Imagine you have a lovely home and property, with an inviting pool and deck with shade trees, hammocks and a rambling patch of woods.
You live in a world that does not believe in land surveys, property lines or personal space. The result? Your property is constantly overrun with everyone from the neighborhood… and beyond. People in the next town know about your great pool and drive over to swim in it. Whenever you want to lie on one of your hammocks with a good book, you can’t. Someone is already there. This is a problem.
In another scenario, you have this great spot but you decide to build 15 foot high stone walls around the perimeter of your property. The thick wooden gate that gives access to this haven from the mad pace of life is locked with a padlock and there is only one key: yours. The result? You are always alone in this pleasant prison. Soon, it does not seem so pleasant. You are isolated and feel trapped by the walls you put up to protect yourself.
Finally, a more familiar scenario where you have property boundaries and your neighbors know where they are. You may or may not choose to put “no trespassing” signs up in the woods. You can decide what your personal rules are regarding your land, your pool, your space. You could welcome your near neighbors to come any time and use your pool. Or maybe you put limits on that: any time you are not home. Perhaps you only have people swim in the pool by invitation. Your friends and relatives come over when you have expressly asked them to. In any case, the limits you put on who steps onto your property are set by you. Isn’t this pretty much how we understand property rights in this country? We can own or lease property and it is commonly understood that people can’t just walk onto it when they want. Remember Robert Frost’s famous poem that reminds us that “good fences make good neighbors.”
In the first scenario, there were no boundaries at all. You felt disrespected and helpless. In the second, there were barriers. You felt protected but isolated and lonely. In the third: clear boundaries. You knew where they were and you were comfortable making them clear to others.
How does this relate to you and your relationships? As Dr. Jackie Black, PhD, BCC, wrote in her book, Meeting Your Match, “A boundary is not a barrier. Setting boundaries raises your sense of self-worth and self-esteem, because you are sending yourself the message that you are worthy of care.” You are also sending that message to others. And in a relationship, you want to respect and be respected, care and be cared for. Boundaries help make all that happen.
Fear creates barriers, self-respect creates boundaries. And it is lack of self-respect that prevents so many from setting any boundaries at all. The benefits of having healthy boundaries, and making them clear to the people in your life, are many.
For example, boundaries:
- clarify how you want to be treated
- help you define your sense of who you are
- set limits on what you are willing to give (in terms of time, energy… even money)
- help you understand where you end and someone else begins
- protect you from having your physical and emotional limits violated
There are two essential kinds of boundaries that Dr. Jackie discusses in her book. First, the “outside boundaries.” These protect your body and control how you touch or want to be touched, and also personal space. Some people are very comfortable with touch, even with people they just met. Hugs and kisses are their stock in trade. Others have very clear conditions about not being touched until they are comfortable, which for them requires more time. Until then, a friendly handshake will do. There is no right or wrong about these boundaries. What is important is that you know yourself—and don’t let anyone tell you or even imply that your way is “wrong.” When you are clear, others can also feel clear and safe knowing that they will not breach your boundaries or threaten your sense of safety.
The other kind of boundary is the “inside boundary.” Inside boundaries may be harder to identify, but are very important to your sense of self, your feelings of worth and safety. You’ve heard me say it before: don’t take things personally. And that is true. What people say and how they behave is about them, not you. But though it is great to have an inner sense that you won’t take things personally, it is also important that you can speak openly about where your boundaries are.
If your date informs you that it is “childish” not to eat seafood, what are you going to do? Acquiesce and eat the surf and turf he wants you to share with him? Not eat it but feel judged and wonder, “Am I really childish?” Or are you going to say, “I appreciate that you have a right to your opinion, however I have made the decision not to eat seafood. May we leave this subject and order?” If you choose something like the latter, and stay true to the value of making your own choices, you are honoring your boundaries. Your stand makes it clear that you won’t be bullied into doing what you don’t want to do (in this case eating a certain food) and you won’t allow people to speak down to you, be cruel or dismissive with you. And notice your internal reactions in your encounters with others. Don’t let anyone sway you to betray your boundaries with their “flawless logic” that is simply masking contempt.
Many people find saying “no” to be agonizingly difficult, and yet being able to do so is part of having clear boundaries. Reflecting back on the metaphor of the property boundaries we started with, you can imagine where a difficulty with “no” might lead. Sure, you have the property boundary and all, but when everyone from the mail carrier to the local road crews are asking to come take a dip in your pool, you may feel you have no boundaries at all if you can never say no. No is not a rejection—of you or anyone. It is simply a clarification of boundaries, and relates to a given situation. Saying “no” to the pizza delivery boy who wants to rest in your hammock before his next stop does not deny his value as a person, it merely states that you don’t want him in your hammock.
In a relationship, the ability to say “no,” as well as “I’m sorry,” is vitally important. (In another blog, I’ll discuss the difference between “I’m sorry” the words and “I’m sorry” – words and action, and how the distinction can make all the difference.) Your partner will feel safe in the knowledge of where s/he stands in regard to you. Love won’t be strained by incursions on your safe place or your self-respect.