The difference between living a life of happy engagement or miserable chaos rests in how we apply boundaries. In my work, I hear clients speak about boundaries all the time. However, when it comes to applying them they seem confused. A lot. So, here’s a primer.
A boundary looks a little different for everyone. A perfect metaphor is a fence. Some fences are higher, some are lower, some are more open, some are harder to scale. Boundaries are meant to protect, ensure, define. What a boundary is not is a fortress wall that blocks out everything. Nor is it an open puddle that anyone gets to run through. We’re responsible for setting our own boundaries. When we expect someone else to do it, we’ve pretty much violated ourselves.
Boundaries fit into two categories: outer and inner. The first is easily understood because outer, or physical, boundaries are a tangible concept. Physical boundaries include setting limits around your body, your possessions, your personal time, your work and living space. It also includes your etheric space. Etheric space is your physical or auric energy that expands beyond your skin and bones. It’s the unseen yet often felt “circle” that feels penetrated when someone you don’t know stands too close.
People have no right to touch you if you don’t want them to. They have no right to steal your things, tell you to do something that hurts you or make themselves at home if you want them to leave. They also have no right to drive your car without your permission or go through your desk drawers at work. These examples of boundary violations are pretty obvious. What’s not so clear is how to enforce the boundaries.
Inner boundaries are harder to assess because we can’t physically touch them. As a result, those boundaries get horribly dishonored – by those who possess them as well as by those who offend. This more dubious concept of boundaries bewilders people. It takes intentional work to first identify them and then to learn how to effectively set a limit.
What makes up the world of inner boundaries are your feelings, thoughts, beliefs, spiritual experiences, creativity, memories, fantasies, hopes and dreams. Yet, many people aren’t connected to theirs. We can determine where our body ends and another’s begins, but if we don’t know what we feel, believe or want, how can we know if we’ve been infringed upon?
Violations of inner boundaries range from emotional abuse – if the behavior is purposeful – to clueless insensitivity. Name calling, commenting on someone’s body, passive-aggressive behavior, withholding attention or affection, mocking and mimicking, adultery, raging or intentionally distressing people are some examples. Enmeshment, which is when someone wants to know your every waking thought or feeling and tells you how to think or feel, is a massive inner boundary violation.
The initial work to establish inner boundaries is to take a few steps back and develop a loving dialogue with yourself. Exploring your inner world and being able to identify the difference between your thoughts and feelings is important. Stating your dreams, developing your beliefs based on your sense of integrity, allowing yourself to visualize your future, all this doesn’t happen overnight. It’s extremely useful to do this work with a licensed therapist if you’re struggling, because more than likely there are influencing factors keeping you from committing to your individuation.
Defining if a boundary has been violated is about the ability to measure your discomfort level. If you’re okay with a house guest staying a few extra days, that’s one thing. If you’re desperate for time alone but find it’s easier not to tell him, then you’ve lowered your boundary threshold. Only you are able to determine what that threshold is. Is it a mild inconvenience or total violation? Saying “no” is not a bad thing. It may be a last resort after you’ve politely stated having a guest three more days doesn’t work for you, but it doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you a person who respects your time, energy and space. When you respect yourself, so will others.
The gauge when enforcing an inner boundary is much like enforcing an outer boundary. Again, it’s about measuring your discomfort level. How do you feel about what that person said or did? What in you is unsure, even though you feel horrible right now? We can state that we expect better treatment from them. Whether they choose to give it, is out of our control.
Part of setting a boundary is to establish a consequence that you’re willing to follow through with. That consequence can’t be something hurtful to the other person or infringe on their integrity in any way. So, if you say to your spouse, “If you choose to ignore me the whole day after we argue, then I’m hitting you over the head with this frying pan!”, then you’ve completely overstepped his boundaries and are the violator.
A consequence is something within your control that sets a limit. It also must match the boundary infraction. “If you choose to ignore me the whole day after we argue, then I choose to go shopping and have dinner with my friends.” You can’t control if he choses to stonewall you, but you can control how to get your needs met in other ways.
It’s also very important to explore why you allow your boundaries to be manipulated. Are you afraid the other person won’t like you? Do you fear you won’t be heard or that you’re not worthy of being listened to? Boundaries don’t keep us from being intimate. It’s exactly the opposite. If we establish a boundary with someone, we’re negotiating with them. This requires engagement and exploration of the issues around the boundaries. We’re showing the other person we respect them enough to negotiate and more importantly – we respect ourselves enough to be negotiated with.