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

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