Every person has boundaries;  people with special needs, as well as caregivers. These boundaries should be respected. But does respect mean that we should never try to cross, change or shift them?

Every person needs a physical or psychological space; a personal domain. When this domain is intruded, he may feel uncomfortable. This domain and the boundaries can be seen from two perspectives: from self- protection and from self-fulfillment.


Boundaries from the perspective of self-protection are defensive, and the energy of the boundaries is directed inwardly. When the boundaries are crossed by someone, we feel vulnerable and insecure, and when they are crossed brutally, we may even feel fearful.

As long as we haven’t learned to deal with our fears, and as long as we don’t learn that being vulnerable is no problem, we will tend to strengthen the boundaries and increase the domain. It will be more difficult to open ourselves for the contact with others.


Boundaries from the perspective of self-fulfillment are more open and the energy is directed to the world outside. When these boundaries are crossed by others, we may be displeased, because we feel hindered in our personal development. Maybe we temporary strengthen the boundaries until the intruder is gone, or we will try to expand our energy into another direction. The character of these boundaries however remain open. It’s an area of interaction with the world outside in order to develop ourselves.


Most people have a combination of boundaries from self-protection and from self-fulfillment. As long as there is a good balance between the two, we can develop ourselves in a social environment.  

With many people with special needs we see a misbalance; most boundaries are for self-protection and the walls often are high and thick.  They are not only impenetrable from the outside, but also the person himself can’t look outside anymore and develop himself. 

When this is the case with a person we serve, ‘respecting’ these boundaries means that we should try to open them bit by bit.


Gentle you way in

We can’t teach a person to feel safe with us when we stay outside the circle of self-defense.  So we have to try to enter the circle as gentle as possible. When both the physical and the psychological boundary are very wide – for instance the person doesn’t want to be in our presence – we first have to try to enter the physical space without evoking fear.  After that we can try also to enter the psychological space by making personal contact.

Read more in the article ‘gentle your way in’.


Changing our own boundaries

Not only the boundaries of the person can hinder the development of companionship; also our own boundaries can. We also may have both types of boundaries.

When a caregiver feels that working with a person and giving him what he wants/needs doesn’t allow him to do what he actually would like to do, he withdraws behind his boundaries for self-fulfillment. Perhaps he functionally does what is supposed to do, but he does it without ‘presence’.

From a caregiver we may expect a professional attitude by stepping over these boundaries. When this happens just occasionally, there is no problem. When it’s a repeating pattern, it’s important to find a new balance between the personal aspirations and working with the persons with special needs. Otherwise he may get a burn-out.


It’s more challenging when the boundaries are based on self-protection.

Part of these boundaries are very realistic. For instance when there is a chance on being hurt. When this is an element in the relation between caregiver and special person, it’s important to “re-shape” the relationship. Experience in making personal contact on moments when the person is most relaxed, or when there are colleagues nearby to help you both if needed. Both caregiver and special person need positive experiences together to break through the circle of fear and aggression.


There can also be some kind of boundary  with the caregiver, caused by resistance he feels by the presence or behavior of the person. Usually these boundaries fade as soon as you look seriously at them and examine what’s behind it. Most of the time we are irritated or angry because of behavior the person actually can’t help doing. By acknowledging this, our irritation or anger fades away.

We can also have negative feelings towards a person for reasons we can hardly identify. These feelings are often caused by early experiences with the person or somebody like him, or by the way other speak about him. There is no actual cause for our irritation.


Even if we know there is no particular reason for our resistance and the boundary it creates, it is not good to just ignore it and step over it. On the long term this may also damage the relationship or harm you, because the feeling is still there, but under the surface. You have to work with this negative feeling towards the person. (see also  the chapter on ‘working with your feelings’)


A very practical way of changing negative feeling for a person into positive, is to ask colleagues and others to tell you nice stories about the person. This will absolutely change your feelings towards him.


Most difficult is when your boundaries are caused by your own projections. Sometimes the behavior or appearance of a person triggers  something that is deep inside yourself. Sometimes you know what it is, but often it is difficult to identify.


Often, by identifying the projection, the energy of it fades away. But sometimes you are faced with old memories of more or less traumatic experiences. You may need help to deal with these old stories, but knowing they are there and they are manifesting in the contact with the person, may also give you some space for the relationship with the person. Focusing with love towards the person, may also give some love to your old pain.


The relevance of changing the boundaries

Preserving your boundaries is a very tiring activity. It takes a lot of energy and doesn’t give anything in return. If you have been able to ‘protect’ your boundaries in the contact with the person, you can’t even say you won. You just didn’t lose.  A position which gives not much perspective.

Roy is 50 and has an intellectual disability. He like to hug his caregivers like a 3 year old child likes to hug his parents. Caregiver Claire doesn’t want to be hugged by Roy. When Roy wanted to hug her, she gentle pushed him away and said: ’no Roy, we don’t hug’

Roy: ‘ please, just one little hug’

Joanne: ‘ no’

Roy: ’ why not?’

Claire (thinks of an excuse):’my boyfriend will get jealous’

Roy: ‘ oh, just one hug’

This went on for at least 3 minutes until Roy turned away.


If Claire would have been able to overcome her boundary and take the initiative to give Roy a hug in a way which would feel appropriate for her too, it would only have been 10 seconds.

If you are able to open yourself for the other person, it can be of benefit for yourself and you can use your core qualities for both. You are not just defending, you are exploring.  This doesn’t only give more satisfaction, it also gives new energy.