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Can we talk about boundaries? Everyone agrees that boundaries are important. What most don’t agree on is who gets to set the boundaries.

We all have our own sense of privacies, personal space, intrusive behaviors, etc. We all like to think we know what those are for ourselves, afterall it’s really all about what feels right and good and safe and empowered. What we never know is what another’s boundaries are. We make a mistake when we try to set the boundaries for another, especially for a child.

Boundaries have everything to do with personal integrity: what foods do I like, what kinds of people do I enjoy, what types of interactions do I take pleasure from, what is my relationship to my body, what kind of music and other noise appeals to me, for example. Everything in life, everything we think about and believe, the actions and interactions we have with our worlds all involve the setting of boundaries.

Do we trust or does it feel good or respectful to have a government, for example, set our boundaries for us? Laws are written and enacted to attempt to create boundaries of safety for the individual and the masses. Dissection of such laws shows us how this is actually quite silly and impossible to do. Laws regarding speed limits don’t prevent car accidents, laws prohibiting carrying handguns in public buildings don’t prevent violence, laws that abolish smoking in restaurants and inside buildings don’t prevent smoking or ensure the health of those who do not smoke. On the surface it may seem like the laws benefit us, but the big picture proves otherwise.

Integral to the setting of boundaries is respect. Respect is bound in the awareness and trust that each person is a sovereign being, born with the natural need and desire to determine and set the boundaries they require to get along in the world as joyful, responsible, fully alive and engaged beings.

Just as we feel undermined when a government attempts to set our personal boundaries, we feel likewise when others attempt to take our personal authority from us and set boundaries. One naturally feels squelched or oppressed when their partner wants to limit their thinking or friendships or the amount of weight they are gaining or losing or how much alcohol they drink. A child becomes stressed and anxious and rebellious when a parent attempts to tell him what to eat and when to eat it, when to go to bed or when he can play outside.

Most adults in our culture believe that our behaviors or those of our children will be completely undisciplined, crude and out of control if external boundaries are not set to curb what could become a problem. From birth onward for most of us, adults are setting boundaries for us: when to wear clothes and what kinds to wear, who are our friends should be, when to learn to read, when to learn to become team players, when to eat dessert and what kinds of weather we can play in, for example. Almost everything we learn to do as children is bound by some externally dictated boundary that another has set for us.

The more others intrude with boundary setting in our life, our personal space, our privacies, our thoughts, the more dissatisfaction we feel within ourselves, with those around us and with the worlds we live in. We create a myriad of ways to break free from the boundaries set by others: from anger outbursts to violence, insults to silent treatments, eating disorders to addictions, self abuse to abuse of others. Before long many of us come to believe that the ill effects and feelings that result from boundary setting is love itself and use this rationale to justify setting boundaries for themselves and others that focus only on the dysfunctional notions of control that result. I think it’s possible that most of us, perhaps as a culture, have completely lost touch with what it means to live and respect a life lived with personal integrity.

If boundaries and the understanding of them has gotten confused and discombobulated in your family and you’re ready for some rethinking, begin now. Start fresh. Here is one way to begin:

1. Effective immediately, allow yourself to see that each person, yourself included, has both a need and a right to determine your own personal boundaries. The foods you eat and when you want to eat them, the number of hours you sleep and when you choose to sleep, who your friends are and what activities you engage in with them, your preferences for music and noise, your needs for privacy, quiet and solitude. There are many other things to be included in this list, but this is a start.

2. Realize that each person in your household may have conflicting preferences with each other person in the household.

3. Believe and trust that each person has the right to establish their own boundaries, that it’s entirely possible to live together harmoniously and be different, that anything is possible.

4. Begin the work. The real work of setting personal boundaries requires self awareness, introspection, experimentation and self respect. Once some clarity is achieved and a family of more than one is involved, conversation is required as each shares their evolving decision-making on personal boundaries, listens as others present their perhaps conflicting decisions on boundaries, and works toward a consensual harmony that is always possible when all parties involved believe that everyone not only can, but has a right to get what they want. This is all possible without sacrifice, forced sharing or turn-taking, compromise, democratic voting, or other euphemisms for control.

Given the nature of personal boundary setting, there are no rules for how the conversation in your family will progress or what the end results will look like. Empower each person to be guided by how they FEEL about the evolution taking place. If each person does not genuinely feel comfortable, respected and honored, your work as a group has not been successful. There are unlimited ways in which your conversations can go, what the creative results will be that follow and what the ever-changing ways will be in which your family can grow and evolve.

The reason this is important and worth the work lies solely in the divine nature of life itself: we are here in this time and place to enjoy life, to feel good, to connect in love and respect with those of our choosing, to feel at home in our bodies and in the world. We cannot feel this good, this worthy, this powerful without an integral sense of self ownership and personal responsibility … which can result only through the powerful process of determining and setting our own personal boundaries.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Brilliant! I have been discussing this with a friend recently. It is important to focus on self while also allowing others to be focused on self. When we fill the hole inside of us with what is true we then no longer look ‘out there’ for another person to fill it for us. When we see our own value, we see the value of others. Only then can we come from a place of yes and experience it with others. The setting of boundaries so often comes from a controlling nature. When you are feeling whole – the boundaries seem so much less important. When you are whole, others sense it and respect (of each others needs and wants), love and fun times follow.

    May 12, 2012
    • this is so bright, so clear, and I resonate with it completely!

      May 12, 2012
  2. Robyn #

    Oh Barb, this is so true! And yet a heap of work to be done 🙂
    I always thought of laws and rules as the “standard business conditions” we as a society can fall back to in case we are not creative enough in a certain moment to make our own agreements with each other – kind of a back-up plan. Just as in business, noone keeps us from setting up our own rules. Just in case we don’t, we can rely on the general terms to have our back. Maybe that’s just my way of making me feel better about all the laws… but it works for me.

    I have one question concerning this: what do you think about teaching children manners (“standard business conditions/boundaries of social life”)? I don’t mean “manners” as in “being deceivingly nice to someone I can’t stand and giving them the false impression I’d like them”, rather like in “expressing your dislike/discomfort/etc. honestly, but in a respectful manner”. I don’t mean to block their unique creative ways of eating or interacting with society, but I do think that we need to interact respectfully if we do not want to live in continuous warfare – and some rules most people agree on help with that. And I really can’t stand people slurping, smacking and snuffling – but how do I enforce my boundaries about this without forcing anyone to change theirs? (Without living a hermit’s life removed from society?).

    I’m so excited about your answer as this is a continuous struggle for me – I just question myself if it is okay to offer handkerchiefs to anyone with a dripping nose that they strepitously snuffle, or if it is trying to force my standards upon them. Or what to do if a child eats his or her iceream in a way that makes my ears bleed while their parents sit next to them, saying nothing?

    May 17, 2012
    • your angst over manners is rooted in control: your desire to have those around you adhere to your view of how things should be. we all have control issues. control seems to work when people give in or conform to your dictates and desires, but even when it seems to be working it is not working because you are the only one who (seems to) benefit. in the end, you don’t benefit at all because control begets more control which begets coercion, punishment, reward, bribery, etc.

      I am sure you must be aware that there are aspects of you that irritate or annoy others. If you are not aware of this, just ask. do you enter a situation asking those around you how you might alter your behavior so as not to irritate or annoy them? of course you don’t. as a grown-up you have this belief that children have to learn social mores and standards from us. we’re smarter, more experienced and wise, right? while we do have more experience we are not smarter or wise if we think children are not watching us every minute, learning from us all the time and altering their behaviors accordingly. when a child has a question about how to act (in public), we can have a conversation with them about what we think. trust and wisdom allows us to share with the child that the decision on how to act is theirs, as are the consequences.

      for example, all three of my children went through a phase at about 3-4 years old where they loved to use foul language. they knew the words they chose were foul and verboten in public or outside our home. they knew I understood their interest in experimenting with the words. through conversation with each other, they knew that if they chose to use the language at another’s home or in the presence of certain people that they would be judged and even forbidden to play or associate with them. it’s not up to us to make everyone understand us, it’s our job to understand others so we can be social. my kids never (as far as I know!) never used their foul language outside our home. they understood the game and played by the social rules.

      as for more customary manners, like napkins and forks and not getting up on the table to dance while we’re eating: children are watching us and learning from us all the time. we don’t actually have to say much at all. we are their world and they want to fit in just like we all want to fit in, or at least have the feeling of belonging. it’s easy to lose this natural learning connection when we mess it up with verbal dictates, admonishments, rules, etc. rebellion sets in as a response to the lack of respect and trust that is felt. think of an analogous example that might apply to yourself: how would you feel if your husband said “Robin, I would like to invite a new friend over for dinner this weekend so can we talk about how you will dress, or behave or what you can talk about or how the dinner table should look or …..?” This sounds innocuous enough, as conversations like this actually take place all the time. the important element is energetic: is your husband treating you as a partner he respects or one who will not act/think/dress according to his standards and therefore needs his training?

      As for the runny nose, I would definitely offer a tissue. If the child said no I might even make a face, because that would be a genuine response for me. I couldn’t bear to be leaking snot into my ice cream. Then I would let it go and just avert my eyes so I did not have to watch the child eat his boogers.

      As for the slurpy ice cream eater, I would overlook it completely.

      May 17, 2012
      • Robyn #

        Dear Barb,
        Thank you so much for your thoughts on this. As you say, children watch us closely and the most powerful (and honest) teaching that there is is leading by example. I know this, but maybe sometimes I don’t trust it enough – but this is my problem and not the children’s, of course.
        About the behaviour of others – I suspect it is less my desire to control, but rather that I’m exaggeratedly sensitive to sounds that I perceive as awful (well, I’m highly sensitive to ANYTHING, really). But this, too, is my problem and I’m working on it.
        Thank you for reminding me how powerful our example can be! It was wonderful to learn that it worked so well with your children.

        May 17, 2012
        • our sensitivities can be such a challenge, can’t they? and we all have them, they are just different for each of us and for each child. but we’re not all here to be alike but to respect another and then deal with our own shit. I have recently learned quite a bit from astrology… a real professional analysis. wow, my world shifted big time with this information.

          May 17, 2012

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