I don’t think any of us would stand silently and without protest while someone stood on our toes. The reaction would be natural and instinctive, whether the offence were deliberate or accidental. Yet how many of us, metaphorically speaking, allow our toes to be stepped on all the time – when we accept less than we think we’re worth, when we give more than we are able or willing to, when we are persuaded to do something that is against our values? Why, I wonder, do we not react in the same way to these trespasses as we would if someone physically stood on our toes?
The answer is: boundaries – or the lack thereof. I have spoken in a previous blog about taking a different view on selfishness. I referred to a selfishness that involves “holding your core” of personal values and not allowing any action taken by yourself or others to trespass on that. I also wrote of a culture of martyrdom that seems to place a high social value on the abnegation of personal interest for the general good – under almost all circumstances. In this way of looking at things, it is considered right to deny one’s personal interests, even allow them to be infringed upon, so long as some greater virtue is being served. Perhaps this is the reason that many of us have a tendency never to set boundaries, or if we do, to believe it is okay to for them to be crossed.
What do I mean by boundaries? I am referring to personal values and limits that determine what we want in our lives and in our headspace on a day-to-day basis. Isn’t it actually quite easy to establish these boundaries? Think about when you were a child. If you didn’t like something, you simply said so. “I don’t want that.” “I don’t like that.” Or, to steer away from negative statements: “This is what I like, that is what I want.” By the time we become adults, we have developed a very different way of thinking: now we may often tend to say: “I like this, but I have to tolerate that because my job, society or whatever upholds it as a higher value and requires that I do the same.”
As the Tears for Fears (I’m showing my age now) song says, “These are the things I can do without.” That’s laying a boundary in the simplest possible terms. Yet don’t we convince ourselves that it is necessary for us to put up with the things we can do without? But how necessary is it really? I would argue that every successful person, every great leader, has always had a well-defined set of boundaries and this has been the key to their success. Having a strong set of boundaries does not mean being intolerant, closed-minded, uncaring or arrogant. It simply means knowing what serves you and what doesn’t and refusing to accept the latter in spite of the pressures of guilt and obligation that are often exerted upon us.
A boundary is not the same thing as a wall. A boundary is a line over which people may step if they choose but there are consequences if they do. A boundary invites entry on specific terms. A wall, on the other hand, excludes completely. A wall is arrogance. A boundary is conditional openness. An arrogant person says, “You’re wrong.” A person with healthy boundaries says, “This may be right for you but allow me the space to determine whether it is right for me and then act accordingly.”
In most of our lives there are areas in which we either have never established healthy boundaries or don’t enforce them. This is often connected to a specific issue or a specific person. On some issues we feel weak and so allow people to dictate our responses and actions in relation to them. Or we may feel inferior to, obligated to, or dominated by a certain individual in whose presence our boundaries seem to become a bit porous or flexible. The clear drawing of lines makes it easier to stand firm in either of these compromising circumstances. When the line is drawn and you stand firmly behind it, it is a lot less easy for others to step over it or force or persuade you to cross it.
Boundaries need not be specific to particular situations. If we live by a complex set of rules that need to be checked in relation to each specific case, our lives would be unnecessarily convoluted and it would probably take far too long to get anything done. It requires a few general principles – or maybe only one overarching mission statement – regarding oneself and what one wants from the experience of this life. Once that line is drawn clearly, no-one will cross it. So, where do you draw the line?