Traversing the Inner Terrain

The search for the Authentic Self.

Creating Boundaries

Defining Where "I" Begin

We hear the word boundaries thrown about quite a bit these days in the media. But when you ask people what it means, they often think it has only to do with physical space. Occasionally we know it has something to do with saying “no” but beyond that, we tend to think that boundaries have something to do with making other people stay out of our space. But the problem with that idea is that when we think that we can make others do anything, even stay out of our space, we have crossed a boundary. 

Boundaries have to do with knowing who we are and what it is possible for us to do.  They have nothing whatsoever to do with making others do anything. In fact, healthy boundaries have nothing to do with others at all.

We live in a society that worships competition. We see this reflected in all kinds of things from body image issues to customer service and sales. We have to be better than others in order to feel good about ourselves. Therefore, much of what we do has to do with what we perceive others are doing. And it follows then that our definition of boundaries would also be focused on what others are doing.

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But it’s really all about what we are doing and whether or not we are doing it from any kind of genuineness. Boundaries are an inside job. And they have to do, not so much with where others stop but with where we genuinely begin.

If I begin with a feeling of frustration that consistently arrives in my awareness as I’m headed to work every day, then it is my job as my own caregiver to find out what that frustration is all about and to address it as if it has to do with me and my life, not you and yours. As I become conscious of what my frustration is all about then I can begin to lay a path for dealing with it.  That might mean anything from speaking up more to changing jobs.  But when I’ve made that decision I’ve put up a boundary around my path, and if I plan to stick with that decision, I’m going to have to maintain those boundaries. 

Maintaining those boundaries is going to be about not allowing myself to be talked out of, guilted out of, or otherwise persuaded or manipulated out of my decision. I’m not talking about stubbornness here. I’m talking about committing myself to myself. And each time I do that I begin.

You see, if all of my energy goes to making you do something, making you see something, making you know something or making you anything else, then I might as well be dumping it down the toilet. Because it is utterly impossible for me to make you do anything. And that, that central fact, is why boundaries create peace of mind.

You’ve heard the old AA prayer, originally written by Reinhold Niebuhr: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  Whether you believe in a God of any type or not, surely that wisdom has to be gained for one to attain to any level of serenity.

Reality is a place, a real thing, around which we can create real boundaries. And here is reality:  We have absolutely no power over others. Even when it seems that we do, they have simply chosen to yield to our persuasion. They still had the final say—because they are still the choosers. This is even true of children. They choose whether or not to obey us, whether or not we like to think of it this way.

So the more we are focused on trying to get others to do “right” by whatever standard we measure, the more we are a) crossing their boundaries, and b) wasting our own energy. We have no power to motivate, help, heal, change, fix, drive or make anyone else anything.  So, when we put a boundary around that true-to-life reality, we live behind that boundary. We begin to live life in the real world.

Living life in the real world means changing the things we can change—our lives. It means accepting the fact of life that we cannot change other people.  So, if someone wants to bother us in some way, we can’t make them stop, but we can create a safe place for ourselves. We can create psychic and physical space for ourselves to live. We can decide on all kinds of things from new jobs to new relationships. We can change our own lives.

But isn’t it just so much easier to keep trying to get them to change? That way we don’t ever have to take any risks to own our own lives!

Andrea Mathews, L.P.C., is a Cognitive and Transpersonal Therapist, internet radio show host, and author of Restoring My Soul: A Workbook for Finding and Living the Authentic Self. more...

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