Crossing our own lines

It seems like I’ve been watching a lot of television of late where the centre of the drama revolves around some poor boundaries. To the point, that my TV-viewing mates and I have taken out screaming ‘Boundaries!’ at the box, whenever an unhealthy line has been crossed.

In general, poor boundaries can make for excellent television drama. However off the television, poor boundaries usually makes for an unhappy human. I’m speaking from experience.

The Oxford dictionary defines a boundary as “a line that marks a limit.” Countries, states and cities all have boundaries. We can think about them as a property line. When we see a ‘No Trespassing’ sign on a property, it’s a pretty strong message that if that boundary is violated, there will be some form of consequence.

As people we need boundaries too. Boundaries help to define who we are. They separate out what we think and feel from the thoughts and feelings of others. They are the limits that we create to identify reasonable, safe and acceptable ways for others to behave towards us. They define where we end and where others begin and are determined by the amount of physical and emotional space we allow between our self and others. Setting boundaries is essential if we want to be both physically and emotionally healthy.

Personal boundaries might be a bit harder to define than a property line. There’s no sign or distinguishable border. The lines are more invisible. They can change. And they are unique to each of us.

Boundaries are first developed in childhood and we develop healthy boundaries by being taught that all people have equal rights and can expect their relationships to be respectful and reciprocal, with a healthy level of give and take. When we have healthy boundaries, we are confident expressing our emotions and needs and are not threatened by other people expressing theirs.

When we fail to set boundaries, and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. – Brene Brown

There are different types of personal boundaries, but the psychological ones are what we use most in relationships. They generally come in three types: rigid, porous, or healthy. The appropriateness of our boundaries depends heavily on the setting. What is appropriate when we are out with friends may not be appropriate when we’re at work. Cultures also have different expectations of boundaries. For example, some cultures do not express emotions publicly while others cultures do.

Rigid Boundaries:  When we have rigid boundaries we run the risk of experiencing emotional distance in relationships. Often in response to childhood abuse, loss or neglect, people with rigid boundaries build emotional brick walls which block close connection with others. If this is us, we might find it easier to isolate our self than to form intimate and trusting relationships with others, in which each person shares their vulnerabilities. We may be fiercely independent in our relationships, preferring to control situations and keep people at arm’s length. We may avoid ever depending on others and even a friendly, kind gesture may be interpreted as intrusive. Rigid boundaries may be associated with the following tendencies:

  • Isolating our self
  • Limiting social interaction
  • Avoiding emotional intimacy
  • Stonewalling others with silence
  • Dismissing other people’s feelings
  • Pushing people away with criticism
  • Seeing other people as emotionally needy
  • Putting other people off with walls of anger
  • Focusing on work, hobbies, interests etc. to the point of excluding connection with others

Porous Boundaries: On the opposite end of the spectrum to rigid boundaries, non-existent types are equally as harmful to us. There is no filter of what comes in and what goes out. Therefore, the imaginary line is completely absent. Without a filter, we might offer too much personal information about our self; which can lead to others taking advantage of us.

Growing up, we may have received messages that it was selfish to express your emotions or rude to say no, which may have resulted in us having difficulty communicating your needs and setting clear boundaries with others later in life.  We may have developed habits of being extremely accommodating of other people’s emotional needs, at the expense of our own and we may now experience some of the following tendencies:

  • Bottling up our emotions
  • Absorbing other people’s pain
  • Needing to be liked all the time
  • Often feeling used and taken advantage of
  • Feeling as though you are always in the wrong
  • Giving in and agreeing whether you want to or not
  • Taking on responsibility for other people’s problems
  • Believing that it is rude or selfish to say what you want
  • Feeling as though you are never good enough as you are

Healthy Boundaries: Building healthy boundaries is tough stuff. Trust me on this. It requires a commitment to building greater self-awareness, as we need to be able to connect with how we are feeling in order to recognise when interactions are blurring or crossing our boundaries. Knowing what we can tolerate and acknowledging what makes us feel stressed and pressured can help us get to know our limits. Healthy boundaries give us the freedom to define who you are, be clear about your limits and ultimately develop positive and fulfilling relationships with others.

Boundaries mark the most beautiful places, between the ocean and the shore, between the mountains and the plains, where the canyon meets the river. -  W. Paul Young

Healthy boundaries honour our right:

  • To be our self
  • To ask for help
  • To have privacy
  • To not be abused
  • To make mistakes
  • To change our mind
  • To trust our instincts
  • To take care of our self
  • To express our opinions
  • To be treated with respect
  • To have power over our life
  • To comfortably say “yes” and “no”

The healthiest kinds of relationships are those in which people recognise their differences and respect each other’s limits. If two people have worked hard on their individual development and boundaries before forming a relationship, they are streets ahead of those who expect to “never have a cross word.” True intimacy takes lots of time, arguments, communication, mistakes, acceptance, forgiveness and support.

Unfortunately, we aren’t born with instruction manuals or have a go to book we can open, when we hit technical difficulties. For many of us, our personal boundaries are continually learned and developed as we discover that we really need them. Healthy ones can be pretty tricky to master, especially if you’ve never been taught.

But once we develop healthy boundaries, life (and television) can become a lot less dramatic a place.

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