This is a BIG subject.  It’s one of those New Age words we toss around, and which has become standard in our modern psycho babbles.  Boundaries.  The very first time I became aware of it was at a psych group I attended where the word was bandied about heavily, with people complaining about others with no boundaries….hm….whatever.  There was a lot for me to absorb in the group that day and the word didn’t register heavily on my radar.  My son had died, my marriage was falling apart, ‘boundaries’ (whatever that meant) was the last thing on my mind.  I was fighting for my emotional survival, and someone whining about their roommate’s cats and bad boundaries was the least of my problems.

I remember going home that night and trying to remember what had been said in the group that day, and I swear I remember thinking ‘what was that B word they were talking about today?’ For the life of me, I couldn’t remember what it was.  The only word that came to mind was ‘barnacles’ and I knew that wasn’t it.  Days later, I remembered the word, boundaries.  Years later, I have learned how crucial that word, and concept, is.  It is possibly the pivotal point of the successful working of all relationships (work, romantic, familial).  When I think about it, it is the new word for respect, which is also essential to the successful working of relationships.  If you don’t respect yourself, you’re not going to respect anyone else either.  And if you have lousy boundaries, others around you may not demonstrate good boundaries either.

Boundaries are the things that let you go so far and no further, and which allow you not to let anyone ‘invade’ you.  We are all aware of the obvious boundaries.  We don’t call someone at four in the morning to remind them of our lunch date the next day.  We don’t take their car keys off the hall table and drive off in their car (unless it’s our kids, and yes, they have been known to do that, and there is hell to pay later).  Laws give us obvious boundaries.  We have to wear clothes, behave in public, and can’t steal each others’ stuff.  But other forms of boundaries are far more subtle, and are equally important, maybe more so.

Having become aware of the B word, I am much more aware of how people intrude, invade, and are sometimes just plain inconsiderate.  Nice people.  I think having bad boundaries is about presuming, and assuming, it’s about assuming that because of the relationship you have possibly of long standing, or extremely close (like a spouse or boyfriend or girlfriend) that you don’t have to ask, that you can show up at any hour, give something away, throw something away, take, borrow, use or eat whatever you feel like.  So often an unpleasant situation could be avoided if the other person would just ask.  For most of us, if asked beforehand, we will lend, give, or agree to most of what is asked of us.  But don’t ask, and just take it or use it, and the other person feels abused and it becomes a war.  Boundaries can be about subtle things, about not embarrassing someone in public (if you’re about to say it, would you want someone saying it to or about you?).  It’s about not intruding, just sailing into a room at any hour, plopping yourself on their bed with a happy bounce, putting your feet on their bedspread, your head on their pillow, and then using their hairbrush (without asking) before you leave again.  Sometimes people with bad boundaries make you feel like you’ve been run over by a train.  Maybe some of it is just about having good manners, in an old fashioned sense, but I think it’s more than that.  On an emotional level, are you being kind or cruel?  Is it kind to call your ex boyfriend to see how he’s doing and tell him how happy you are with the new guy, when you know his guts are still hanging out over your break up?  How kind is that?  What kind of boundaries do you have?

I live in a big family, a very big family, where in its heyday everyone wandered in and out of the kitchen, eating at any hour.  Life with that many people around is like a constant party.  And one of our bad habits is to help ourselves to anything we want off someone else’s plate, just a quick yummy bite.  One of my kids absolutely hates that, she hates the idea of other people’s germs, and it turns her off whatever she’s eating whenever they do it.  I always have to remind myself when she’s around not to help myself to something on her plate without asking.  I try to respect her boundaries on that.

Boundaries are a particularly difficult concept with adult children.  They’re our kids after all, we changed their diapers, cleaned up their throw up when they were babies, they borrowed our clothes and never returned them, crashed our cars, and for a long time solved all their problems.  So what’s the big deal about boundaries now?  The thing is that one day they grow up, they are real people, and they can’t assume the same things about us anymore (that they can do and have whatever they want at any time), nor can we make those assumptions about them.  They have their own ideas, needs, and quirks.

I think also that in romantic relationships, people making assumptions without asking, presuming, and having lousy boundaries creates an enormous amount of strife.  You need to ask, you need to think before you act or speak, about how your actions will be received by the other person given who they are ( not just what you feel like saying or doing), and you need to set limits on yourself and expect the same of them.  I find that as I get older, and maybe a little wiser, all my interactions are affected by boundaries, positively affected by good ones, and negatively by bad ones, or even destroyed by people who have none at all.  We all slip over the lines sometimes and commit an ‘uh oh’, an omigod I can’t believe I did that, or why did I do that, we all do.  But in any ongoing relationship or even a chance meeting, it works a whole lot better if people have good boundaries.  (There are things you just don’t do or say, or shouldn’t).  I find that the people who don’t have good boundaries, I don’t enjoy having in my life.  There are people I know who always hurt my feelings, always say something that wounds me, or makes me feel foolish, or humiliate me in some way, and I don’t want to be around them.  And the same is true with our kids once they’re adults.  We all get along a lot better if we are mindful of each others’ feelings.  Maybe boundaries are about being mindful of the other person, and being aware of their limits, and expecting the same of them.

There are of course people who make a career of ignoring others’ boundaries.  People who somehow manipulate others into getting what they want, like staying at your house when you barely know them, and then staying too long.  (I once had a houseguest for 2 weeks whom I barely knew, borrowed my car, used everything I owned, and then complained about all of it when she left).  These are people who use the system, your system, any system, for their own gain and to reach their own ends.  With people like that, no approach or response can be too blunt.  They either don’t get it, or don’t want to, so don’t be afraid to defend yourself, shove them back over the lines, and say a resounding ‘No’.

But real boundaries are subtler than that.  We all have them, or should.  And I think successful relationships of all kinds are greatly enhanced by having good boundaries, and being with others who do too.  You don’t have to be mean about it, but I think you have to know what your boundaries are, and where others’ boundaries are too.  It can only make life better for everyone concerned.

The B word is a big one, and I find that as I pay more attention to it, from myself, and from others, it makes my life a better place.

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2 Comments so far
  1. Kim January 18, 2009 2:13 pm

    A lovely, informative post. Thank you.

    Relationsahips: I believe it was Mother O’ who said, “the foundation — success of all relationships are gratefulness and forgiveness.” I’ve thought about that often and think of it again as I read your post.

  2. Gabriela January 18, 2009 10:26 pm

    Thank you for this post. It’s not only informative, but inspirational!