The Better Your Boundary, the Less You Need a Border

Crossing the Line, part 2 of 2

Having good boundaries solves the 84th problem. Do you know what the 84th problem is? (I’ve told the parable before -- HERE -- and it's worth re-telling).

The Buddha comes to town, and a farmer comes to see him and starts complaining about his problems. His wife this; and his children that; and the ox is sick; and the soil is poor; and there hasn’t been enough rain and, if there were, the roof would leak; and the people to whom he sells his rice are cheating him.

The Buddha stops him and says: You have 83 problems. Farmer says: That sounds about right. How do I fix them?

Buddha says: You’ll always have 83 problems. Maybe you solve one, or it goes away on its own, but another pops up to take its place. Always 83 problems. Farmer says: Well, what good are you?

Buddha says: I can help with the 84th problem. Farmer says: What’s the 84th problem?

Buddha says: You think you should have no problems.

For the person with good boundaries, problems don’t bother them. Problems arise. One responds to them as well as one can. This is life. Whether you call them problems or challenges, there’s always the next one to meet.

Having good boundaries doesn’t keep out your 83 problems, but it does keep out the 84th problem. Your problems then don’t define you; you aren’t consumed with the thought that you shouldn’t be having this problem.

The 84th problem is the extra. Your problems (or challenges) are enough by themselves; you don't need to add anything extra. But we often do add extra problem to our problems. Whenever we're annoyed by the problem, when we think it's wrong that the problem exists, when we let the problem trigger our reactivity and upset our equanimity, we are adding extra problem to our problem. Good boundaries keep out that extra bit.

Life IS problems, or we’d have nothing to do with ourselves, no reason for being. We need problems, challenges, but we don’t need the problem OF the problem. We don’t need the extra, the 84th problem.

Everything has its place. This is a very ancient spiritual insight and teaching. All things belong. On the one hand, being mindful that all things belong eases anxiety, irritation, annoyance, anger. On the other hand, it’s also true that if all things belong, then so does your anxiety and anger. This, too, is recognized in ancient spiritual teachings, though the very modern perspective of evolutionary psychology helps us understand it.

Anxiety belongs because our ancestors needed anxiety. Anxiety about that lion prompted them to run away, anxiety about a brewing storm prompted them to seek shelter. Homo sapiens emerged with a particularly advanced capacity to worry about the future, to imagine dangers that weren’t immediately visible. This was probably driven by the processes that made us not only social animals – as wolves, orcas, emperor penguins, chimpanzees and others are – but ultra-social: able to adaptively cooperate at an extraordinary level because of an astonishing capacity to imagine ourselves into another person’s situation, grasp what they’re trying to do, so we can help them do it.

We were motivated to be helpful because we were able to imagine the future – farther into the future and in more detail than other species. I would help you because I imagined a future in which you would help me – and that capacity allowed systems of reciprocal altruism to begin to form.

As our symbolic language emerged, we were able to communicate to create shared imaginary futures, and then cooperate to bring them about.

Which is all very wonderful. But there’s a rub.

Our ability to imagine the future, and to be goaded to appropriate action by a little anxiety about that future, can easily go to far. Evolution gave us these goads, but it didn’t give us very good mechanisms for turning them off when they’re no longer helpful. Our brains were built to worry, and it’s very easy for them to fall into a pattern of worrying even when it does us no good, and only produces chronic stress and anxiety.

Making matters worse, the futures we imagine aren’t just worries about the weather, or predators, or food sources. Our imagined futures are heavily peopled. "Can Bob be counted on?" "Was Sue lying, and she’ll stab me in the back?" Our brains evolved to negotiate the fantastically complex balancing act of wanting and needing to cooperate, but also guard against being taken advantage of – balancing the costs and risks of cooperation against possible benefits.

This balancing act is carried out through – or manifests as – our sense of fairness. We are as ultra-social as ants or bees, but for us, our sense of fairness is the crucial regulator of our sociability. My brain is built to monitor possible future scenarios of people being unfair to me, and whether they’ll think that I’m unfair to them, and whether they’ll think I’ll think they’re unfair to me – it’s exhausting. Or, rather, it seems like it would be exhausting, but in fact our brains seem to rarely tire of thinking about fairness. Our ability to think about fairness in such complicated ways is also our beauty as a species.

So we are built to worry what other people think, and to want to be in agreement with them. Yet, the more clear we are about who we are, the less need we’ll have to be self-protective, i.e., defensive. So here’s my thought about boundaries and borders: the better your boundary is, the less need you have for a border. That is: those who are self-differentiated don’t have to be self-protective.

When difference and conflict aren’t a threat to your sense of self, then ego defense mechanisms don’t get triggered, and the walls that block empathy don’t go up. When boundaries are solid, borders don’t have to be. When we’re comfortable with ourselves, we can let people in -- we can take down the walls that shut them out. When we don’t require conformity of ourselves, or of others, we can be free to connect with and work with very different people, appreciating and not being threatened by their difference – while also appreciating and not being scared by our own differentness.

This is true on the personal level, and it is true on the national level. As a nation, the US has lost its boundary. We have no clear sense of who we are as a people. We are, as it were, “out of bounds.” The old story that defined our nation was deeply problematic in many ways. It was a story shot through with patriarchal and supremacist assumptions, and the critique that helped dismantle the old story was well warranted. But a new and better story has not emerged. In the interim, we don’t know who we are, don't know what "America" is.

In compensation for our lack of boundary definition, the national psyche instead turns to border protection and a very literal wall -- blocking empathy, blocking compassion, blocking our own growth, blocking the very connections that our spirits crave.

As our national norms break down, lines are crossed. Lines of civility are crossed. These lines helped "political leaders hold two opposing ideas in their heads simultaneously:"
"...the first is that your political opponents are wrong about many things and should be defeated in elections. The second is that you still need them. You need them to check your excesses, compensate for your blind spots and correct your mistakes." (David Brooks, New York Times, 2019 May 9)
But it's gotten easier and easier to cross the lines that held our leaders in a system that helped them know how to work together amidst disagreements, and find and build on common ground while respecting the beneficial role of political opposition. Crossing those lines makes it harder and harder to cross the lines that exclude and shut out -- the lines of enmity and othering.

The task before us is daunting. But as Rabbi Tarfon says, be not daunted. You are not obligated to complete the task. Nor are you free to abandon it.

The task is to strengthen our boundary – clarify our principles, know our story and stick to it, develop equanimity in our integrity, bring our nonanxious presence. Only thus will we be able then to cross borders, replace walls with bridges, join hands, and end the loneliness.

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See Part 1: Good Boundaries


Good Boundaries

Crossing the Line, part 1 of 2

Some lines, it’s good to cross. Other lines are better respected.

Edwin Markham (1852-1940)
You’ve probably heard the verse by Edwin Markham, titled “Outwitted.”
He drew a circle that shut me out -
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In!
In those four lines we see both the good and the bad of the lines we draw – the boundaries and borders we put up. Some lines shut people out. Other lines hold people together. And sometimes it’s the same line: holding US together and keeping out THEM.

Our monthly theme for June is Borders and Boundaries. These two words are synonyms – or they used to be. They both mean the outer edge, the bound or the limit of something. In recent years, though, the words have come to be used in different ways.

A “border” is more often now used to mean the kind of line that shuts people out. Divinity students at the Unitarian Universalist seminary, Meadville Lombard in Chicago, must design a focused project to carry out during their internship, and it is an explicit requirement of the project that the student show how they cross borders in their ministry – borders of race or culture, gender or generation. Crossing borders is a crucial component of building a more just and harmonious world – a more beloved community. Those lines that shut people out: we have to find ways to erase them.

Boundaries, on the other hand, in the recent usage trend, are a good thing. Having good boundaries is a part of being psychologically and emotionally healthy, and a key to effective leadership.

Boundaries, we are told, need to be maintained. Borders, however, need to be erased, or at least crossed with facility.

What I’d like to do today is first talk about good boundaries: what that means and why it’s helpful to have them. Then we’ll take a look at borders – the lines we draw that shut people out.

Having good boundaries is also called being self-defined, differentiated, or having a well-developed self. Good boundaries are what let you be guided by what you think of yourself rather than other people’s opinions. Without those boundaries, your identity merges with the people around you. You’re more susceptible to “groupthink.”

On the one hand, you’re more controlled by other people’s judgments. On the other hand, you’re also more controlling – more devoted to actively or passively trying to control others.

The self-differentiated person, on the other hand, is more able to say, “I’m going to do me, you do you. I’m not interested in judging you, or in your judgments of me, but I am interested in nonjudgmentally watching how we each are and looking for ways we might harmonize or complement each other. There’s not a right answer or a blueprint for how we should work together or play together or be together. Rather, as I do me and you do you, I’m open to being surprised, to discovering unexpected creative ways that our different gifts can synchronize, or contribute in different ways to a common goal."

Many psychologists note that a person’s degree of self-differentiation, while it probably has some genetic component, is largely influenced by family relationships during childhood and adolescence. Once established, the level of self boundaries tends often to be set for life. It can be changed, but it’s hard. It takes a structured and long-term effort to change it.

People with poor boundaries may be chameleons or bullies, or vacillate back and forth. Chameleons depend so heavily on the acceptance and approval of others that they quickly adjust what they think, say, and do to please others. Bullies likewise depend on acceptance and approval of others, but pursue their need by dogmatically proclaiming what others should be like and pressuring them to conform. Disagreement is a threat to chameleons and bullies alike.

A third type of poorly differentiated person would be the extreme rebel who routinely opposes the positions of others. Reactionary opposition is just as much a way of being controlled by others as reactionary agreement is.

Of course, we are all, as our seventh principle says, interconnected. We depend on each other. But a person with good boundaries can stay calm and clear-headed in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection. They can assess criticism in the context of their own long-term principles and considered values rather only reacting from the emotions they’re feeling in the moment.

Boundaries keep you contained – rather than a puddle of emotions and needs for acceptance. Boundaries thus afford integrity: the ability to live from a consistent set of thoughtful principles rather than being pulled this way and that by the shifting currents of opinion and judgment of others.

In a couple, when the partners are self-defined, they can each talk about what they’re thinking and listen carefully – rather than taking on anxiety about the partner’s issue and reacting out of their anxiety. Each can appreciate the other’s decision-making strengths while also able to think things through for themselves. Neither assumes the other generally knows best, but looks at each situation fresh.

They can talk about their fears or concerns without expecting the other to fix or solve them, but simply because sharing our fears helps us think more clearly about them. When they bring their anxieties to each other, the interaction doesn’t escalate the anxiety. Their boundaries help keep the anxiety contained and thus manageable. Each is a resource for the other: emotionally available without either fixing or blaming.

The difference between a request and a demand is in whether you’re upset if it isn’t met. Sometimes its clear that a demand is being made: "Do what I’m saying or I’m going to be angry or upset!" That’s a demand. Other times, what is presented as a request is not revealed to really have been a demand until after the answer is “no.”

But the extent to which you are upset if the answer is “no,” is the extent to which there was some demand in your request. You might hide the upset – the anger or disappointment – and pretend you’re not upset, but if you are, then you were demanding.

When we have good boundaries, when our perceived worth doesn’t depend on things going our way, we can make true requests, and if the request isn’t or can’t be met, we roll with that without getting upset or anxious.

Good boundaries aren’t a barrier against caring, but are a protection of our integrity. They don’t make us detached or aloof, but allow us to be present to a situation without taking anything personally, without taking on the anxiety.

The notion of being a nonanxious presence in the midst of anxiety once seemed self-contradictory to me. My strategy for being present was to show that I was just as worried or scared or angry about the situation as anybody else. My strategy for being nonanxious was to check out, become detached, emotionally distant.

But the reality is that taking on someone else’s anxiety isn’t really being present to it. Nor is detaching and not being present to it being nonanxious – detachment is one way of being anxious. The only way to be truly present is to be nonanxious, and the only way to be truly nonanxious is to be present. And that requires being self-differentiated, having good boundaries that allow you to know that your worth, your dignity, the worth-while-ness of your life is not threatened by whatever mess of which you might happen to find yourself in the middle.

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See Part 2: The Better Your Boundary, the Less You Need a Border