July 14, 2011

Thinking about Boundaries


Personal boundaries define you as an individual. 
They are statements of what you will or won't do, 
what you like and don't like;
how close someone can get to you.

I consider myself a healthy person with healthy boundaries.  Like most, there are just some things I will not participate in - pretty black and white.  But when it comes to relationships, those colors tend to get a little more grey and mottled.  Sometimes it takes someone else observing and listening to alert us to a 'boundary foul'.  At times, in our effort to be kind, compassionate and available, we can be easily manipulated by those who may be in a 'survival mode' of neediness or simply have a high need to be in control of all those around them (often authority figures).  How many times I have poured myself out helping someone through challenges, trying to be a loyal, caring friend or a faithful, giving servant?  I know I am not alone in this endeavor.  In these situations, personal boundaries can be crossed without much fanfare leaving feelings of being taken for granted, being used and/or abused.  The rebound of those feelings can be anger, resentment, guilt, withdrawal and a loss of self-respect.  Unfortunately, all those things can impede good relationships and ultimately, healthy community.

For the sake of knowledge and discussion, let's take a closer look at this rather nebulous and abstract concept of personal boundaries.
Personal boundaries include physical, mental, and spiritual boundaries. Mental boundaries pertain to beliefs, emotion, and intuition; spiritual boundaries pertain to self-esteem and a sense of identity. Together they constitute "psychological boundaries".

According to Nina Brown (author of Coping With Infuriating, Mean, Critical People - The Destructive Narcissistic Pattern), there are four different types of psychological boundary:

Soft - A person with soft boundaries merges with other people's boundaries. Someone with a soft boundary is easily manipulated.

Spongy - A person with spongy boundaries is like a combination of having soft and rigid boundaries. They permit less emotional contagion* than soft boundaries but more than rigid. People with spongy boundaries are unsure of what to let in and what to keep out.

Rigid - A person with rigid boundaries is closed or walled off so nobody can get close to him/her either physically or emotionally. This is often the case if someone has been physically, emotionally, psychologically or sexually abused. Rigid boundaries can be selective which depend on time, place or circumstances and are usually based on a bad previous experience in a similar situation.

Flexible - This is the ideal. Similar to selective rigid boundaries but the person has more control. The person decides what to let in and what to keep out, is resistant to emotional contagion, manipulation and is difficult to exploit.(1)
For believers, physical boundaries should be well in mind.  To be careful, the wise person is modest and aware of personal space, (clean) conversation and physical contact, especially concerning those of the opposite gender, married or not.  This can, of course, be taken way beyond what is considered reasonable and acceptable, giving strong non-verbal statements of disregard, disrespect or distaste for others.  Unfortunately, this can happen either way; so hyper-modest that they shun others that don't cover themselves from head to toe and/or make every effort to limit their conversation and interaction with the opposite gender, or so immodest that they joy in revealing things that should be kept only for their beloved and/or acting unbecomingly flirtatious causing unwelcome thoughts or temptations.  (It is my personal opinion that both these ends of the spectrum reveal a serious controlling personality/situation in their life which results in extreme behavior, similar to eating disorders and chemical/alcohol abuse.)

It would benefit all, I'm sure, to consider the definition of their personal mental boundaries.  For me, there seems to be a built-in alarm that screams when someone is crossing one of my personal boundaries.  Harsh words and criticism, slander/lies, or inappropriate requests that place me in a vulnerable position all trip the alarm.  It is a personal boundary with me that I will not allow others to tear me, or anyone else, down purposefully without discussion or resistance.  No one needs those around them to be speaking toxic words into their lives.  I have a personal plan in place when this situation arises and have shared it many times; at the encounter of hurtful or rude comments, I calmly but firmly state, "What you just said to me was rude (or inappropriate, disrespectful) and I don't appreciate it.  Please don't ever talk to me that way again."  Then walk away - no anger, no emotion.  And there is no more discussion on the subject until there is a change of attitude.  In this way, I maintain control of my own emotions and of the situation for myself.  This is a form of self-respect.  I cannot change how others act, but I can take control of what I will allow towards me.  Everyone deserves respect and has the right to expect it from others in conversation and everyday living situations.

Another clear boundary for me is that I will absolutely not compromise my beliefs by doing something unrighteous (against Scripture) or protecting someone who is acting unrighteous, nor will I participate in covering up unrighteousness for any reason, regardless of how high the cost.  This can be a hard one that requires much wisdom; I feel that I must be willing to stand alone for my beliefs.  We have all heard that if you don't stand for something, you will fall for anything, right?  Personal boundaries can reflect our character, integrity and how we value ourselves and others.

Then, we come to (what could be called) relational boundaries.  It has been my observation that with each relationship, whether it's a casual acquaintance we see in passing, friends we interact with on a regular basis or the most intimate of relationships, a slightly different set of personal boundaries is in place.  We all must decide how much we are going to reveal and share of ourselves to each of these souls that have been put in our lives.  No, the boundaries are not the same for all - that's a given.  But I would suggest that the boundaries can be flexible and evolve as more time is spent working with one another, learning and growing over time.  I also think it may be a mistake to rigidly define the boundaries of varying relationships; no, I'm most certainly not suggesting anything inappropriate or immoral.  However, to limit the growth and deepening of a relationship or friendship due to fear of judgment, jealousy/envy resulting from immaturity or perceived inappropriateness is denying all involved the fullness of what our LORD intended.  He intended us to love one another as we love ourselves.  He intended for us to live in community and to serve Him as such.  The only way to make that work is to be available to each other - to help bear each others burdens and to be respectful, open and honest with each other.  And when we do these things, we build the foundation of trust that is necessary for healthy relationships.  The natural result of these efforts is a healthy and vibrant community of meaningful relationships.

You must not move your neighbor's boundary marker, 
set up by former generations, 
on the property that will be allotted to you in the land that 
the Lord your God is giving you to possess.
 Deuteronomy 19:14

"Cursed be anyone who moves a neighbor's boundary marker." 
All the people shall say, "Amen!" 
Deuteronomy 27:17

Do you not fear me? says the Lord; Do you not tremble before me? 
I placed the sand as a boundary for the sea, 
a perpetual barrier that it cannot pass; 
though the waves toss, they cannot prevail, 
though they roar, they cannot pass over it. 
Jeremiah 5:22



*con-ta-gion (kon-ta-jen), noun: (psychologically) the spread of a behavior pattern, attitude, or emotion from person to person or group to group through suggestion, propaganda, rumor, or imitation; also meaning a disease that is or may be transmitted by direct or indirect contact (a contagious disease).


(1) excerpts from Wikipedia

1 comment:

Ari C'rona said...

Oh, yeah - well put! I think I tend towards the more rigid boundaries. I've gained so much more respect for myself when I've set boundaries for those who have a tendency to show me disrespect.

I'm seeing those verses in a whole new way - I'll be thinking on those more...