Borders and Boundaries

The very word, “Boundaries,” makes me shudder!  I am sure I don’t know all the reasons yet but I am thinking about it. Psychologically, it has to do with establishing my own space in the world because I have the self-respect to do so while, at the same time, respecting the boundaries of others. From either direction—inside out or outside in—the whole concept, discussion, and implementation, fills me with anxious fear.[1] Before I go further, as an English professor and writer, I cannot help but think about the physical meanings of these words and what they imply, just to see how they might apply in the life of the mind. 

Over the past two years the whole world has thought about borders and boundaries. The worldwide refugee crisis has brought the EU Schengen Zone into sharp relief and many countries have begun to question the whole idea of a borderless union of multiple countries. The border of the sea turned into a pathway to asylum for some and a graveyard for hundreds of other. The US presidential elections have opened up a virulent and xenophobic debate about American borders. At their worst, boundaries keep desperate people away and at their best, they protect citizens from enemy invasion. Ultimately, each county gets to decide how they will enforce or relax their borders. The US and Canada boast the longest unprotected border in the world and there are far more positives in that arrangement than negatives.  Boundaries can also feel claustrophobic. Island fever is defined by the boundary of the sea but what is one person’s boundary is another’s freedom. When I first moved from a tropical island to the middle of the United States, I had to keep pushing aside the thought that no matter how far I drove, I could not reach the open sea within even 24 hours, much less 2. Had I perseverated on it, it would have struck me with panic. On the other hand, a friend of mine, moving from the Great Plains to Wenatchee Valley in Washington, suffered severe asthma attacks when he couldn’t see the 360-degree horizons he’d been used to. He had to move back to the plains to regain a sense of calm. The “territorial imperative,” the personal space we need around us to be comfortable, is an invisible boundary that feels very real when broached.

Clearly, the concept of boundaries is fluid and as individual for me as it probably is for every other person on the planet, even accounting for cultural differences. Why is it important? For one thing, therapeutically, I figure it must be important because Gretchen has returned to it, over and over again, and each time it is upsetting.  I suppose when it is no longer upsetting she’ll stop hammering away on the topic. (Actually, that’s an unfair characterization of her technique. She will leave a topic after a time of intensive work and when she knows that the upset has become intolerable, returning to it by another route and in another context sometime later.)

That is not to say I don’t appreciate borders or boundaries. I like being in my house, alone. I like the walls around me, protecting me from the outside world. I like the feeling that my space is my own, it’s quiet, it’s secure, it’s protected. The Magic Blanket™, recommended to me by a friend, provides the boundary of an 18-pound blanket that keeps me feeling safe and quiet in bed. Who knew? 

Seanne and I dealt with boundaries both directly and obliquely in our book. For one thing, the boundaries of a traditional therapist-client relationship had to change during co-authorship and it is a topic that has come up during three recent interviews.[2] As Seanne stated, navigating that shift is not recommended. It’s difficult! There were several unhappy stretches of time. One time I said, “Every time you write about boundaries, I feel as though you’re criticizing me for overstepping them in some way” (that I hadn’t understood until reading what she’d recently written).  Of course she protested that she meant no such thing. We discussed it over and over because of my own tendency to misinterpret almost everything she expressed through my murky understanding, laced with intense emotional responses. Earlier, in therapy, we had talked about what happens when the boundaries of children are violated and how difficult it becomes to understand what boundaries mean, never mind the idea that everyone has a personal right to them. 

From the inside out, I know how much I resent people who don’t intuitively understand the limits of what I can or want to do or what I need.  I know that’s irrational.  Following resentment, I become angry with myself for not standing up for myself, for letting myself, once more, get into a situation of disadvantage, a situation of feeling small in age and size. The conundrum is this: if that feels so awful, attempting to state my needs must feel much worse than that. Right? Otherwise, why would I let it happen?  The problem seems to be that from the outside in, in other words, on the rare occasion that I cannot or do not intuit someone else’s boundaries or even that they feel a need to express them up front, I feel terribly ashamed, humiliated, as if I’ve transgressed egregiously.  I think, “I should have known better. How could I have run roughshod over someone else that way? What an insensitive clod they must think I am” and so on through a litany of self-recrimination. Even now, recalling times when Gretchen established the necessary therapeutic limits we will observe, I can sense myself feeling ill, like I did the first time.

The circular nature of the issue then, from the inside out, is obvious. If that’s how I feel, won’t expressing my needs evoke the same horrible feelings in others? And, if it does, will they reject me? Abandon me? Will they think I’m vain or claiming something that does not belong to me? So, I have remained quiet, for years, making small attempts to stake out a tiny space for myself and then, only when I feel completely desperate. Growing up, an expression resembling anything like a wish for privacy, private time, or a need to claim what did not seem to belong to me, even my body, was dealt with harshly. But, Gretchen and close friends will sometimes say, even stridently, “We’re not your father!”

My teaching philosophy and Gretchen’s therapeutic philosophy seem parallel: If you work hard, so will I; you will not fail…unless you want to. Often therapy feels like the hard work of a patient therapist teaching me over and over to override my strong, negative feelings with rational thoughts.  It seems to take a long time.

[1] Lancer, D. (2015). Codependency for Dummies. Wiley & Sons: NY. Gretchen recommended this book and it is very, very complete on the topic of codependency and boundaries. However, reading it filled me with so much shame and even depression, she requested I put it down.

[2] C. Maria Wall, "Healing Through Hurt," Rachel Grant, "Beyond Surviving," and Susan Jacobi, "Conversations that Heal."