Boundaries: The Ties That Bind

How close is too close?

Maybe this has happened to you: you’re out at a family dinner, enjoying the opportunity to catch up with your parents. You’re in the process of getting your toddler to sit still and eat his breadsticks, when your mother turns to you, eyes sparkling with warmth and concern. “Oh by the way,” she says (you think) a bit too loudly, “how did the hemorrhoid surgery go? You know I have a cream recipe from your Aunt Judith that did wonders for your father when his hemorrhoids got out of hand. It’s so easy; I’ll text it to you. Give Simon… Aunt... Judith’s.. hemorrhoid …salve.” She dictates this reminder to Siri in slow, crisp, oration that makes you feel as though a spotlight has just been turned on as you slowly spin on a raised pedestal. As your booth neighbors become ominously quiet, you wish that the floor would swallow you whole. You cut your mother off with a clipped tone and ask if we couldn’t all please talk about something else. You make a note to be “incredibly busy with work, and couldn’t we schedule this for another time,” at the next opportunity for a dinner together. After all, your mother has always been a bit... stifling.

It isn’t unusual to have the odd time or two when we feel like the people we’re closest with are a bit… too close. Whether it’s prying into something you’d rather keep private, or oversharing, we’ve all been to that place where we feel that someone has crossed a personal boundary. Have you ever noticed that it’s easier to recognize when a boundary has been crossed than it is to know what your boundaries are? It triggers an emotional combination of outrage, anxiety, and disgust: a unique mixture I call “feeling slimed.” The reaction to being slimed by people crossing our boundaries is normal; healthy even. That response serves as a warning system that something important has been violated and is at risk for deterioration.

Boundaries are an inherent part of daily life. We almost instinctively know that there are some things that we are free to share with some, and not with others. For example, you may feel entitled to talk about your sex life with a close friend you’ve known for ten years (and even then, perspectives vary!) but we can all probably agree that it would be strange to share those same details with your banker. I know what you’re thinking; “Rob, what if my banker is also a close friend I’ve known for ten years?” to which I say, everyone is a unique situation! We also probably know that one person who doesn’ttend to understand or respect those boundaries. You know, that person who tends to get too familiar way too quickly? You feel uneasy with the premature intimacy and even taken aback by the raw transparency you’re shown. Maybe you even notice that you’ve been that person at times?

Our boundaries, however much they feel instinctive, are more learned than they are inborn (aside from the basic stranger anxiety we develop as infants). By our family culture, we learn the unspoken rules for what is safe, and what is not safe. By what is modeled to us, we understand who is deserving of the privilege of our intimacy, and under what conditions. This means our sense of boundaries is often deeply engrained, and difficult to articulate. The training for how to respond to when those boundaries are crossed may be just as subtle; and there are nuances – subtexts within subtexts. Maybe there are special exceptions for family members, versus friends, versus acquaintances, versus strangers. With all of this variability, it can be hard to have a personal sense of clarity regarding what feels acceptable and how to respond to what is not.

The first step (as with many things in life) is awareness. Start paying attention to when you feel slimed by others, and what’s going on in those moments. Who are the recurring ‘slimers?’ What are the topics you tend to feel slimed about? Once you know when your boundaries are reliably crossed, you can start to articulate what those boundaries are. “I don’t like talking about sensitive and personal health issues in public,” might refer to the boundary being violated in the incident at the beginning of this article. Knowing and articulating boundaries are, however, only two of steps in this process. You also need to be able to assert your boundaries and protect them. Upholding a boundary means enforcing the relationship behavior you believe you deserve. It means having difficult conversations, and being willing to subvert some of that early childhood programming. It may also mean being willing to upset the people you care about in order to create more equal and mutually enjoyed relationships. Author and researcher Brené Brown has a mantra I’ve found to be useful in those difficult moments of confrontation: “Choose discomfort over resentment.” However hard it may be, it is worth a moment (or recurring moments) of discomfort in our relationships in order to enjoy a lifetime of healthy connections with others.