A Bringer of New Things

Musings on personal growth, books, motherhood, writing, and more. "Every hour is saved from that eternal silence, something more, a bringer of new things." – Tennyson

The Importance of Personal Boundaries

Boundaries are like curtains. By Ardfern (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Boundaries are like curtains. By Ardfern (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Probably most of you know what I mean by “personal boundaries” (there’s even a Wikipedia page!); I like the definition that this great little article puts forth:

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:

On Assertiveness and People Who Make Us Spindly

Learning to Face Disagreement Maturely

Self-care: A Life-changing and World-changing Practice

We Need You to Be Yourself

Committing to My Own Persona

Discovering My Need for Self-parenting — (boundaries with myself!)

Heart Neighbors: Love as a Free Partnership — having intimate relationships with healthy boundaries

Claiming My Voice

Untangling: A Villanelle

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

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4 comments on “The Importance of Personal Boundaries

  1. Abundantly Fit
    May 29, 2015

    Thank you for sharing your story! It’s very interesting and, unfortunately, it actually happens more than you think. It sounds like she was and is still starving for attention. You guys were probably one of the very few people to treat her well and she felt she couldn’t live without that type of attention. Many of us have these same type of tendencies but we actually react differently and are able to control these emotions……and then you got some people who go overboard…….. Very good read!

    Like

    • Sarrah J. Woods
      June 3, 2015

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful words. You are exactly right about the starving for attention thing. This has been a pattern in my life—I feel sympathy for people who don’t have a lot of friends and I reach out to them, but then I regret it when they try to take more from me than I can give. I’m gradually learning that with strong boundaries and self-awareness, I can be nice to such people and also maintain my personal boundaries. I still tend to have a lot of fear surrounding those kinds of situations, though. I imagine that will ease over time as I become confident with my boundaries. Anyway, I really appreciate your words of understanding!

      Like

  2. emilievardaman
    June 11, 2015

    Very interesting story.
    For me, boundaries are more like two sets of curtains: sheer and solid. The sheer ones are up most of the time providing a light filter. I can easily fling them open. I can also draw the solid ones when necessary.
    To me, that filter is critical.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sarrah J. Woods
      June 11, 2015

      Hey, I like that elaboration of the analogy! Nice! I will use that in my mind.

      Like

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