Boundaries 101

Motivated by “No.”

Posted Mar 12, 2014

As a creative, I routinely defy boundaries. After all, that’s what thinking outside the box is all about. On the other hand, before you break the rules, it helps if you’ve shown that you know them first.

For example, before Pablo Picasso started painting women with two eyes on the same side of their faces, he showed the art world that he could paint a traditional portrait. As a result, he is recognized as one of the greatest artists of all time. By contrast artist Robert Motherwell never worked within accepted conventions, and subsequently few people like, understand, or even know his work.

Whether they are physical, social, or emotional, generally speaking boundaries are designed to keep people from killing each other. I used to have a neighbor who let her dog poop on my beautifully manicured zoysia grass every day. Then on the day I erected a fence, she asked, “Robert, why are you putting up a fence?” I smiled and quoted the most famous line from Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall, “Good fences make good neighbors.” I don’t think she got it, but at least I was able to walk barefoot in my backyard again.

I recall an elderly woman, who lived in an affluent neighborhood, painting her house hot pink. I thought it was cool, but most of her neighbors hated it. She had broken an unwritten rule. Then one day someone rang her doorbell; and when she answered it, shot her dead. Shortly thereafter it was repainted in a neutral color. To the best of my knowledge, the murder was never solved. I’ve always wondered if the motive was that house color.

When it comes to work, boundaries have served me well. Back in the day, when I was struggling to make a name for myself as an advertising copywriter, I got a call from an advertising agency owner offering me a freelance job. It was a big job that would pay a lot of money, but it was also the first job he ever offered me. There was a problem; he wanted it by the next day. It was the sort of job that I would normally spend two weeks on. I asked him if he could give me more time. He said, no. So, I turned down the job, explaining that I needed more time in order to give him quality work. Alas, that turned out to be my one shot; he never offered me another opportunity. Sure, I could’ve ignored my standards—my boundaries—taken the job and turned in some half-assed work, but I chose to maintain my integrity and protect my reputation.

As a parent, I feel I also did a good job setting boundaries. Ones that taught my kids to be cautious, respectful, and caring. For instance, I didn’t trust those so-called childproof cabinet latches because my cat had defeated them with ease. When they were toddlers, my children were allowed to open all the cabinet doors except for the one containing household cleaners. A strong “No,” firmly stated a few times when they ventured toward it, soon taught them that particular place was off limits. 

It’s funny, but as much as I understood boundaries in other areas of my life, I never “got them” when it came to my romantic relationships. I recognized other people’s boundaries, but I could not create my own. I’ve always subscribed to this quote from science-fiction writer, Robert Heinlein, “Love is the condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.”

Now, you might think that’s a formula for co-dependency. However, there is nothing wrong with that sentiment—unless it is not reciprocated. That was my problem. I did not know how to set boundaries on the lengths to which I would go to insure the happiness of my lover. I would give and give and give, thinking that if I gave enough, it would be returned. Unfortunately, it never was.

I didn’t set any boundaries because I was afraid of losing the relationship. I came by this fear honestly. My parents did not have emotional boundaries. My father sacrificed his own needs to constantly meet my mother’s desires. As children, my sister and I grew up with a fear of abandonment. That fear was instilled by my mother withholding love in order to manipulate us. Many a time, she would start crying and say, “Nobody loves me.” My sister and I would rush over and assure her that we loved her. In our house only my mother was allowed to have needs and feelings. The rest of us did everything in our power to make her happy and ensure that peace would endure.

Later on with my girlfriend, I would suppress my needs, desires and goals. I would even do things that I did not like doing. All in the hopes that my efforts would one day be returned. I was seduced by words of love and empty promises.

Eventually I learned that actions speak louder than words. It was only then that I began setting boundaries in my romantic relationships. I’ve learned to say, “No.” Sometimes that means a romantic interest may move on, but at least I’m now moving with certainty.

Robert Evans Wilson, Jr. is an author, humorist and innovation consultant. He works with companies that want to be more competitive and with people who want to think like innovators. Robert is also the author of the inspirational book: Wisdom in the Weirdest Places. For more information on Robert, please visit