Boundaries, Borders and Belonging: Engaging in Community While Maintaining Personal Identity

The need to belong is universal. We all long to connect, to be seen, to be in community. This impulse feels stronger than ever at this moment, especially as we reckon with the disassociation that social media creates – leaving many of us feeling empty in the absence of “in real life” experiences that nurture us. Numerous studies have shown that being a member of a community is good for our physical and mental health. For example, in a World Economic Forum article titled, “9 lessons from the world's Blue Zones on living a long, healthy life,” they include the nine common denominators in these areas that contribute to better living - two of which are:

7. Belong. Being part of a faith-based community adds four to 14 years to life expectancy.

9. Right Tribe. The world’s longest lived people have close friends and strong social networks.

In contrast, I’m often asked to help clients create healthy boundaries – between work and life (for all of my faithful readers, you know I hate this false dichotomy!); among business partners; and in relation to personal space; and by learning how to say “no”. So, a question that is very much on my mind right now is how can we continue to build community while maintaining healthy boundaries? Can we bring these two necessary but seemingly oppositional needs into harmony? Fortunately, not only is the answer a resounding 'yes', but it’s an opportunity to design a nicely balanced approach to bringing your best self to work and home. Who benefits? Everyone! When we’re super intentional about how we want to show up, how we want to engage, and what level of energy we can offer, the communities in which we operate receive our most thoughtful contributions.

Personal Boundaries


First, develop a clear idea of what you want to contribute, and what you hope to receive, from your participation in any given relationship, personal or professional. What talents, skills, and experience can you offer? What are you hoping to learn? What support or insights will help you develop? This need not be a transactional process; rather, I’m inviting you to take the time to be thoughtful about what you bring, and what you desire.

Then, decide where you want to create a boundary. Is it based on time (for example, I don’t take calls after 8 pm or before 8 am)? On subject area (when do you bring in another expert)? What topics are on the table, and which are off? In the personal sphere, it’s a great idea to think about setting healthy parameters for everything from time to money to how you deal with unsolicited advice. In family and social groups, being very clear about how decisions are made, where input is welcome (and where it’s not!), what roles you are willing to play (chef, confident, chauffeur) and which ones you are not (gossip, ATM, gofer). Communicating these borders with grace enables others not only to hear you but to do the same themselves.

Discovering & Engaging in Community

Community is based on any number of characteristics – where you live, your place of work, membership in a club, having an educational institution in common, religious affiliation, or hobbies, talents and interests. Making time to be an active participant in one or more of these groups is not only deeply satisfying, but it also fills a basic need.

Volunteering can provide a sense of purpose, as found in a study of older adults; according to this study, formal volunteering moderated the loss of a sense of purpose among older adults who had experienced the loss of major role identities, such as wage-earner and parent. (Greenfield and Marks, 2004)
— The Health Benefits of Volunteering, Corporation for National & Community Service

…on hobbies, talents, and interests…

I recently participated in the radio show, Tastemakers, hosted by my friend Pauline Brown (listen here), to discuss “Women and Games”. During our conversation, I had the opportunity to reflect on the role that play has in my life and that of my family and friends. Quickly, it became clear that (possibly due to my age!) I love games that incorporate my physical presence, thinking, talking with others, and strategy. In a word, they create community – gathering family and friends to enjoy each other’s company with no goal beyond that. My fellow guests on the show had fascinating things to say, reflecting on games as a way to: find new groups of friends with whom they might not otherwise come in contact (i.e. the French major and the Engineer); find and flex new mental muscles; and carry on family traditions.


Ideally, we can design our days, weeks, months and years to include multiple opportunities to engage with others. When we do so with a clear idea of what we have to offer and where we draw lines, the boundaries between self and others is healthy and supports a life that nurtures us and the bonds we build with others.