What are These Boundary Things and How do I get One?

A woodland scene with deciduous trees growing close together. On the largest tree trunk is a white notice with keep out written on it in marker pen.

DO you read self-help books? HAVE you been in therapy? ARE you on social media? IN FACT are you a person who is alive in the world (well, the rich white western world, anyway)? If so then you, like me, probably know all too well that you CANNOT have a good relationship or, like, life, without having good personal boundaries.

Here’s my secret though: I’m not entirely sure what boundaries are, how they work, or why they’re so important.

All right, I know some basics. I know that being able to say ‘no’ to other people is important. I think boundaries are to do with how you relate to others. I think respect comes into it, though I’m not certain how. This all feels quite bitty, like I’ve got a few bits of a jigsaw puzzle and I’m pretty sure they’re all part of the same picture but how they fit into it I can’t work out.

And that’s why I’m here. I want to find out more about these things that are apparently so important to human wellbeing. What are they? How can they help me? Do I already have them without realising it or am I going to need to think about them more? Are they really as important as everybody says? I write this paragraph at the start of a little journey: I’m just about to google boundaries!

Ignoring a dictionary definition which speaks of fences and cricket, the first result is from a website called ‘Live Well with Sharon Martin’. Sharon, it turns out when I click the link, is a therapist and also a wellness enthusiast. Therapy I can cope with, wellness not so much (it’s funny how infrequently it takes into account anyone who’s, you know, not well…). Still, she seems to be giving me some good information. She uses this whole analogy about neighbours invading your garden, first in small ways and then bigger ones, and how if you don’t nip it in the bud straight away people will just keep taking advantage of you.

Reading this article, I rather feel as though I ought to be clicking with this stuff, understanding what she’s saying, but I’m not. Despite the garden analogy I still don’t really get it… how do boundaries keep me safe? How do they help me to be myself? I feel as though I’ve got a rather complicated piece of furniture from Ikea and I’m looking at it… I can see all the pieces, the fixings, the space where it’ll go. But I’m missing the instruction booklet and I don’t know what I’m building.

I’ve always been this way with internalising new concepts. I can do all the research (ok, in this case it’s a lot of hearsay and one article, but the point still stands!) and have all the facts neatly laid out in front of me. They can even do me some good. But I still need a key, something that will unlock all the information I’ve got and make it mean something to me. I talked a little bit about this feeling in my post about nurturing my senses. Right now, I seem to have some information but I still don’t get it.

The second link in my search is to a Psych Central article which, amusingly, has a very similar title to this blog post. Clearly I’m not the only one. It begins by giving some concrete examples of types of boundaries and how they might affect you. For example, it talks about how your feelings about loud music (thumbs down) or nudity (thumbs up) are boundaries, and so is distinguishing between your own emotions and other people’s.

These more specific examples are working much better for me than the garden analogy did. I’m realising that whether or not I lend items is a boundary… whether I choose to touch someone or not is a boundary… being able to retain my own opinion rather than absorbing that of whoever’s talking at the time is a boundary. Fascinating!

Suddenly in a few paragraphs of text I feel as though I’m beginning to get boundaries. I’m realising that my personal boundaries are where the world stops and I begin – and that I get to choose exactly where that happens. And that if I allow the world to just swarm into my house, my brain  and my life, I might not even know who I am after a while.

Quite coincidentally, knowing who I am has always been a challenge to me. With one therapist I had to make a mask, the back of which represented what I am and the front of which represented what the world sees. The back of mine was nothing, and the front I covered with tin foil and added a pair of pink spectacles. It was supposed to show that what I present to the world is what I think the world wants to see, and more specifically I reflect to each person what I think they want to see.

Ever since then I’ve made a deliberate effort to be more honest and real and that’s inevitably entailed finding out what I really think about things, what I really like and dislike, what I really want. It’s rather like an infinite game of pass the parcel. Perhaps nobody ever really knows everything about themselves, but every time I uncover something else about me it adds to the picture.

What I mean by all of this is that perhaps I’ve had weak boundaries in the past, and perhaps a better understanding of how I interacted with the world has helped me to start plugging a few gaps. I’m not really sure; this is something I’m going to have to ponder.

This second article has proved immensely helpful to me in comprehending personal boundaries. I still have a lot to learn, I can see that! But I feel now as though I get what’s meant when people talk about them and how important they are. After all, if I don’t know where I stop and the rest of the world begins, how can I know what actions and reactions I’m responsible for and which ones I’m not? How can I know what it’s all right for me to change, assert or manage if I don’t know what’s mine and what isn’t?

This is an area I definitely want to get to know more about. I actually think my boundaries are probably mostly functional, if sometimes rather wobbly, but it’s a super interesting subject and one I’d like to know more about. Next time I’ll be googling ‘how can I tell if I have good personal boundaries?’, ‘how do I know if my boundaries are reasonable, demanding, or just nonsensical?’ and ‘how many times can you type the word ‘boundaries’ before you’ve done it too many times and it’s gone weird?’.

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