Holding healthy boundaries

by Pace on January 21, 2009

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Chapter 9: Holding healthy boundaries

Boundaries1

Boundaries are tricky things. By “boundaries,” we’re not referring to lines on maps or fences in fields; we mean the boundaries of responsibility.

Becky’s Example: Too Late for the Show

Becky made plans to see a movie with Wes at 4:30 on Saturday. They agree on a time and a theater a week in advance. On Friday, they have a conversation:

Wes: “Hey Becky, could we do dinner tomorrow?”

Becky: “Sure, how about Clay Pit at 8?”

Wes: “Sounds good.”

On Saturday, Becky shows up at the theater and Wes is nowhere to be seen. She calls him to ask where he is.

Becky: “Hi Wes, are you running late?”

Wes: “What? It’s only 4:30, and we’re not eating until 8, right?”

Becky: “Right, but we were going to see a movie at 4:30.”

Wes: “I thought we were having dinner instead of the movie. If we were doing both, I wouldn’t have expected you to suggest a time, and I wouldn’t have expected the time to be so long after the end of the movie.”

Becky: “Oh, I thought we would have dinner in addition to the movie. We never canceled our movie plans, so I assumed they were still on. I guess we miscommunicated.”

Wes: “I guess we did.”

Becky and Wes had a misunderstanding about their plans. They each made the usual error; they filled in the gaps in the conversation with their own assumptions. Does Becky place the responsibility on Wes for misunderstanding her, or does she take the responsibility upon herself for not having been clear enough? In other words, where do they draw their boundaries?

Imagine your boundaries of responsibility as a circle around yourself. You take responsibility for the things inside the circle, and you let others take responsibility for what’s outside.

If you pull your boundaries too far in, you become an island. Imagine standing up and hugging your arms to yourself. There’s no room for anyone else in there — you’re shutting others out! You’re living in your own little shell. You’re not fully present in the world because you’re wearing emotional armor.1 If you’re an island, you take less than your share of responsibility because you feel protected and isolated. This results in the usual error: things don’t hurt you because of your armor, but you forget that others aren’t wearing armor like yours, and that they can get hurt. Thus, you may neglect to take responsibility for the way your words and actions might impact others.

Boundaries2

On the other end of the spectrum, if you have your boundaries too far out, you’ll take on far more responsibility than is rightfully yours to take. Imagine standing up and holding your arms out as wide open as you can. There’s way too much room inside those boundaries! Now you’re taking on responsibility for everyone who can fit in your boundaries: their reactions, emotions, thoughts and feelings become your responsibility, so you may feel like you must choose every word and action very carefully to avoid hurting anyone.

Now imagine standing up, this time with your arms outstretched enough to make a reasonable circle. You’re not shutting everyone out, but you’re not letting everyone in, either. You’re holding healthy boundaries and allowing others to do the same. You’re taking responsibility for your words and actions. You’re taking all the responsibility that is yours and no more, and you’re being mindful of where you draw the line. In this way, you can communicate and interact much more helpfully and effectively.

Kyeli’s Story: Rate Your Cleanliness on a Scale from 1 to 10

We had some friends coming in from out of town. One of them is considerably more of a neat freak than either Pace or myself, so we discussed the state of our apartment at length before he bought his plane ticket. We certainly wanted him to be comfortable while visiting, but we weren’t willing to kill ourselves cleaning. Pace made a scale from one to ten (one being a pig’s sty, ten being a hospital), calibrated the scale by numbering places they’d both been, marked our place as usually a five or six, and asked what he would prefer. He said a seven would be great and we agreed. We reached a wonderful compromise.

Then, a few days after the conversation, Pace was worried that he would be upset when he got here if our idea of seven didn’t match his. I reminded her that the two of them had discussed it clearly, terms had been stated, and all had agreed. If he got here and felt dissatisfied, that wasn’t our responsibility, because we’d done all we could to accommodate him. Now, if we’d decided to ignore his requests and leave the apartment as it was, then it would be our responsibility if he got upset, but that wasn’t what was happening.

We weren’t an island: we didn’t tell him to suck it up and deal with a messier place than he’d be comfortable in. We weren’t too giving, either: we didn’t spend weeks making the place absolutely spotless. We were in the happy medium: we cleaned up enough to make him comfortable. We then trusted him to be responsible for himself and to let us know if he needed anything while he was here.

As it turned out, everything went wonderfully and all of us were very happy.

Holding healthy boundaries is vital for healthy, happy relationships. When you take responsibility for others, you’re taking that responsibility away from them and denying them the chance to find their own boundaries. It can be hard to let others take their share of the responsibility for their lives, but they’ll never have the chance if you keep taking it away from them. At the same time, pulling your boundaries in too far creates difficulty in relating to others, as well as a lack of compassion and connection. There’s a fine line between giving too much and giving too little, but it’s worth the effort to find the happy medium. In addition, holding healthy boundaries and maintaining them firmly when they are challenged tends to attract people who also hold healthy boundaries. By giving others the opportunity to be responsible adults, we attract those who choose to take advantage of that opportunity.


1. For a beautiful story about emotional armor, read The Knight In Rusty Armor by Robert Fisher.

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