Boundaries are your castle walls, and they protect and serve to define YOU. They are a foundation of health and strength and I talk about them a lot in my work.
As with many other things in our life (like dreaming, experimenting, and eating a ton of sugar without consequence), somewhere along the way many of us were taught to chip away at our boundaries for one reason or another. As kids, we were good at knowing which relatives we wanted to hug at Thanksgiving, and which strangers gave us the “ut-oh” feeling. At some point though, we stopped listening to this internal compass. Unfortunately, this is an extremely dangerous oversight.
We have all sorts of boundaries for different kinds of interactions, and even different boundaries for different levels of intimacy with people. These are the standards we set for the people we interact with – rules of engagement, if you will. In romance, it can be tricky to adhere to these boundaries, as we often let behavior slide in the name of love, or in fear we will lose something we can’t get back. Socially, we might be worried about losing a job, a promotion, or social status in fear of coming off prude or difficult.
So, let’s put something at rest right now – be it a friend, a boss, a job, or a lover, losing someone who willfully violates your boundaries is not worth keeping anyway. I am reluctant to bring up the “plenty of fish in the sea” bit, but it is more or less true. It also doesn’t matter.
For now, I want to explain recognizing personal boundaries.This is a large part of who you are, and everyone’s boundaries will be different. To start honing yours, be mindful when interacting with pretty much everyone. Here are a few things you may notice that could indicate one of your boundaries is being tested:
- Physical Response: Your reptilian brain – the part that triggers the fight-or-flight response, is an amazing indicator, if you can learn to listen. A tightening in your stomach, a raised or furrowed eyebrow, or an overall tenseness, for example, can indicate your body is closing off for some reason. Explore why.
- Emotional Response: Disbelief after a response, embarrassment, or guilt could be examples of emotional responses to boundaries being tested.
These responses are very subtle. Examples of how these could manifest could be the following scenarios:
- You laughed at an off-color joke that you didn’t find funny, and feel a pang of guilt. You realize it is because your physical response did not match your values.
- On a date, your partner reaches out and touches your leg, and you tense up instead of welcome the gesture.
- Your boss asks you to defend a company’s position which conflicts with your own values or morals. You feel the slight sickness of cognitive dissonance.
- You leave the room for a moment and when you return, your partner is going through your phone or email. Maybe you leave your office and a co-worker is rooting through your desk. For some, this might be acceptable; others may feel a bit of disbelief. This would indicate where your boundary for privacy may be.
Think of your boundaries like the walls of your house. Without them, you feel exposed to the elements and potentially unsafe. Your natural response is discomfort, physical uneasiness, the once well-known “ut-oh” feeling. In the adult world, I like to refer to these are “whoa” moments – and not the good whoas. These are the whoas that make you take a step back and consider what is making you uncomfortable. Typically the trigger occured right before this instinctual feeling, so be mindful when these happen exactly what may have caused them. You can sort it out later, but be conscious in the moment.
Maybe you have a physical boundary regarding sexual or pseudo-sexual encounters on a first or second (or third or fourth…) date., maybe you are like me and hate tickling. Maybe you value humanity to a point that you feel uncomfortable when people make fun of others and you want nothing to do with it. Perhaps you value traditional gender roles, or maybe you value equality in a partnership. Maybe you are comfortable with spanking your kids or maybe you are completely against it. Think broadly about the things that make your skin crawl, then try to define the line between what you are willing to accept and what you are not. This should be an ongoing process, but I think you will find your confidence building as you define where your boundaries lie.
If you are finding this exercise difficult, good! It should be. Start with a list of things that make you feel good, and things that make you uncomfortable,. Remember to be honest, and there is no right or wrong. Here are some examples of what your list might look like::
- I have zero tolerance when people are intentionally mean to other people – I do frustration, but I don’t do mean, and I don’t do hate.
- I don’t associate with people who break the law.
- I don’t like being restrained or prevented from leaving a space.
- I don’t tolerate insults during a fight, or yelling.
- I don’t tolerate abuse or any kind.
- I don’t associate with people who try to make me feel less important, or less of a person because of my values or boundaries.
- The bathroom is my personal space – no intruders!
- I unfortunately will not continue a relationship with a cheater – I don’t have the time
- I don’t choose partners whom I have to “fix”. I find I am a better friend to those who need serious help than I am being emotionally and possibly physically or logistically involved.
You will have plenty of opportunities to assess boundaries, and as I mentioned, I talk about them a LOT. Consider this process on-going, and an extremely important part of your growth. Much of what I can help you with involves communicating your boundaries in a classy, kind way, so having an idea about some of your most ingrained boundaries will help you grasp these concepts.