It’s received wisdom in the world of psychology and human development and their many-faceted mainstream and not-so-mainstream offshoots that personal boundaries, the limits we set to protect our self, whether emotional, physical or mental, are important and healthy. And they are.
Yet we come into the world without them. When all is well and good we are born into caring; we are protected, nurtured, loved, wanted, respected. In our infancy and early childhood, we are the centre of the universe: we have to be or we would not survive. In time, our inherent boundaries assert themselves, and we learn how to create, maintain and work with them in a healthy way is a learning process. Yet some people may never learn or may not be given permission to have any boundaries. It can be painful not learning where you start or end; not knowing how to say no, or when to say yes or even if you should; to worry about saying the right thing and doing the wrong thing, or always wanting to please everyone all of the time regardless of the emotional or personal expense that comes from always being the family caretaker or always the relationship caretaker. So it seems that healthy boundaries are good for a variety of reasons.
Lately though, the whole idea of boundaries has set me to wondering.
Because I live in Toronto, the world’s most diverse city, it’s easy to see how culturally specific certain boundaries are. For example, what’s acceptable in terms of how close someone stands to you in a casual conversation is varies across cultures, across social position, across job roles. All sorts of factors come into play including whether you live in a city or take public transit. Physical personal space and the boundaries that result are also unique to our own experience. I am from a large family, and as much as I really, really hate to admit it, my need for personal space far exceeds the average, although I do try to be good about it. Deep breathing exercises works wonders.
My confession about boundaries is this: I did not have, or was not able to exert what I would consider boundaries until one Saturday morning at 8:12 a.m. when I finally, finally, let what had been in my head to say travel from my burning brain down through my vocal chords and back up through my mouth: I said no to my mother. I was 28. (Technically, this is not true: apparently I said no a lot when I was a two and three-year old kid, and then.seemed to forgot the word til that morning.) The feeling of that release, of that NO was a mix of exhilaration and sheer terror. Of course, all she did was say, okay. Add shock to the mix of feelings. The world as I knew it remained intact. So did I. So did my mother. DAMN! Why I had spent, well, actually wasted so much freaking time worrying about it, and wasting every Saturday morning since I had moved away from home. Is it mothers and daughters? My mother? Me as a daughter? What happens in the mind…is a very strange thing. Anyway, back to the main point.
BACK TO BOUNDARIES
Boundaries, personal and wondering about them, wondering if we haven’t taken them too far and made the notion of boundaries too rigid. Wondering if any bump against a boundary that sets off a chain reaction is simply a routine, an act without thought, without wondering whether that boundary is in need of adjustment or recalibration. Conversely, if someone is truly happy, and content, and joyful at being a caretaker — and is not doing the martyr thing which might be a bit of a pathology around boundaries — then to be judged and treated as having no boundaries could be damaging to that person’s sense of self.
And as I wondered about boundaries I happened to read this on another blog: “Understanding our feelings first allows us to set healthy boundaries for ourselves. There is the inclination for many of us to keep using the same defense mechanisms over and over again. Since each situation is different, it is important that we reflect upon what we need to do to communicate our needs and establish boundaries that work for us in each given situation. This means that instead of learning to guard ourselves, each time we feel uncomfortable we must learn to evaluate what would ease communication so that we feel better. Knowing your feelings today will help you create an environment that works well for you.”
And somehow that struck me as right. Maybe because it reflected my own thoughts: I am not sure I could have absorbed if I wasn’t thinking about boundaries. Or if I had read it the Friday before the Saturday that I said no to my mother.
Then I wondered about the application of the capability maturity model (integrated of course). Originally for software the model is now used across all sorts of concepts ranging from Human Resources to financial management, so why not our concepts of boundaries too? The notion and articulation of of boundaries is relatively new in our history, perhaps it’s time to move on and upgrade to BOUNDARIES , V 2.01 or something.
Boundaries are important. A healthy sense of self is important. And so is adaptability. Each situation is different. Each person you meet in life will be different. If boundaries are for protection, it makes sense to me to feel out what protection is needed and why and to do that in a highly conscious, as objective as possible way, rather than being blindly safe, having all boundaries activated at all times pushing against everyone, everything: are all bosses, friends, lovers, strangers the same: do the experiences of yesterday have to be the experiences of today? (We are not necessarily talking about life patterns — another topic entirely). And so, as I wonder about boundaries, an appropriate song