They Do Exist.

Understanding What People Are REALLY Trying To Say.

Editor’s Note: Today we’re doing something a little bit different, and bringing in an expert on boundaries! I greatly respect him for his grace and “realness” in pursuing the kinds of relationships that bring life. His explanation of “overt and covert communication” radically changed how I interact with people close to me, and I’m thrilled to share some of his wisdom with you girls! Bob Hamp is an author, a seasoned counselor, and respected pastor at Gateway Church in Dallas, Texas. You can find him at or follow him on Twitter at @bobhamp. – Lauren

You have heard it said, “you are what you eat.” A very wise nutritionist said once that this is not actually the truth. In actuality, you are what you metabolize. If your body does not absorb what you eat, it passes through and has no impact on the building blocks of your physiology.

The same can be said of the words, actions, and various other messages that bombard you daily.  Proverbs 23:7 tells us that “…as we believe in our heart, so are we…” We are bathed daily in a world of people and their various responses to and interactions with us.  Somewhere in those interactions we become what we allow into our hearts. This in mind, we should learn what it means to “guard our hearts above all else” (Proverbs 4:23).

Boundaries are those invisible dividing lines whereby I maintain myself as separate and distinct from anyone else. My emotions are my own. My desires and goals are my own. My values are my own. My body belongs to me and I am responsible to maintain everything that belongs to me.

My boundaries allow me to prevent you from defining my identity and my worth, while allowing me to receive from you that which I choose to receive. My boundaries allow me to define my areas of responsibility in life, and the areas for which I will not take responsibility.

Photo + Design by Lauren Dubinsky / / Quote by Bob Hamp

Boundaries are not simply a way to prescribe rules and prohibitions. They are a way to sort out people. A way to help people maintain a healthy sense of self, and therefore to define the parameters of healthy relationships.  When the Bible tells us to guard our hearts above all else, it is referring to ways to allow God to define and protect that which is most true about you as a the individual person He created.

Three of the most important issues to understand within relationships are Communication, Freedom to choose, and Responsibility.

* * *

1. Overt & Covert Communication. Communication is the way that all boundaries are crossed. Not all of it is verbal. Touch, posture, tone, and other non-verbal elements of communication are part of the exchange that takes place between two people.

Communication is the exchange of meaning. In it’s purest definition, when one person is able to convey meaning to another, the other person receives into their soul whatever has been passed over. If the exchange is merely an idea, then intellectual communication has occurred. But every couple in love knows that more than ideas can cross the gap between people.

A look, eye contact, physical contact, posture – all these things communicate to us.

Boundary violations take place when one person is able to send an unwanted message or meaning to another. I’ve seen people feel violated by eye contact, and later, feel nurtured by a hug. The motives of the heart can be a part of the exchange of meaning between people.

Words, as well as tone of voice and eye contact all communicate. The most lethal forms of boundary crossing communication take place in the arena that I call covert communication. Overt communication is the evident meaning of words exchanged. Covert communication is the murky world of implications, inferences, and attributions of motive.

Covert communication includes the subtleties of meaning that are attached to the more obvious. Like a spoonful of sugar can encourage a child to take bad tasting medicine, so will words that appear sweet, convince us to swallow the poison delivered by another.

Learning to recognize these subtleties is a very important part of setting and maintaining healthy boundaries.

In the days of my counseling practice I used to give an assignment called “Gorillas in the Mist,” named after the popular movie about sociologist, Dian Fossey. Ms. Fossey went into the wilderness to observe the culture of gorillas in their natural habitat. Like all good sociologists she did her best to observe the culture without actually entering into it. This allowed her to observe interactions and unspoken social rules in the gorilla culture.

In the same way, I assigned people to visit their families. Instead of entering into the normal family exchanges, I encouraged them to sit back and observe as a non-participant. It is amazing what you can learn about your family and how you have been defined by it when you choose not to enter into unconsciously prescribed roles and expectations. It is here that you begin to see where covert communication takes place, and you notice that invisible boundaries are crossed in your family. 

This way of stepping back to observe allows us to be much more conscious of what messages are being offered, or in many cases thrust upon us in a variety of settings. The more conscious we are the more we have the freedom to choose what we receive and what we reject. The more unconscious we are, the more we are likely to revert to the default settings we grew up with in our family of origin.

* * *

2. Freedom to Choose. Freedom to choose how we relate to another, and what we will and will not receive from another is an essential building block of healthy boundaries.  Freedom to choose is directly related to awareness. Many people feel that they are victims because they do not know or feel that they have a right to make new choices.  Like being in a restaurant with a limited menu selection, people will only order that which they see as a possible option.

Often people feel they deserve poor treatment, and do not know that they have the right to stand up for themselves. If they do not know better, they are not free to choose.

Many people who suffer from boundary challenges grew up in homes where boundaries were skewed.  Children were blamed for the shortcomings of the adults. Other family members were made out to be responsible for the choices, behaviors and emotions of a misbehaving person.

When a child is raised in this atmosphere, they become adults who do not recognize healthy patterns of choice and responsibility.  They assume that they must bear the burden for the sickness, or dysfunction of another.

* * * 

3. Responsibility. One of the most insidious and painful impacts of boundary crossers is that they blame others for their own issues. Often they actually believe that others are responsible for their behavior. The alcoholic often believes that other people cause them to drink. The abuser often believes that other people make them abuse. People who cannot take responsibility for their poor actions and choices are unable to change because they can only change that which they will take responsibility for.

People who have lived in boundary-challenged and abusive environments often struggle to know what they should take responsibility for, and what is someone else’s responsibility.

The kind of messages that are sent in human interaction are not simply about image and value, but also about responsibility.

“Why did you make me beat you up?”, or “If you hadn’t dressed that way, I wouldn’t have done that to you.” Are common messages that come from boundary challenged individuals. You see this in men who blame women for their lustful thoughts or actions.

The flip-side of this equation is the person who blames themselves for other peoples poor choices. “He raped me, but I probably should not have been alone with him.” Or, “I know she drank too much, but she wouldn’t do that if I were a better husband.”

* * *

Our soul is a storehouse of the many ideas and emotions that have been injected into it. A kind word can change the chemistry of our bodies, and shift a mood. A kind word can shift the self image. “Goodness” can positively affect thoughts, feelings and ultimately actions. “Badness” directed towards us can damage our sense of self. The people around us become a mirror to us. Accurate or not, we begin to see ourselves reflected back to us in their words and their responses to us.  

As we begin to realize the ways that others have assumed power over us, we can begin to learn how to regain our sense of self in the face of boundary violations.

* * *

Boundary Setting Communication

As we come to be more aware of how others overtly and covertly interact with us, we find ourselves faced with having to set boundaries in our relationships. This is good and necessary.

Boundaries are almost always violated at the level of covert communication. An overt statement is made, but it is accompanied by a covert boundary “bomb.” One example of this occurs when someone makes a crude joke or a sexual innuendo, in a relationship where such talk would normally be off-limits.  Often this kind of exchange is a test to see how someone will respond to such an invasion. Family members can do this to test the authority or influence they have over you, and to see how far they can push their way past your boundaries.

The formula for boundary setting communication is simple. Make the covert message overt, and pose it in the form of a question. The question places the responsibility back in the hands of the potential boundary-crosser.  Here are a few examples.

– –

Scenario One: Sue: Tells an off color joke to a male co-worker when no one else is around.

Bill: “It seems to be that you are trying to see how I will respond if you talk about sexual topics (covert made overt) …is that what you are doing?” (question.)

– –

Scenario Two: Bill: “I wouldn’t drink so much, if you weren’t so difficult to live with!”

Sue: “It sounds like you want me to be responsible for your choices (covert made overt) – do you believe you can’t choose to behave in a different way?” (question that forces the other to answer)

– –

It can be difficult at first to recognize covert communication, but it is of great importance. You’ll discover that people in your life may be crossing your boundary lines often, and you either didn’t know it, or didn’t have a way to bring it up. Try this week to focus on what you are truly comfortable with in your relationships with friends, siblings, parents, significant others – and study the overt and covert communication that takes place.

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12 Responses

  1. FaithChaser

    Thank you for writing about this topic.

    There is a person in my life who uses covert communication as a routine method of communication. When I confront her, she often responds with "that isn't what I meant." Over the years, it has caused me, on more than one occasion, to question my instincts and ears and sanity.

    It feels good to see that I am not the only one who struggles with these types of messages.

    April 27, 2012 at 6:33 pm

  2. "My emotions are my own. My desires and goals are my own. My values are my own. My body belongs to me and I am responsible to maintain everything that belongs to me. My boundaries allow me to prevent you from defining my identity and my worth, while allowing me to receive from you that which I choose to receive. My boundaries allow me to define my areas of responsibility in life, and the areas for which I will not take responsibility."

    I read this section and it sort of blew my mind. I know that I needed to hear it. I'm sure that there is importance in these words for me that I can't fully define yet, but I wanted to thank you for writing them.

    April 27, 2012 at 11:56 pm

  3. Wow. I needed this. Thank you for this site. I always look forward to reading each new post.

    I have one question. Mr. Hamp referenced Provers 23:7 as saying “…as we believe in our heart, so are we…” but when I went back to look it up, that isn't what it says. The only reason I bring this up is because I would really love to know where that verse is.

    Again, thank you for a site where I feel like other women (and men) – who I don't even know – are daily pouring into me and encouraging me.


    April 29, 2012 at 12:04 am

  4. Rachel

    After reading this, all I could say was, "This is so beautiful". Reading this post could not have been more appropriately timed. Many thanks!

    April 29, 2012 at 5:27 pm

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  6. Kate

    This piece was (and is!) so needed in my life! Thank you so much for allowing God to speak through you about boundaries and more of what it means to guard our hearts. Would you say the same responses apply to relationships (friendships) with non-believers, if they try to cross boundary lines that you've tried to make clear?

    May 18, 2012 at 12:52 am

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