Boundaries can be grouped as physical, emotional, property and, preferential. We have the right and responsibility to protect our physical and emotional selves, to control our stuff, and declare our preferences. It seems to me sexual boundaries are both physical and emotional. In turn gender and sexual orientation would encompass physical, emotional, and preferential boundaries. ‘Easy to see how being denied authentic sexual or gender expression would be a monstrous boundary violation.
Boundaries arise as psycho-educational topics since violations of our boundaries tend to impact us in ways that impair our fully experiencing life. If the topic is anger management, self esteem, communication, relationships, addiction, or assertiveness, boundaries will come up. Typically we say that if you have no boundaries, you will be walked over; if you put up a wall instead of a boundary, you suffer disconnection. As it was for Goldilocks, the art of life is finding the middle ground, not too hot, not too cold; not too big, not too small; not too close, not too far away. Often in groups we are speaking to folks who do too little to maintain their personally boundaries. Assertive statements are the tools of boundary maintenance. (You can look at my post on Radical Responsibility for an overview of assertive statements.)
When we ask for what we want, or tell someone what we don’t like, we are maintaining a boundary. If I ask you to sit closer, or position myself so a desk separates us, I've maintained my boundary. If I tell you that I felt happy when I got your phone call, or that I don’t like your calls when I’m at work, I’m maintaining a boundary. Boundaries don’t just define where I end and you begin as a property line would; they also establish who and how I am in the world at any given time. Boundaries establish who and what I am open to, or connected with, moment by moment.
I've used the phrase ‘maintaining a boundary’ intentionally. Teaching the topic of boundaries to folks who typically get walked over, it is easy to talk of establishing boundaries. I like to highlight the fluid nature of boundaries by using maintain. A boundary needs to be fluid because life is dynamic. I will be more or less open to you each time we meet according to how I feel that day, and how I remember our last interaction. I think that makes boundaries more work, needing to be aware of my history, needs, and resources all the time. However, it is how I can have both safety and connection.
In practice we often simplify our boundary maintenance by setting rules. I only lend out tools worth less than $50; I don’t borrow money from friends; I only give gifts to family... But at other times, drifting with life’s flow, rather than steering my course can leave me feeling resentment, anger, violation, or alternately, grieving a lost opportunity to connect, or acknowledge connection. Living fully means attending to our boundaries as works in progress. I remember a woman of seventy who had deferred to her mother for her whole life. She developed the habit at a young age and it had long ago ceased to serve her. After seven decades she defined herself in her relationship with her mother! I say “Long live dynamic boundaries!”
On the other hand, sometimes experience teaches us that our boundary with another can not be safely negotiated. That is when we establish a bottom line. People learn this when they share their lives with someone who lives with an active addiction. They say things like, “I just can’t give him money.” We teach our children a rigid version of boundaries first, when they don’t have reasoning or assessment skills – e.g. “these parts of your body are private....” And as adults we rightly have bottom lines – those are still private parts of our bodies; some diet choices are not negotiable; you better not step on my blue suede shoes....
Again the art of life is in maintaining a balance. The back and forth of living is a dynamic process. Our experience of it will be shaped in part by the way we shape our boundaries.