We can differentiate between three broad categories of boundaries: Static, Dynamic and Strategic. These boundary types differ in their degree of adaptiveness to changing circumstances in the environment. Let’s look at each in turn.
- Static boundaries don’t change in response the environment in such a way as to improve the protective function of the boundary. Consider the way an island’s wildlife might be protected from predators on the mainland by being surrounded by water and may therefore thrive on that island environment. At least until one of those predators finds its way onto the island somehow, then, quite suddenly, the boundary serves the predator and prevents escape of the island’s tasty residents.
- Dynamic boundaries change in response to environmental stimuli in a way that serves to improve their protective function. This change generally occurs in response to genetic or other automatized programming. The boundary adapts to a specific stimulus, but in a programmed way. A while ago my family adopted a dog from the shelter. He was a handsome young fella named Buck, mostly Yellow Lab, but apparently at least partly Golden Retriever based on having a longer, softer coat than most labs. Then we got him home and he started spending most of his time inside. All that long, soft hair that I thought meant he was part Golden Retriever came off the dog and attached itself to our carpet, which then looked like IT was part Golden Retriever. We knew that this dog had been picked up by animal control as a stray over the winter, so I realized that he had just grown a more protective, shaggier coat during a period of having to adapt to a colder environment. This was a Dynamic Boundary in action, he was adapted to the cold outdoors environment, but when he became an inside dog his protective boundary, fur, dynamically adjusted to the new situation. But Buck didn’t choose this change, it was a natural and programmed response to the environment.
On this blog, when I talk about people just unthinkingly repeating boundary patterns that they learned during their developmental years or reacting against those boundary patterns out of anger and rebelliousness, I’m talking about people employing Static and Dynamic Boundaries.
Repeating old, learned boundary patterns tends to be an engagement in a Static Boundary pattern – they are what they are and they do what they do that’s pretty much that. There tends to be a great deal of rigidity in the expression of their boundary patterns such that they don’t change much at all and there is also a very limited range of expression in these boundary patterns.
Not infrequently, this can progress to the level of expressing Dynamic Boundaries such that they change reflexively based on external cues. For example, the way someone who has been harshly punished or abused as a child may cower and withdraw as an adult when someone raises their voice.
Boundaries that exist as an emotionally driven reaction against previously learned boundary patterns also tend to be Dynamic Boundaries in that they may change or be expressed differently in different circumstances, but this is usually automated and pre-programmed behavior that occurs when an external event triggers certain emotions. In this way it is similar to the example in the last paragraph, but opposite in expression. So that same person who was harshly punished or abused as a child may, as an adult have the initial instinct to cower and withdraw when someone raises their voice, but reacts instead with angry lashing out.
In both of these examples, one of the tools to escape their often maladaptive and unhelpful response (cowering or lashing out) is development of the skills of Strategic Boundaries…
- Strategic Boundaries change as circumstances in the environment change, as do Dynamic Boundaries, but unlike Dynamic Boundaries, Strategic Boundaries are consciously adapted and altered to improve the protective function of the boundary in various situations of unpredictable complexity. On a football team the offensive line serves as a boundary to protect the quarterback. The members of the offensive line can adapt their positions and movements to maximize their protective effectiveness (keep the defense away from the quarterback). These adaptations are made in response to what the defensive players are doing now, have done in the past, or appear to be about to do. Strategic boundaries are very powerful and are the most functional of these three types because they can be effective in a variety of circumstances, including circumstances that have never been seen before. Strategic boundaries require a level of conscious intelligence that static and dynamic boundaries do not. Imagine if, when we brought Buck home from the animal shelter he looked around and said, “phew, it’s warm in here!” peeled off his fuzzy, yellow coat like a London Fog trench and hung it on a hanger in the closet. That would be some impressive Strategic Boundary management and also would have really freaked us out because Buck was quite the slob and he would never have hung his coat up without being told to, he would have just thrown it on the floor.
In this video a bear surprises the crew of a commercial shoot and demonstrates an impressive Strategic Boundary.
The Human Boundaries Model is about developing the knowledge, skills and tools of Strategic Boundaries. That is why the three steps of boundary placement; “Know, Set, Defend” are so important. These steps are what it takes to understand what boundary is appropriate for this situation, how to get that boundary in place so that it serves it’s protective function well, and how to keep it there in the face of resistance as long as it seems the most appropriate way to maintain it’s protective function.
Strategic Boundary skills allow more positive, more effective and more adaptive coping while maintaining the essential protective function. For example, take those two adults in the previous illustrations. Both of them were harshly punished or abused as children, one of them, when someone else raises their voice, tends to react with a cowering fearful kind of self-protection, and the other with an angry lashing out kind of self-protection. Both can use Strategic Boundary skills and knowledge to maintain the necessary self-protection while adapting their boundary behavior to the demands of the actual circumstance in the present moment. Accomplishing this improves relational functioning, increases self-efficacy and self-confidence and provides the tools these individuals need to continue adapting their boundary responses in other circumstances and situations. All the while increasing their confidence that personal safety, autonomy and development of their individual identity can be maintained in these varying circumstances.
Strategic Boundaries are intelligently and consciously chosen and are placed dynamically, adaptively and confidently. They are the most effective and functional of the three types of boundaries described here – Static, Dynamic and Strategic – and humans have a high capacity for making use of these Strategic Boundaries. The Human Boundaries Model discussed in this blog is intended to provide the knowledge and skills to maximize Strategic Boundary use in all the varied circumstances of our lives.
Steve Ater, Psy.D.
The Boundary Doc