“There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.
Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.” ― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed
When you think of a boundary, do you think of what is kept in, or what is kept out?
When my mother died, one of her closest friends was one of my very few living links to her; this woman comforted me and brought my mother back to life in fleeting moments when we recounted a memory or allowed ourselves a moment of our shared sadness. This woman became incredibly important to me and I relied heavily on her in this context. Later, as our conversation continued and we grew into our own friendship, I confided in her, something I needed to pursue. She was conflicted about my pursuit and interjected what she thought my mother would feel about it if she were still alive. Much as I loved this woman, much as I had come to need her, this particular area was not one she understood nor did she realize my mother and I had discussed often over the years. I came to understand that she was projecting her own fears and concerns regarding the matter and so I took more time to explain and share; all the while I remained steadfast. It was in the midst of this conversation, not feeling supported or understood, that I realized something important – the matter was core to me and who I am and that I was willing to draw a line in the sand for what I knew I needed. I noticed an important shift within me and that I was willing to stand my ground despite her inability to come along with me. My need for truth and authenticity became greater than my fear of disappointing her if it meant not pursuing something so central to who I am. As with an invisible fence, a boundary was activated and it both surprised me and scared me.
Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.
– Brene Brown
Setting boundaries is not easy. In fact it’s hard work. I look around and from where I sit, it can appear so easy, so natural for others and it’s easy to wonder if I’m somehow missing something or struggling unnecessarily. Being perfectly honest, it has seemed, that of late, the Universe signed me up, unbeknownst to me of course, for a Boundaries 101 course. Complete with a ‘text book’ of sorts.
From the book, How the State Got Their Shapes it is written that The 50 states in the U.S.A. are easily recognized by their shapes, their outlines, their silhouettes. Their boundaries. Their furthest limits. Colorado and Wyoming are both rectangular in their shape and are therefore hard to differentiate. The value resides not in knowing their shape but why. Asking why a state has the borders it does unlocks a history of human struggles, it’s history. It’s story.
The more we look at borders, the more questions those borders generate.
Is it the same for us?
That the more we understand each other’s boundaries, the more we realize we should know about each other and our stories? And, subsequently, the more we do learn about one another?
A state border is both an official entrance and a hidden entrance.
Couldn’t we claim the same truth?
I draw a boundary based on what I know I need to feel safe, secure, seen, understood and strong. If you know, and understand, and accept what that is, you gain ‘entrance’.
The official entrance is the legal threshold to a state. But it’s hidden. Entrance beckons us into the past.
Is the same true for us?
Our own edges, can at times seem somewhat hidden, but if understood, and respected, beckon others in.
Here at the state line we can come come into contact with struggles long forgotten and now overgrown by signs saying things like, “Welcome to Nebraska. Please drive carefully.”
Couldn’t we say the same?
Welcome to my heart. Please drive carefully.
It’s easy to consider drawing boundaries as keeping something out, but what if we change that to keeping in that which what we value while at the same time also building strength? And yet, it is circular, we can’t draw a boundary until we know what we need and want and desire, on the inside.
We know from what has hurt in the past, what hasn’t felt good. We know when someone bumps up against our edges. It’s fear. It’s disappointment. It’s feeling invisible. It’s feeling dismissed. It’s too much at once.
When my son was about 9 or so, we were having a conversation that led to me saying something about respecting his boundaries. The way he looked at me when I said that, I knew immediately that he had no idea what I meant. I thought for a second about how to say it in a way he’d understand; I said to him that boundaries are the edges of when we feel ok, and that when we bump up against the edges, it doesn’t feel good anymore, or it’s uncomfortable, or it’s too much and so we stop.
When we set boundaries, we own what scares us. That which makes us feel alone in the world. By knowing what to ask for, we also identify what we cannot receive. Rejection is hard on both sides of the street.
When we talk about boundaries, setting them, respecting them, we often think of it as drawing a line – a line in the sand so to speak. Creating boundaries, however, is not only about protecting – keeping what is not safe on the OUTSIDE. It can also be about strengthening and fortifying what is on the INSIDE.
I have found that creating boundaries – and then establishing them – is like building strong muscles. It requires discipline, diligence and a plan. It requires that we do things that sometimes we just don’t feel like doing. It’s not easy.
Elizabeth Gilbert wrote recently:
“I don’t like conflict. I aim for appeasement. I often dodge the chance to directly address problems early on, because I hope the problems will go away. I deny and I duck and I put my hands over my ears and say, “La-la-la-la-la.” And then, guess what? Sometimes those problems don’t go away. In fact, they blow up in my face… I am still learning this. I can see messy things that happened in my life this very year, because I didn’t want to cope with problems sooner”
“Liz, stay alert. Heads up. Start speaking your truth sooner. You’ve been put on watch.”
It’s work, this setting of boundaries. We have to accept the uncomfortable moments of owning our anger and understanding what lurks below its surface, trusting our own instincts, facing the fear of conflict with someone we have decided is important to us. It requires that we stand ready to let go of something that has taken up residence within us, even when it’s not good for us. Because we get comfortable.
It dawned on me that setting boundaries and letting go are in essence, kissing cousins.
For when we set a boundary, are we also not at the same time choosing to let go of something?
When we set boundaries, we have to know what defines us. What fits. What makes sense. What fills us in positive ways. Learning to recognize when we are no longer willing to be uncomfortable or misunderstood for the sake of making someone else feel comfortable. Even when that someone is us, and for just a temporary moment.
Sometimes this process requires trial and error – as a toddler experiments with sorting shapes – and until we sort it out, we can feel empty for awhile when we only allow entrance for the shapes that actually fit. When we say no to someone or something – at first it can feel so lonely, but only then do we make room for what does fit.
Creating boundaries demands of us honesty with ourselves, being able to endure shifts in power, changes in dynamics. Sometimes, our own power has the power to scare the crap out of us. That’s nothing short of hard work, man.
In pushing our bodies in exercise, we endure the short term pain, discomfort and possibility of failure because we want something more. We want what comes when we have strong muscles; the definition, the strength, the knowledge and the confidence that come from knowing we are capable. We work our bodies because we know that we want to be able to do the other things that require that muscle strength.
Isn’t the same true for our own boundaries?
When we work our boundaries, is it not because we know that we want more; more inner strength, more of what allows us to truly align with who we are, to be surrounded by others who understand and accept us? Authenticity. To be surrounded by others who truly see us, for all that lies within our squiggly, messy lines or our boring geometric edges. And love us.
The challenge, of course, is to not be too rigid, to find our balance with this line – we get to choose the amount of fluidity in the line, and we can only know that by being brave enough to start, to try. Like Elizabeth Gilbert, we must start speaking our truth sooner. We must put ourselves on notice.
On the back cover of the book, a review by the Wall Street Journal says:
“Give me the splendid irregularities any day. God Bless the panhandles and notches, the West Virginias and the Oklahomas.”
To that I say:
“Give me the splendid imperfections any day. God bless the vulnerabilities, the differences and the fears, the secrets and the quirks.”
For isn’t that the beauty of what is inside?
Ps…Why are Colorado and Wyoming are so similar in their shapes?
-Colorado – Money: gold
-Wyoming – Space: 7 degrees of width, coal & waterways & trails (Oregon, California and Overland Trails). Oh, and Utah’s involved too.
But, like with us, it’s way more complicated than that.