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Protecting Your Inner Space With Boundaries

They say good fences make good neighbors.

That saying used to bother me. If anything, I thought, having fences up kept people at a distance and prevented meaningful friendships. I’m a fairly social guy, and I like being able to interact with people. So, how did it make sense that I could have better relationships by keeping people at arms’ length?

“Think Right Thursday” has always been about the mental and emotional sides of health. After all, as I’ve said here many times, good health is not just a matter of bodily strength, but a symbiotic wholeness of mind, emotions, spirit, and body. If any part of this system is distressed, the whole system suffers. Part of any consideration of mental and emotional wholeness is a healthy concept of self, so since the beginning of the year we’ve been looking at the importance of a healthy self-image. This is not about liking yourself or discovering the value in who you are, but going the next step and taking action that promotes and protects a healthy self-image.

What Are Boundaries?

One of those actions we can take is to establish and maintain healthy boundaries. We all know what boundaries are in the physical realm – fences or borders that separate one area from another. In the emotional realm, boundaries are a little more abstract, but no less important. An emotional boundary is a way of communicating to others how they may interact with you.

I have friends who like their privacy at home, so they never invite guests over. That’s an emotional boundary – they have determined how often people may come into their home (in this case, never). I’m not saying that’s right or wrong – everyone’s boundaries are different – it’s just a fact that some people like having guests in their homes and other don’t. The point is that these decisions set limits (boundaries) on the interactions they have with the people around them.

Some people like lots of physical touch; you see them hugging or hanging on people frequently. Other people are uncomfortable with being touched by others; you’ll see them clench up when someone reaches out to them. But while they may have a preference about how often they are touched, it’s not a boundary until they communicate their preferences to others, whether explicitly or implicitly.

A Life Without Boundaries

A good example of a boundary in action is a pastor friend of mine who used to accept phone calls from his parishoners at all hours of the day and night. They interrupted his meals, his family time, his sleep, his office time. He was on call 24/7 without repreive. To hear him tell it, it sounded like he was a hero for swooping in whenever his people needed him.

But was he?

It doesn’t take long for a spouse to get tired of being pushed aside every time duty calls. And kids never really understand why you’re never home to play with them, even if they say they do. Setting no limits on parishoner calls may have been good for his church members, but it was killing his family, ruining his health, and his sanity. In the long run, his people were becoming dependent on him to be there for them at their beck and call, and that is not healthy for the pastor or the people.

The transformation came when he started establishing solid office hours and set up a voicemail system for after-hours calls. He had to draw a line in the sand that said, “this is my time, my family’s time, my professional time, my sleep time, and you will not infringe upon it.” Naturally, that’s when things got better at home, and at the office. He was able to make better decisions because he was better-rested. He was more cheerful. He didn’t stress out every time the phone rang. He was able to focus on the moment he was in.

Now, of course he still took real emergencies, like late night runs to the emergency room when people were in real need, but he found out pretty quickly that most “emergencies” were just a lot of drama, not worth the urgency people assigned them.

Did he offend some people? You bet he did.

Taking back your personal space from people who have grown accustomed to your obedience will ruffle their feathers. But they had to learn to honor his space and not be so dependent upon him. A person with poor self-esteem, who feels like they need to be loved, will never set limits that might offend others, so they let people walk all over them. That’s abuse, even if you’re doing it to yourself. Totally unhealthy.

Broken Down Walls

The wisest man who ever lived, King Solomon of Israel, once said, “Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls.” (Proverbs 25:28). If you don’t set and enforce some guidelines for how you want people to treat you, anyone can just walk in and take advantage of you, and your life will be a doormat for others.

Here are a couple of examples to think about when setting boundaries for your interactions with others:

  • Do you deserve to have people speak respectfully to you, or is it OK for people to scream and cuss at you when they are upset?
  • Do you like it when people hug you, rub your shoulders, give you a pat on the back, or touch you in other ways, or are you more protective of your personal space?
  • Do you mind when people interrupt you at work, or do you prefer to set appointments so you can focus?
  • Do you have possessions that you like to keep strictly to yourself, or are you more relaxed about your stuff?
  • Do you like things done a certain way, or do you like to let people you work with be creative?

There is no right or wrong to these questions, and these certainly aren’t the only questions. These are intended to help you identify your own personal preferences on how your life should go. You can probably think of dozens of others. More likely, you don’t think about them at all until something happens that you don’t like, and you need to determine why it bothered you. That’s typically when you become aware that you have a preference in that area.

The Key To Setting A Boundary

Now, the key to creating a boundary is not that you have a preference, but that you communicate it to the people around you. If you don’t like it when people are late, but you just silently stew over it when they are, then you haven’t created a boundary, you have only given yourself a small ulcer. It becomes a boundary when you ask people to be on time when they come to see you. The boundary is reinforced when you penalize someone for violating your standard – for instance, you cancel the appointment, call them a dirty name (please don’t), or disassociate with them. By the same token, you can reinforce a boundary by recognizing or praising someone who honors your boundary. You can’t assume that people will remember your personal preferences, and you can’t hold them responsible for violating a boundary you never showed them. In this regard, a little grace goes a long way. Tact is powerful, so don’t be a jerk about your boundaries.

You have a right to ask people (politely) to do things in a way that makes you feel honored and accepted.

What About You?

What are some boundaries you have set up (or should set up) in your life? Do you want your kids to honor your reading time by playing quietly for that hour? Do you want your coworkers to abstain from crude humor when you are in the room? Do you want the neighbors to call first before they show up at your house? Do you hate gossip? Give it some thought, and share one of your boundaries in the comments on Facebook. If we all share something, you might see something from someone else that you recognize as a point of frustration in your own life. Then you can determine how you want to deal with it: communicate a boundary to the people around you, or just fume about it silently.

Remember, there’s no wrong answer: all preferences and boundaries are valid. I look forward to seeing what you share.

“At the end of your feelings is NOTHING. At the end of your principles (inclduing your boundaries) is a PROMISE.”  — Eric Thomas

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