Porous Boundaries or Emotional Permeability

If your parents didn't respect your needs and desires, you may have internalized the idea that you're not important. That's why you have a hard time setting healthy boundaries, saying "no", and prioritizing your own goals. How can you change this debilitating situation?
Porous Boundaries or Emotional Permeability
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 02 August, 2023

How were you raised? Did your caregivers validate all of your feelings and emotions? Did you grow up feeling that your needs were important? Perhaps not. Maybe, like thousands of others, you accepted that your mother’s or father’s needs took precedence. These early experiences usually leave serious consequences.

One of them, the most frequent, is the development of porous boundaries. That’s when you assume that there’s a really blurred line between what’s acceptable and intolerable in your life. In fact, not knowing how to set healthy boundaries is common among those who grew up in neglectful homes. It’s the vestige of a wound through which your self-esteem and self-respect escape.

Understanding defensive porosity, its origins, and how it manifests can help you strengthen your psychological barriers to others. They’re the kinds of borders that, if not respected, lead you into harmful relationships, feelings of dissatisfaction, and problems in feeling fulfilled. It was the psychologist and founder of structural family therapy, Salvador Minuchin, who first delved into this important topic.

Personal boundaries are key to developing good psychological self-care and to empowering ourselves as people.

Man suffering from porous limits
People with porous boundaries get too involved with others to the point of forgetting themselves.

Porous boundaries

Friends who always ask for favors. Siblings with passive-aggressive behaviors. Partners who ignore your values and prioritize their own desires and wishes. Setting boundaries is more necessary than you might think, especially in your relationships with those closest to you, those you live with.

In emotional territory, the borders between your needs and those of others become more fluid. So much so that they often end up becoming permeable. Porous boundaries appear when you become excessively involved in paying attention to those figures that make up your closest environment. In fact, you do it until you, effectively, completely dissolve into other people’s priorities.

The doctor and psychiatrist, Salvador Minuchin, explained in his 1982 article, “Reflections on Boundaries”, the creation of boundaries is the basic principle for building healthy relational systems. However, conditioning inherited from childhood often makes it impossible to adopt this competence.

We’re brave enough to set boundaries when we finally manage to love ourselves as we deserve.

Do you have porous boundaries?

If you apply porous boundaries to your environment, you demonstrate links of dependency with your closest figures. It’s even possible that you have relationships based on excessive codependency. It may also be that you have hardly any friends and your fear of losing those you do have, means that you set no boundaries for them.

  • You’re unable to say “no” to any request from your environment.
  • You prioritize other people’s needs before your own. Indeed, you’re used to always putting yourself in second place.
  • You feel the need to adjust to the expectations of others. Furthermore, your fear of disappointing others is extremely intense.
  • Your concern over what others think of you is constant and almost obsessive.
  • You fear being abandoned.
  • You show great empathy. For this reason, you often suffer constant emotional infections. In other words, you internalize the stress of your partner, the concern of your best friend, or the discomfort of your family.
  • You’re quick to open up emotionally to people around you. In fact, you tell them everything and have a tendency to explain things without even thinking about what others might do with the information.
  • You normalize the slights, disappointments, and voids that those closest to you cause you. That’s because you’re repeating the same pattern as in your childhood, with your dysfunctional family.

What effects do they have on your mental health?

Focusing on others, at the expense of your own emotional well-being, leaves you wounded in many ways. The porosity in your boundaries means that your self-esteem never even materializes. Furthermore, you have no self-respect and the opportunities to focus on your own dreams and needs are little more than pipe dreams.

The effects of living for several decades with these broken and fallen psychological fences are overwhelming.

  • The need to please others exhausts all your resources. Therefore, you might face disorders such as anxiety and depression.
  • It often leads you into abusive relationships.
  • You’ll hardly ever achieve personal and professional self-fulfillment.
  • You probably suffered childhood trauma. You likely had a past in which there was no sincere, valid, and secure affection.
Worried girl in psychological therapy treating porous boundaries
To establish healthy boundaries, we must heal past wounds and strengthen our self-esteem. Psychological therapy can help.

Repairing porous boundaries

If you’re in this kind of situation, moving from porous boundaries to healthy ones will require deeply personal work on your part. However, achieving it will allow you not only to improve your mental health, but you’ll also empower yourself as a human being and be able to better work on your dreams and needs. So, where do you start?

  • Self-compassion as a validation exercise. You can’t establish boundaries between yourself and others if you don’t first recognize your own worth. You must strengthen your self-esteem and treat yourself with compassion.
  • Learn to communicate assertively. Nothing will benefit you as much as learning assertive skills and communication techniques. Speaking clearly and confidently is a life tool.
  • Feel comfortable saying “NO”. Saying no isn’t an aggressive act. It forms part of your daily interactions and is a form of self-respect. In fact, your reality will change completely when you get used to declining demands and setting boundaries regarding what you don’t want or don’t feel like doing.
  • Learn to disappoint others. To live together, to improve your psychological well-being and personal growth, you’ll need to disappoint more than one person in your environment from time to time. After all, you can’t fit into every mold and expectation that others have for you.
  • Know your limits and explore your interests. What don’t you want in your life? What dynamics, gestures, and behaviors can you no longer tolerate in your relationships? Clarify them and keep them in mind. Then, look inside yourself to discover what it is you want and what you’re dreaming of.

In conclusion, you probably spend half your life focusing on others. It’s time to change the lens and explore yourself a little more. Indeed, you’re more important than you might think, and it’s time to serve yourself as you deserve. So clean up those porous boundaries and prevent your dignity and happiness from escaping through them.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Minuchin, S. (1982). Reflections on boundaries. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 52(4), 655–663. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1939-0025.1982.tb01455.x
  • Minuchin, P. (1985). Families and individual development: Provocations from the field of family therapy. Child Development, 56(2), 289–302.
  • Scott, L., Julian, A., Tu, C. (2019). El establecimiento de límites en la terapia de pareja y familia. En: Lebow, JL, Chambers, AL, Breunlin, DC (eds) Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-49425-8_313

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.