Adding Structure to Your Boundaries

Aug 31, 2022

What do you think of when you think of the word “structure”? For some people, it is their worst nightmare. “I do not want to be in an overly structured environment,” they instantly think–and probably for good reason. Everyone has had some experience where rules, policies, and other structures virtually snuffed the life out of all those who were caged within its walls. If structures are too stifling, they can limit us to such a degree that we feel as if we cannot move. Ask any teenager with a rigid or controlling parent about the need for more space.

But, while problems with too much structure and not enough open space are one thing, a bigger problem is the lack of structure itself. We cannot live without it, any more than we can live without a roof over our heads. It provides the basis for us to know who we are, what we want, what we feel and think, and what our ability is to make choices and do something about those things. People use the phrase, “it is beginning to take shape” when speaking of a project, or a dream, to mean that it is beginning to have structure. You can actually see as the pieces are coming together and its form emerges.

A person is exactly like that, relationships are like that, and businesses are like that. Literally, the word “structure” comes from the Latin word for “to build.” Think about the word “construction,” where something is built. It is about the parts becoming organized into a cohesive whole. And when the whole is constructed, the parts hold together and work. But if the parts are spread out all over the place and there is no structure holding them together, or if they are too flimsy or movable, they do not work.

Your boundaries are the structure of your personality, and as you live them out, they organize the structure of your self, your relationships, your work, and your life. If they are secure, it all works. But if they are too spread out, or too flimsy, and movable, you will be too. Let’s look for a moment at the psychology of how all that happens, and how you came to have the structure you either have, or are lacking, today.

How Structure Develops

If you have children, or have ever been around them, you have seen a universal progression take place. They begin with almost no structure to their personalities whatsoever. While we might be able to see certain traits in infancy, like a bent toward aggressiveness or passivity or a tendency toward discomfort or contentment, they are pretty much undefined. We do not know what form they are going to take and how it is going to express itself later. If you look at the babies in a newborn nursery, you can see the future attorneys protesting and fighting or the passive ones who could turn into the future codependents. But you still don’t know what they will actually be like.

As time goes on, they begin to take shape. They get more mobile, they develop language, and they begin to explore the outside world. They get in touch with their interests and desires. They move to express them and get them satisfied externally. But they are still chaotic and very easily upset. And what they want, they want now.

Parents and caretakers surround them with the structure that they do not have for themselves. The ones who love them begin to set boundaries and limits around them, initially to protect them and manage them. Pretty soon, they learn the word “no.” In fact, they not only learn to hear it, but they learn to say it, too. Toddlers are known to make a strong grimace, look at the powers that be, and say it with all their force: “No!” They are displaying their power and their will.

But, powerful as they may feel, they quickly find that there are limits to their budding sense of omnipotence. They run into boundaries and limits that are real. “No, you can’t do that.” “No, you can’t keep playing. It is time for bed.” And this is a key in their developing the boundaries they are going to need for the rest of their lives. As structure is added to their experience, something is happening. They are internalizing that structure. As the limits are imposed with them, an axiom of human development is occurring–a law, if you will: What was once on the outside, becomes inside.

The limits that are imposed on them from the outside become part of their internal makeup. Those limits become the internal structure that makes them feel secure, allows them to feel safe, and also causes them to gain something referred to as “self-control.” As limits and consequences are given to them for their actions, they learn that they can make choices that affect their well-being. “If you do A, then B will happen, and if you do C, then D will happen.” The combination of getting rewards and getting in trouble gives them the structure and self-discipline that will later become the basis for the kind of self-control that will empower them to fulfill their destinies later in life. Or not. They learn what the word “no” means, and are able to say no to themselves, to others, and to respect the “no” that others say to them. They have internalized that ability. Those who do not have these kinds of limits or discipline will flounder. (Have you ever seen an irretrievably spoiled child try to deal with the world on their own?)

Slowly, over many instances, the child’s internal software is set to also do something else that will empower them for life. It will put into place a time-sequencing formula for outcomes and quality of life. When little kids learn that “if I do A, B happens,” they are becoming more than an impulsive, do-what-feels-good-right-now kind of person. They are becoming a linear person who thinks in terms of cause and effect. They put a timeline to it, learning “if I do this now, there will be an effect later.” They begin to link their choices with later results. First, they learn that their choices may lead to getting into trouble, or getting an ice cream cone. Later they understand that to study and do homework rewards them with acceptance to the college of their choice. Even later, they discover that if they call on enough key accounts, they will be able to afford that home they desire. The key here is that the software is being written that will get time on their side through the mechanism of choice. They will have a formula that will govern much of what they do.

“If I make this choice, good things will happen,” becomes an organizing principle in her head, and it is one of the key components of boundaries and structure. The opposite will be true as well, and it will keep her from making other choices that will rob her of her desired goal.

As a result of being around boundaries, accountability, consequences, and rewards, children internalize a sense of structure that will serve them well. They will learn to say yes to good things, no to bad things, and to gain the self-control they will need for a lifetime. All of that becomes an enduring structure in their hearts, minds, and even the neural hardware of their brains–for life. Their early experience of structure has become a literal part of who they are, part of their character.