touch us), emotional (when other people’s feelings and energy is used against us), and mental (when words, ideas, and judgments are used to hurt us) harm.

We learn about boundaries from our parents or primary caregivers. One of the symptoms of relational trauma is when we have a dysfunctional boundary system. We can be too open and vulnerable or too impenetrable and invulnerable. 

When our system is vulnerable, we allow others words, judgments, emotions and behaviors to infiltrate us on emotional, mental, spiritual and/or physical levels. We often feel like we are unable to protect ourselves, that we need someone else to protect us and that the only way we can feel protected is if we get very close to someone else. But we never feel close enough so we never feel safe. 

To have little to no boundaries is not a true connection, it is confusing intensity with intimacy.  When we are too open we feel out of control; our emotional safety depends on the external instead of the internal. We do not trust ourselves, our intuition, and our ability to keep safe our heart, mind, body and spirit. We feel victimized by our automatic reactions to people places and things. To be boundary-less is to be untethered. 

To be walled off shuts out the world and our biological need to connect. It stops us from fully experiencing life. We are more protected than those who are too open, but we are barely living. There is an inability to truly connect with others and we have great difficulty letting in others’ ideas, emotions, and thoughts. There is a feeling of numbness. 

On this side of the spectrum, we often feel that we cannot let anyone get close enough to us because intimacy means to be hurt. We present with a fear of intimacy, but underneath that fear is a deeper one—the fear of abandonment. We spend much of our energy not letting others inside because of the fear that if we do, they will leave us. To be boundary-full is to be lonely. 

These two dysfunctional boundary systems also affect containment; how we protect others from ourselves. Containment is about not engaging in physical, emotional, spiritual, or mental offenses.  When we are having trouble with containment – we will stand very close to others or can be in their face and we will touch others and their property without permission. 

When we are uncontained we have no filter, we say whatever comes to mind and do not or cannot contain our emotions. We will often blame others for our behavior, we can talk incessantly in an attempt to regulate our feelings and we can have difficulty containing our energy, sexual or otherwise. When we are overly contained we will be on the opposite side of these behaviors; we will rarely approach others for physical contact and will often not say what we are feeling or what is important to us. When we are overly contained we are vigilant about not rocking the boat. 

Containment like boundary issues are formed in early childhood and are a result of both the nature of a child and the dysfunction in the parents’ boundary and containment system. If a parent is uncontained with their anger and prone to rage, the child could either inherit the parent’s uncontained rage or he/she could become overly contained; not allowing themselves to express anger because of how scary it looked to them. In this case, the anger does not go away, it either transmutes into a more acceptable emotion for the child to express like sadness, or it turns inward, and the child experiences shame. 

Boundaries and containment styles do not necessarily correlate. Meaning, you may be walled off, but uncontained or you may have an open boundary system but are overly contained. Boundary systems are not fixed. We could find ourselves with different boundary issues depending on who we are dealing with and what they trigger inside of us. That is why presence is key to healing this network of self-care. First, we must become aware of which end of the spectrum we tend to be on – open or closed? Contained or uncontained?  Then, we start noticing when we are triggered what that feels like in our body.