One of my favorite topics to talk to clients about, regardless of age, is boundaries I love speaking to this because it is something that spans our life, ever changing, as we navigate different relationships. Boundaries are something that we will continue to work on, adjust, realign and evaluate as our relationships grow and change. It is also one of the concepts that people tend to struggle with-especially if their story includes a family of origin that did not set and maintain functional boundaries.
What is a boundary exactly? It is difficult to pinpoint because, for all intents and purposes, it is invisible. It is the line that separates me from you and you from me-and by that I mean my personhood from yours. Boundaries have two functions in our life-to contain and protect us in relationships. Often a struggle with one creates or exacerbates a struggle with the other. By that, I mean someone who has a hard time with being able to protect themselves is also not easily able to contain themselves either. There are a couple of different kinds of boundaries, but the generally are in the categories of physical and emotional. Physical boundaries include physical space, physical touch, sexual touch and activity and what I like to call “stuff” boundaries around our belongings. Emotional boundaries are more to do with name calling, topics of conversation that are appropriate, making promises that you don’t keep, canceling plans for no good reason, etc.
Physical boundaries are a lot more tangible than emotional ones because our physical body and our things can be seen. This sometimes makes the conversation and possible means of intervention a little bit easier. It also seems that we have more of an ability to notice when our physical boundaries have been violated. For example, I am not a big hugger. I hug my friends and my family with whom I feel close, but I don’t prefer to be that close with people that I do not have an intimate relationship with. I can tell because when people move in for a hug upon first meeting, I get really uncomfortable-like my stomach clenches and my heart starts to race. Because these boundaries are more tangible, it is sometimes also easier to assert them (in theory). When someone I have just met leans in for a hug, I reach out my hand and say “I am a hand shaker, not a hugger.” Sometimes it is a little awkward, sure, ,but my boundary is asserted just the same. We also have the ability to lock doors, zip purses and put things away to get people out of our stuff. When I was a teacher, I had my classroom arranged in such a way that I had a little corner and it was well known that you did not cross the Miss Brubaker line. Our “stuff” boundaries can be asserted much in the same way as our body boundaries. Certainly, there are relationships and people our there that do not respect our physical boundaries, but it seems that we have a more natural awareness of what they may be and thus I find that having conversations about them is just a little easier.
Emotional boundaries are different. They are definitely not easy and often vary pretty dramatically from person to person. The concept of emotional boundaries is sometimes used to identify topics that people would prefer not to discuss, words they would prefer not to hear, the fact that they do not prefer to be canceled on last minute, names they would prefer not to be called, etc. We absolutely can set emotional boundaries in our relationships with other people. What is sometimes a challenge, however, is our ability to hold boundaries in our relationship with ourselves when other people do not adhere to what we are requesting of them. Sure, you can ask someone to not call you a particular nickname until you are blue in the face, but whether or not they actually stop is on them. When I talk about boundaries in our relationship with ourselves, I am referring to our ability to not take in and hold on to emotions or behaviors of other people. Kind of like when people tell you “don’t take that so personally” and you are like “well, how the hell am I supposed to actually do that?”
I am a visual gal, which is why emotional boundaries are often so difficult for me-because you can’t see them. What I do, and what I encourage other people to do, is to use a visualization in my mind’s eye. I create a “protection boundary” around myself that is just in my imagination. For me, I like to use an old school movie theater ticket window (I know that everyone buys their tickets at a kiosk or online now, but remember when we used to buy tickets from actual people?) There is glass that protects me from them (and them from me, to be real), there is this speaker that I have to choose to push the button in order to hear what they have to say and there is this little opening where they give me their thoughts (money), I process it and give them back what they need (the ticket). Whenever I am walking into an interaction with a difficult person, I imagine that movie ticket window with me inside and it reminds me that I don’t have to take in anything that I don’t want to. I have had people use chain link fences, brick walls, windows with and without curtains, barbed wire fences, etc when they are creating their protection boundary. I have even had people imagine force fields. Whatever physical barrier you think is appropriate for that relationship, conjure up an image of it in your mind, take a deep breath and walk into that situation feeling protected and contained.
Protecting ourselves in relationships, particularly the relationships that we have to be in-ike family or bosses or that really annoying girl in your third hour that your teacher just wont move you away from, can be tricky. Containing ourselves in those relationships is sometimes a little bit trickier. It is when we are able to do so, however, that we can nurture our relationship with our selves by responding to situations instead of reacting in ways that we are not always proud of. Boundaries are ever changing, so sometimes what you use with one person does not work with the next-or does not work with that same person a year later. It is definitely an ongoing conversation with yourself-but one worth having because you and your personhood are valuable enough to protect.