I want to learn all I can, live as wisely as I can, and savor every moment on the journey.
Today I’d like to write about a topic that you may (or may not) be surprised to learn is very close to my heart: personal boundaries.
“Personal boundaries are the physical, emotional, and mental limits we establish to protect ourselves from being manipulated, used, or violated by others. They allow us to separate who we are, and what we think and feel, from the thoughts and feelings of others.”
– “Healthy Personal Boundaries & How to Establish Them,” essentiallifeskills.net
Up until these last few years, my life was one boundary-less crash after another.
For example, in high school I befriended and tried to mentor a younger girl at my school who faced some unique challenges in her life. Informal mentoring was the thing to do at my Christian school, where everyone was concerned about everyone else’s soul (and not at all concerned about personal boundaries!). So I hoisted my Bible and turned on the charm to try to make this young, challenged girl into a better Christian through being her friend. My younger sister joined in the effort, too, and we both befriended this girl. The problem was, the more we gave her, the more she wanted. She became obsessed with us. It got to the point that if we wouldn’t give her what she wanted, she would threaten to kill or hurt herself. Yeah, it was messed up. And it went on and on, unfortunately, since we weren’t very good at setting or enforcing our personal boundaries.
Even after we’d gotten her parents involved and she’d stopped those threats, she still begged us for more attention and put guilt-trips on us if we sounded less than enthusiastic, and we too often gave in rather than enforcing our boundaries.
All of us are more grown up now, but those emotional wounds have not healed. This girl still tries to search us out and get in touch with us (which feels like she’s stalking us, and which is one reason I need to write this publically), but by now we know that there is no way we can ever be friends with her again. We can never again trust her not to manipulate us like that. Avoidance must be our boundary with her, because she could not respect the lesser boundaries we set.
I don’t claim innocence in this story, of course; it was my fault for putting myself into that situation in the first place and then for letting it drag on past the unhealthy point. Even if the girl hadn’t been manipulative and demanding, I started the relationship without laying down any personal boundaries or even thinking about how much of myself I was willing to give to her. I was just crashing around blindly.
That’s just one example. I could stay here for a week telling you more stories, including too many in which I was the violator of other people’s boundaries.
It seems that people who don’t have strong boundaries themselves tend to not be good at respecting other people’s boundaries, either. On the other hand, in my experience, people who have learned how to pay attention to what they are honestly feeling and to express their needs assertively (but not aggressively)—in other words, who set boundaries—tend to also be good at respecting the boundaries of others.
Personal boundaries are like curtains. We can choose to open them for the world to see in and communicate with us, and we can choose to close them when we feel the need for privacy and safety.
But to choose to close them is not at all easy. The ability to set boundaries requires several things, including:
• Self-awareness (being tuned in to what we’re honestly feeling)
• The belief that we have a right to our own thoughts, feelings, needs, and personal space—and that our thoughts, feelings, needs, and personal space are just as important as other people’s
• A commitment to self-care
• The courage to say no
• The willingness to consistently enforce the boundaries we set with people—including our family members—even when it’s very difficult
That’s a tall order. It took a ton of therapy for me to be able to even listen to those ideas.
But we can learn the skill of personal boundaries by practice and trial-and-error, and that’s what I’m trying to do now. You can see some of my efforts reflected in these posts:
Discovering My Need for Self-parenting — (boundaries with myself!)
Heart Neighbors: Love as a Free Partnership — having intimate relationships with healthy boundaries
I doubt I’ll ever master the skill of healthy boundaries, but I suppose it is more of a practice to be cultivated than a skill to be mastered, anyway.
However we get to them, personal boundaries are essential for a sane, healthy, and fulfilled life.
(For more thoughts and tips about boundaries, just do an internet search for “personal boundaries.”)
“This above all: to thine own self be true.” – Shakespeare