“No one in the world was ever you before, with your particular gifts and abilities and possibilities. It’s a shame to waste those by doing what someone else has done.” Joseph Campbell
The word boundary is bandied about a lot in Western psychology, but what does it really mean? Just like a fence around the limits of a house and yard, personal boundaries define the amount of physical and emotional space we maintain with others and how we interact with the world. While this is seemingly at odds with living a spiritual life in pursuit of getting rid of the ego and the illusion of separatism, boundaries can actually help us reach these goals safely.
Whether we have consciously created them or not, we all have verbal or nonverbal boundaries that govern our lives. For example, there are some people we hug hello and those we shake hands with; we confide our innermost thoughts to some friends but share less personal information with others. We don’t just have physical and emotional boundaries either. We have subtle and overt rules around spirituality, sexuality and societal structures from the home to the workplace.
Setting clear boundaries allows us to become aware of the expectations we have of others and ourselves. Boundaries tell us who we are, including our feelings, likes and dislikes, preferences and limits. They promote healthy connections because they inform others how we want to be treated and what behavior we will accept. Vague, soft or spongy boundaries can lead to sharing excessively or unwisely as well as making choices based on someone else’s needs rather than our own. Inappropriate boundaries, especially within a power dynamic such as a caretaker and a child, are a recipe for trauma if the child’s needs are unmet.
Some boundaries ought to be resolute, such as not tolerating being abused. But making all boundaries rigid can block us from deepening potentially wonderful relationships. Flexible guidelines enable us to decide who we can trust and with what. This is an important task we often conduct subconsciously. Our innate comfort level can be an excellent guide, but we can elevate our interactions by making a conscious examination of our choices. Are we holding ourselves back from interactions only because we feel exposed or vulnerable? Can we grow by stretching ourselves and letting the relationship expand organically?
In Eastern thought, boundaries corral the sum of our experiences so that we can define not just who we are but also our lessons of this lifetime. We are a microcosm of the Universe – if we cannot understand our own nature, we cannot understand our fellow beings much less God. Part of our mission is to remember that the boundary of body and mind can shift with our will so that on another level of consciousness, we are not separate from anyone or anything else in the Universe.
Therefore, boundary crossings, which are behaviors that exceed previously set limits, can be considered watershed tests for deepening connections with others. Sometimes, crossings inform us that the relationship was fine where it was and should be allowed to settle back to its natural space. And, in some cases, the crossing becomes trespassing by unwanted visitors who need to be deported.
Boundary violations are clear-cut problems, a breaking-and-entering of your space by someone trying to control your actions or feelings whether through force or manipulation. Even if your self-esteem isn’t healthy, you’ll still sense an unwanted crossing or violation by your response, which can include extreme discomfort, anger, panic, depression or sadness.
In all these cases, boundaries teach us who we are as well as how we can grow further. Here are some tips for developing and maintaining boundaries while protecting yourself:
1. Do you have boundaries for your own behavior? Develop clarity over the rules whether it’s what time you go to bed or how you prefer to handle certain situations. If you have unhealthy behavioral patterns, become aware of how they might be violating your sense of self.
2. Create an inventory of your most important relationships and their boundaries. Society and family can impose a lot of rules on our behavior, some for the greater good and others for upholding archaic notions. Certain areas of our live have more external rules such as the workplace or school.
3. Draw a diagram to see who’s in your inner and outer circles. If you have relationships you deem unhealthy or in trouble, can you trace issues to specific incidents of boundary problems?
4. It’s empowering to establish guidelines. You do not have to justify your reasons or over-explain. Develop clear boundaries using a simple formula: “When you (behavior), I feel (emotion), so I will (self-care action or reaction).” The only actions we can control are our own. For example, “When you interrupt me, I feel angry at not being heard, so I will make a T with my hands to signal the interruption/ leave the room to cool off/ etc.”
5. Share your boundaries with honesty, compassion and kindness. I once asked a friend of mine to cat-sit and she was unable to say no. She was so intent upon not hurting me that she was initially ambiguous about why she couldn’t do it, then resentful when I questioned her. When we cleared the air, I discovered that she wasn’t being a neglectful friend; she was just too exhausted after work to make the trek to my place. Ironically, it’s when we avoid the truth for fear of hurting others that we end up hurting them worse and injuring the relationship.
6. When a boundary has been crossed, meditate on your feelings. They are the best guides to decide whether you can handle the situation or if it’s a violation that you’re unwilling to tolerate.
7. Boundaries protect us from harm, negative interactions and safety concerns. Dysfunctional family systems have few appropriate boundaries and some relationships will take time and effort to untangle from enmeshment. Even when you clearly define a boundary with someone, remember that doesn’t mean they will either understand or respect your needs now or even after seemingly assenting. Think of drivers who like to speed – they become lead-foots when they believe the cops aren’t around. Often even more energy is needed to maintain boundaries. You must decide how you will handle violations and repeat offenders, many of whom could be family members.
Boundaries are artificial guidelines that can be imposed either by society or by our own fears; what gives them meaning are real relationships and context. Remembering that we are all connected through the Universe helps us to view boundaries as tools to learn about ourselves as well as those around us. Guidelines can then serve to provide us with the space we need to be our authentic selves, the freedom to have our own opinions and preferences, and the ability to experience new perspectives without giving up our identities.