Boundaries get a lot of attention these days, for good reason. Boundaries are what separate you from others. Not physically or permanently, but boundaries are the invisible representations that differentiate you from any and everyone else. They are what honor you as you, and not anyone else. Pretty abstract, right? In trying to build understanding, it’s possible to use art therapy to explore boundaries.
In their most simple form, boundaries are the limits that you set for yourself, especially around others. They are important for maintaining a sense of self, for respecting your own needs, and keeping you in touch with your experience and what is best for you. Imagine boundaries as an invisible bubble around your whole body. Now imagine that everyone around you also has an invisible bubble that surrounds them. This is your space, theirs is theirs (physically and emotionally). Of course, you can allow others into your bubble and might often delight in this kind of experience, but the important part is that you allow others into your bubble when you choose. Someone else entering your bubble is not expected or forced. In a similar way, you do not enter anyone else’s bubble without their permission.
Boundaries are important in respecting your autonomy within a relationship. Relationships here are understood to be very broad—they can be work, family, school, personal, romantic, and even relationships with strangers. Healthy boundaries allow you to say no to others when you want to, but can also allow you to open yourself up to intimacy and closeness when desired. They allow you to make the best decisions for you.
Art Therapy Directive to Explore Boundaries
Because the concept of boundaries is so abstract, it is normal to struggle with understanding your own boundaries. Someone might ask if you feel you have healthy, rigid, or porous boundaries and you are unsure how to answer or where to even start. It is possible to use art to visually explore your boundaries when words are not readily apparent.
To begin, gather materials you’ll need. These include:
At least 2 large sheets of paper (legal size being the ideal minimum size)
Writing/drawing materials (these can include markers, colored pencils, ink pens, colored pencils, etc.)
A large surface to work on such as a desk or table
Once you have your materials ready, we’ll move onto mark making.Your task during this directive is ask yourself: if your boundaries were represented as a house, what would the house look like?
Keep in mind that there is no “ideal” or “perfect” house that you are aiming for. The goal of this exercise is for you to learn about your own concepts about boundaries, so we’ll leave the directive very open ended here in order to allow you to explore whatever comes to mind. In addition, being precise or photorealistic in your drawing is absolutely not necessary. There is no judging based on skill in art therapy! Not to mention, no one will see this image unless you decide to show them. Try your best to free yourself from the pressures of being “good at drawing”. In fact, allow yourself to make “bad” art. Maybe the “worst” art you’ve ever made. This will create a more open environment for you to visually express yourself and your ideas.
Take about 20 minutes to flesh this out. It’s best not to continue reading until you are done with your drawing.
Once you have finished, you can reflect on your experience during this part of the exercise. How was it to think about your boundaries as a house? How was it to be using visual representations to reflect your thoughts and ideas? Did you find any parts easier than others? More difficult? Did you ever feel paralyzed or stuck while you were making? If that did happen, what was going on? Did you learn anything about yourself or your understanding of your boundaries as you created?
Next, take a moment to observe what you have created. Some questions to guide your processing your drawing:
What is your initial reaction to your house? Does it look structurally sound? Is it more abstract or flexible? Notice the quality of the lines in various parts of the house. Where are they the strongest or most confident? Where do they seem wispy or uncertain? Does this give you any clue or prompt to understanding how you conceptualize your own boundaries?
How do people enter the house? Is there a path? What is the quality of the path? Is there more than one way to get in? Which rooms are others allowed into? Is everyone allowed into any room? Are there any rooms which are locked or off limits? If so, who is allowed to enter those rooms? How do they get in? How do they know they are allowed to enter?
What is the layout of the house? How do people move through space? Which room or rooms are you in? Where are you when others are in the house?
Take some time considering these questions and reflecting on how your initial image helps you to understand your own boundaries.
If you had a hard time fleshing out an elaborate house with walls, rooms, and who goes where when, it is possible you may not be thinking about your boundaries in concrete ways. Perhaps you find yourself “too” involved with others, finding yourself in situations you don’t want to be in, or have a hard time saying no, even to things you don’t really want to do. This might mean your boundaries lean loose or porous.
On the other hand, a heavily secure house with a locked gate, long walkway, special key to enter, and guests only being allowed to be in one room (an exaggeration, but you get the idea) may represent rigid boundaries. Maybe you have trouble getting close to others, or people have told you that it is hard to get to know you.
Of course, these are just examples and the only insight into your boundaries is not just gleaned from the drawing you create. Use your experience making, any thoughts that popped into your mind, difficulty or ease in the process in conjunction with your own interpretation of your drawing to guide your understanding of your boundaries. In addition, it is very natural to have different boundaries in different settings.
Understanding Types of Boundaries
Since there are so many words used to describe boundaries, you might be wondering what it means to have loose, strict, rigid, porous, or healthy boundaries.
Rigid or strict boundaries means others are kept at a distance. Those with rigid boundaries might seem detached (in friendships, with romantic partners, at work), they might avoid intimacy and close relationships, they are less likely to ask for help, and can be very protective of personal information. Having rigid boundaries is not inherently bad, especially because it is so common to have stricter boundaries in some settings (for example, work) than in others. Rigid boundaries especially in all contexts can keep people from connecting with others and develop intimate relationships that offer so much meaning.
Porous or loose boundaries are on the opposite side of the spectrum. If boundaries are loose it might mean that others are too close. This could look like having difficulty saying no to the request of others, oversharing personal information, feeling dependent on other people’s opinions, frequently being over involved in other people’s problems, accepting disrespect or having a hard time advocating for yourself. Similar to rigid boundaries, loose boundaries are not inherently bad but in excess can lead to feeling exhausted, used, or taken advantage of.
It is incredibly helpful to find a middle ground, that’s where healthy boundaries come in. Common traits of healthy boundaries include valuing your own opinion, sharing personal information on your own terms, standing by your values (and not compromising them for others), knowing your personal wants, needs, and being able to communicate them.
Using Art Therapy To Explore Desired Boundaries
For many people, it is common to find areas in their lives where boundaries are not operating in healthy ways. In that case, it is important to consider what you want your boundaries to look like. Here again, you can use visual expression to help.
This time around, think about the house you want your boundaries to represent. What does the house look like? You can ask yourself all of the same reflection questions, this time thinking about your goal for your boundaries rather than as they are now. Who is allowed into the house? In what rooms? How do they know to enter? How will they get in? You can even think about your boundaries in a very specific context like at work or in your family. What are the ideal nuances and rules of your house then?
Spend time thinking through and creating this image using the second sheet of paper. You can also use the back of your original drawing. When you are done, you can reflect on the similarities and differences between your first and second drawing to help understand what you’re doing well and areas for growth. The two drawings together can be used to identify a road map for what you need to do in order to get to where you want to be.
Working with an Art Therapist
If you find yourself leaning toward one end of the boundary spectrum in some or most areas of your life, it can be helpful to meet with a therapist to explore how your boundaries have developed, evolved over time, and learn ways to shift them in new directions in order to positively impact your relationships and well-being. Art therapy exercises like this one can be utilized to help build your understanding of yourself and with the help of an art therapist in a supportive, open, and curious setting, you can use creative expression in your therapy journey. Therapists at The Center For Growth are well-versed in supporting clients who are working on boundaries and clients with specialized training in Art Therapy as well. Call our Art Therapist, Farhana, at 267-682-6958 to learn more or schedule an appointment.