Yesterday I read a book about boundaries. Why? I had to for one of my upcoming shows. Much to my delight, I started understanding what that bandied-about term meant in relation to me, my family and friends, and my kids. Even my dogs will benefit from my reading the material.
We hear a lot in the media about boundaries. Gotta set boundaries. That’s a boundary violation. I have firm boundaries. I have no boundaries. But what does that really mean? I started thinking about how boundaries are being erased as we groove into a society where personal choice often trumps the rights of others. If my conservative religious beliefs clash with your new age beliefs, what to do? Do we go back to the tried and true boundary, which means no talking about sex, politics or religion at the dinner table?
Where do we draw the line?
I started by looking around. There are all sorts of boundaries in the universe. Violate the boundary of gravity and you are in for a big bump in the head. Violate the boundary of traffic and it’s head-on collision time. Violate the boundary of the alpha dog – as my new puppy found out – and get bit. Boundaries exist in nature – we call them rules or laws or pack order. Boundaries are a good thing because they keep us organized, safe, and we know what the rules are – at least most of us do most of the time.
I like to think of boundaries in interpersonal relationships as the set of rules that everyone needs to follow in order for me to be safe, happy and healthy. I know that sounds selfish, but with 6 billion people on the planet I’m sure I can find a few people who share the same boundaries as me and we can live harmoniously together. The rest, well, you can’t be friends with everyone.
Boundaries can be both flexible and non-negotiable. I have a few non-negotiable boundaries: don’t lie to me, don’t cheat on me, don’t steal from me, don’t hurt me, don’t take me for granted, and don’t make me feel bad.
What??? I know that last one flies in the face of the trite “No one can make you feel bad but yourself.” That may be true to someone somewhere, but people can hurt me, hurt my feelings, take my toys, and be mean to my kids. In all of those scenarios, I feel bad. I don’t wallow in it. It still affects me. So one of my boundaries is that people who “make me feel bad” have to go or I will go away. It’s that simple. And those rules apply to friends, family, co-workers and neighbors. There is no rule that says we have to spend our time with people who bring us down.
I have other boundaries that are flexible. You don’t get to come into my home and meet my family unless you have proven to me that you are honorable, trustworthy, and emotionally safe and not a threat to our happy household. Hmmm… Is there a test? What does that mean to the individual new person I meet – well, that’s up to me. It’s my choice because it is my life.
I know you are probably thinking that I am pretty full of myself. My my my! Maybe I am, but it’s only because after 40+years of walking this planet, I have followed everyone else’s boundaries – paying taxes, volunteering, being kind and considerate and helpful to others – without really thinking about what boundaries are for me. I have let people walk all over me. I have let people steal from me. I have let people cheat on me. I have stayed in a marriage with a person who hurt me out of misplaced loyalty.
When I got my divorce, I started to get a clue. I don’t have to be all things to all people. I don’t have to have everyone like me. I don’t have to be all-living and all-nurturing and all-compassionate and all-understanding because that means I am giving myself the short end of the stick. The one person I need to be all-nurturing, all-compassionate and all-understanding to is… me… and I go first.
I can say no to making a basket for the music program at school when I don’t have the time. I can say no to a dinner out with friends that I can’t afford. I can tell my kids I am tired from work and that I need them to put on their headphones so I can have some peace and quiet. Where is it written that everyone else’s needs are above my own?
Today is the day I ask myself, and all of you, to allow yourself the space to live life on your own terms and not in reaction to the needs of others and their demands. You matter. I matter. And my turning down a volunteer opportunity just means I make it available to someone else who wants to do it and has the time. That’s mighty kind of me – and mighty kind to me.
I am here to say out loud that it’s not only smart, healthy, practical, sane and safe to have boundaries (or personal rules and laws) and to hold those closest to you to those boundaries, but also vital to all of your relationships. It’s good for everyone. You really do teach people how to treat you. It’s good for your kids to learn how to teach other people to treat them right, just as it’s good to teach them how to treat others. It goes both ways.
Bouncing with Style is all about learning and growing throughout our lives. So it takes me 40 years to learn how to identify and set boundaries. We all get there eventually, hopefully as long as we keep Bouncing back from life’s challenges and learning opportunities.