Once you have strong personal boundaries, they become more porous, and love and caring flow more easily between you and others.
Sophie, a professional woman and mother to 3 children under 6 and a member of my weekly Mothering Circle, repeatedly feels taken advantage of. After listening to her describe a painful episode in which a friend had acted inappropriately during a visit, I told her, “you need to work on improving your emotional boundaries.” She was surprised by my comment. “But the teachings of Buddha (our topic that week) say we aren’t separate” Sophie said. “So why would I need boundaries? What am I protecting? Isn’t the whole idea to not be attached to the needs of my ego?”
This prompted Rachel, another mom in our circle, to reveal that she and her ex-husband who share custody of their child were working on boundary issues with a counselor. “We never worked this out while we were married,” he said. “We thought being in love meant you weren’t supposed to have boundaries.” After class, these mothers shared stories about boundaries being violated— sometimes unknowingly.
In my observation from leading mothering circles for the last few years, poorly defined or inappropriate boundaries are the cause of much suffering—and that suffering is compounded for some people by confusion regarding the teachings of oneness, selflessness, and non- separateness. If you’re struggling with these questions, you’re in good company. After all, you’re part of a culture that isn’t always clear about boundaries. Moreover, your sense of them changes dramatically as you mature and your inner life deepens.
Even if you’ve done a lot of inner work, you may still allow others to violate your boundaries or you may violate those of others. You may know people who chronically disrupt boundaries, but have never realized it or deny it. You may even be enabling their behavior. Fortunately, you can dramatically improve in this area through conscious practice, honesty, and patience.
Beware, though, of underestimating the challenge of setting and maintaining healthy limits. Boundary issues are more complex than just inappropriate language or action, and their complexities are revealed only after you have some clarity. Mastering the issue of boundaries does not happen all at once; it’s a gradual process that eventually leads to a more authentic and powerful you.
Interestingly, the language of personal boundaries mirrors that of property rights. The word “boundary” is used to define a parcel of land that can be bought, sold, insured, or taxed. Likewise, when used to describe emotional space, it most commonly defines the self; which has unique rights that others should respect. Abuse counselor Pia Mellody, in her book Facing Codependence (Harper San Francisco, 2003), refers to boundaries as “symbolic force fields” that allow you to have a sense of self.
Today we take for granted the right to have our physical body remain inviolate, but throughout much of history many people—children, women, prisoners, serfs, slaves — did not enjoy that right because they “belonged” to a parent, spouse, or ruler who “owned” certain access rights to their bodies. We now view physical and even some emotional boundaries as part of a person’s innate dignity and sanctity. This “human right” is considered more intrinsic than a constitutional right. But this view has only recently come into existence (and not all cultures share it), and it continues to evolve.
It can take years for what may seem like an obvious personal boundary to be accepted as a civil right. For example, only recently has unwelcome touch by a boss or coworker been defined as illegal sexual harassment. It’s still being debated whether the air around your body is protected and, if so, if you have the right to be protected from smoke. And now there’s a debate about public cell phone use being an intrusion on our individual and collective space—a boundary that involves the right to peace and quiet.
Physical boundaries represent the right to be free from intrusion by others, and only when they are fully respected can emotional boundaries be dealt with. Violations of this physical right include torture of prisoners of war and criminals, rape, child abuse, and physical assault. In each instance there is also an undeniable emotional violation, which underscores the fact that emotional boundaries are as tangible as—and are fundamentally linked to—physical ones. Honoring physical boundaries is essential. Otherwise justifying mistreatment of someone’s body implies that such boundaries are conditional, not innate. This slippery slope leads to abuse by all sorts of violators, including police, governments, corporations, and those acting in the name of God. Eventually you and those you love will be affected. Any time our culture is complacent about such violations, all our personal boundary rights are under threat.