I was first formally introduced to the concept of boundaries about 10 years ago. The coach/acupuncturist was telling me that I had poor boundaries with my daughter – and this was particularly evident because my email address had her name in it (meaning I needed to change it).
As I look back, I think perhaps the email thing was a bit over an over-contextualisation – but it was true, my sense of boundaries were poor.
Quite a few years ago, while reading the book “Maps to Ecstasy” by Gabrielle Roth, I was enlightened not only that there was such thing as healthy anger – but also that anger was one of the clearest methods to convey to another that a boundary had been crossed. Over time, I have found this to be true and effective, if done in the integrity of the moment and with an appropriate amplitude of emotion matching the level of boundary invasion.
But in the last couple of weeks, the final puzzle pieces have come together for me.
What I didn’t realise was the intricate variety of boundaries that can exist in our lives. There are not only physical and material boundaries, but also emotional, mental, energetic, sexual, interpersonal, moral/legal and spiritual boundaries as well. Possibly more!
When it boils down to it, boundaries are either functional or dysfunctional.
There are several ways that dysfunctional boundaries can manifest. They can come across as someone stepping over the line and the other invaded. This may occur to the point that the will and desire of one person completely dominates the other.
Another dysfunctional boundary is those in a co-dependent relationship – merged and seemingly in harmony, until one does something to empower or extract themselves. Then, all hell breaks loose.
Even people who are rather aloof can have dysfunctional boundaries in the form of excessiveness. But in this case, boundaries are less likely to be crossed.
Levels of dysfunction vary. Some seem like normal day-to-day relationship – others can form into abuse and inappropriateness, even breaking the law.
There are many theories and viewpoints on boundaries – but the key determinant I can see is the partial or whole removal of someone’s freedom and power of choice.
The Different Boundaries
Realising the different types of boundaries has provided me great clarity – previously muddied by over-generalisation and my ignorance. There are all sorts of analysis out there on boundaries and what each boundary means. Here are my own understandings and personal experience.
Physical & Material Boundaries
While not exactly the same, I’m lumping these together – because they are normally tangible. When someone crosses the line, they might be trespassing on your property (meaning coming in when not invited), standing in your personal space, using your things when you don’t want them to, using and not repaying money, etc. It can also go to various levels of physical violence. Sometimes domestic violence can include subtle and non-subtle monopolising of another’s financial and physical situation, as a form of control and muddying the lines of self-sovereignty.
This type of boundary depends greatly on how much you value your physical and material boundaries before you feel that they may be crossed. For example, one of my friends combines all her assets and money with her husband. My husband and I don’t do it this way. To have to ask my husband whether I can buy something irks me deeply. My friend and her husband have no problem in that.
I have a traumatic memory when I was in 3rd grade, where one of my friends felt it was OK to use my colouring pencils without asking. I was protective of my things at the time, I was also very shy and unable to speak up for myself. I went home and complained to mum. She proceeded to go to school the next day and yell at the girl. The girl cried – she never used my colouring pencils again. I learnt 2 things from that event – 1. I didn’t like people using my things without permission, and 2. Don’t tell mum about these sorts of things again.
Nowadays, I’m less upset when people use my things, but I still get irked when others don’t put things back as they were. My daughter gets to hear this often.
This one you’d think is pretty obvious – but it seems that it’s not. Crossing sexual boundaries can mean inappropriate touching, unwanted sexual innuendos through to showing private parts when someone doesn’t want to see through to different levels of sexual violence (i.e. rape, digital rape, gang rape, genital mutilation). While the degrees of boundaries differ between strangers and those close to you – sexual boundaries can still be crossed in both cases.
Recent events of college student Brock Turner, sexually assaulting an unconscious drunk woman outside a frat party, has been brought to attention around the world due to the light sentence of only 6 months. While I have never considered myself raped or traumatised over drunken sexual activity, it has brought up an old forgotten memory.
I was visiting old friends in Sydney for schoolies and we held a party at my friend’s house. I proceeded to down the alcohol and get extremely drunk to the point where I don’t remember many parts of the night. But I do remember parts of extremely embarrassing and uninhibited behaviour. Somewhere through the night, I met my friend’s distant cousin – who I was previously warned about as a sleaze. Later, I came back to vague consciousness and found myself making out with a guy in the backyard. Then I proceeded to throw up – and roll back onto the picnic blanket and make out again. (Yuck!). Somehow, I came back to vague consciousness where I found myself carried into my friend’s room and my pants being taken off.
I sobered up enough to figure out what was going on and who he was.
Unfortunately, in my naivety, the day before I had come to a decision with my friends that I wanted to ‘get rid’ of my virginity (since everyone else seemed to have already). In that moment, I thought – ‘oh well, might as well’. He tried to penetrate – and somehow my common sense clicked in & I said, ‘Do you have a condom?’ He went, ‘Oh OK’ and scurried around and somehow found one. He tried again, but failed. I found out later he was a virgin and it seems, had been unsuccessful to lose his own virginity with other women. I didn’t do much to help him out.
Not long after that, someone knocked on the door. I heard later that someone was concerned and angry because I couldn’t be found and they didn’t trust him. I recall him getting up and unlocking the door. Somehow, I had my pants back on. I think I went to sleep not long after that and woke up to him with his arms around him and a great deal of disgust (both with myself and him).
I unfortunately got stuck hanging out with him the day afterwards (since he was my friend’s cousin), but I didn’t like him very much when I had sobered up. I also pitied him.
My sexual boundaries had been crossed because I had dissolved them in my inebriated state. But it wasn’t rape – I recall consenting. And I wasn’t afraid. Although how he would’ve acted if I wasn’t consenting, I will never know.
Since then, I have heard many stories from other women, who have had different experiences in varying degrees.
Emotional & Mental Boundaries
Emotional and mental boundaries are even less tangible. These involve distinguishing your own emotions, thoughts and opinions from other’s – and the freedom to have that distinction. Crossing of emotional and mental boundaries can mean being easily influenced by others opinions, expecting others to agree with you and not allowing for any contrary views, through to controlling others through emotional and mental manipulation. It can be as subtle as trying to compel others to feel an emotion, because the current one expressed makes you uncomfortable. It can be less subtle such as being threatening or saying things in a certain way to generate fear, shame or guilt – manipulating others to respond in likely behaviours.
The crossing of these boundaries can be very subtle at first and therefore overlooked. But, underlying it all is a feeling of manipulation – and if you are honest enough with yourself, it will be blatantly obvious. Emotional and mental manipulation is a common pre-cursor to physical domestic violence, and it happens over time.
Perhaps this is my least understood boundary. I have had plenty of opportunities to learn about my emotional boundaries, but I feel I am still learning.
A potent memory was in the final year before I left my ex, where I feel I experienced emotional abuse. The put-down remarks started when we moved house yet again and proceeded to get worse slowly over time. The perplexing thing was that it only occurred when we lived at this one house, rarely occurred before. Controlling behaviour and emotional animosity – many were quite subtle and over time, the only way I knew something wasn’t right was the immediate fear and tension that arose when I heard his car turn down our street. I learnt to recognise his car. I knew my physical or sexual boundaries were safe and yet I never felt safe in that house with him. I found myself consistently unwell and exhausted, running on whatever back-up energy I had left. He used to try and take photos of me when I would close my eyes on the couch, to prove that I was lazy.
The final straw was probably one night we were watching a Simpson’s episode where Homer got Moe to knock a pencil up his nose back into his brain so that he could be stupid and liked again by the Springfield community. I remember my ex turning to look at me and saying, ‘I should do that to you when you are asleep’. On some level, I knew he wouldn’t – but I was horrified. I had trouble sleeping that night. With support from my dad, I finally left him and that house within a few weeks of that comment.
Energetic & Interpersonal Boundaries
Another boundary that is not tangible and easily trespassed are energetic and interpersonal boundaries. This involves having personal space that navigates beyond the physical into more energetic and interpersonal ways, and the ability to have that space and privacy. Crossing these boundaries can exhibit through small things like saying obviously inappropriate things, asking invasive questions, being disrespectful, turning up at people’s house unannounced (when you know they don’t like that), taking up people’s time when you know they are busy – through to more extreme things like stalking and invading their privacy (i.e. going through their private things like emails, phone, drawers, diary).
Basically, disrespecting the other’s privacy and space.
When I was in that relationship with my ex, unbeknownst to me, he thought I was cheating on him because I told him that I didn’t love him anymore and wanted to move out. He kept bugging me for my bank and email passwords, which I refused to give. Every so often, if he noticed I was on my email – he would come and take the mouse (gently) and proceed to scroll through and scan my emails. In front of me. I was too much of a doormat then to get angry. I eventually cottoned on when he started going through my baby bag when I returned from uni. I asked him what he was doing and he replied that he was looking for love letters.
After I left him, it continued on in a different way. He would come over at 9pm or so at night – ask to come in (and I was a doormat, so I ‘couldn’t’ say no) and he would sit in the only chair in my apartment and watch TV, while I sat on a sarong on the floor. Eventually I would ask if he was leaving and he would say, ‘no.’ Then, he would sit there for at least an hour before he suddenly was ready to leave. I was perplexed by his behaviour. It took me years before the penny dropped. He thought I had a lover hidden in the bedroom or coming over soon, so was hoping to catch out the guy I cheated on him with.
And with that purpose in mind, he felt it was appropriate to sit there in my house when he knew I didn’t want him there.
It finally stopped one night, probably 6 months down the track, when I got into a rage. I told him to leave and if he didn’t, I would call the police. I didn’t care how I was acting, I didn’t care in that moment if our daughter was watching. Something in me broke. He never did it again.
Moral & Spiritual Boundaries
I only wanted to mention briefly this type of boundary. Obviously, there are laws to follow and repercussions if those laws are broken. Likewise, there are moral, spiritual and ethical boundaries that we each hold. These can change over our lives. Each to their own – as long as none of the boundaries mentioned previously are crossed, then usually your beliefs remain largely harmless.
Crossing this boundary involves trying to force others to take on the same beliefs and ideals – to take away their freedom to choose their own values. There’s a fine line between convincing and forcing. In the end, only each of us can make the final decision on our values and our beliefs.
Recent example – the mass shooting at Orlando (USA), where 50 were killed and 53 injured by a man claiming to be part of ISIS and did the act purposely against the gay, lesbian, transgender nightclub participants. Not to mention the multiple suicide bombings and other violent attacks against the world by ISIS based on their spiritual ideologies, crossing borders of other countries and violating their laws through acts of purposeful terrorism.
No different to the activities of the Lord's Resistance Army, Boko Haram, Tamil Tigers, Irish Republican Army and any other group/cult aiming to viciously force their beliefs on others around them.
My Boundary Tips
You may have poor or great boundaries, or find that your boundaries vary. Not to worry – boundaries can be constructed or deconstructed as you please. You only need to decide what is true for you in this moment (what you deem appropriate or not) and remain true to that until you decide it’s time to change it.
My tips for boundaries are simple:
- For those who are not prone to clear boundaries, it helps to have some time of reflection. Deciding and choosing your boundaries beforehand can help you commit to holding those boundaries when you feel trespassed.
- Boundaries can change, as you change. You are free to choose whatever boundary you would like. You are also free to do whatever you need to convey those boundaries to others – you will soon learn what is effective and what is dysfunctional.
- Don’t take it personally if your boundaries are crossed. Get appropriately angry, state your case, defend the line. Once boundaries have been established and not prone to repeat offences – let it go. Holding onto the past that your boundaries were crossed is to remain a victim. Do what you need to do to let it go.
- Finally – consistency is key. Establishing boundaries one time and then being lax another time will confuse others to what your boundaries are. It is up to you to convey to others. Some might realise they can get away with crossing the line in certain situations such as when you are in a good mood and manipulate that. Being inconsistent is disempowering others (by not letting them know where you stand) and disempowering yourself too.
The only way to establish your boundaries is to continue to practice to enforce them when needed. Develop the trust in your own ability to maintain boundaries – that only comes with self-awareness, discernment and practice.