Interpersonal boundaries are the subject of academic study, reports and articles, and not enough honest conversation among ordinary people. Writing not as an academic, which I am not, but as an ordinary person, which is also open to debate, this column is dedicated to promoting more conversation about interpersonal boundaries. It comes not without the wisdom gained in the usual way.
It also comes from experience in the parish from which I retired. Some years ago it offered a workshop on setting and observing interpersonal boundaries because it was apparent that many adults were unskilled at it. They were accustomed to operating out of habit according to old social norms tolerating degrees of racism, sexism, and the privilege of class. That was then. The sexual abuse issues that have recently become widely exposed in the media probably make it necessary to do it again. Although my denomination mandates sexual abuse training for all persons having church related contact with youth, and for clergy and others who meet privately with adults, understanding interpersonal boundaries isn’t the same thing. It’s related, but different; understanding them is essential to maintaining a safely congenial environment in which issues of sexual abuse are less likely to arise.
Although issues of sexual abuse have the public eye, there are other forms of abuse of power and position that can be mitigated through a better understanding of boundaries, and developing the skills to assertively maintain them. Assertiveness training was vogue a few years ago. It was marketed mostly as a way for women to make their voices more clearly heard in a business world dominated by men who didn’t want to hear them. As with many self help fads, it faded away, but as an element in setting and observing appropriate boundaries, perhaps it needs to come back. But I digress.
If setting and observing interpersonal boundaries was easy to understand, they’d be easy to teach. They’re not. The difficulty lies in the nature of boundaries. Some people have little skill in setting them for themselves. Others seem unable to recognize or respect boundaries they shouldn’t cross. Different cultures have different understandings of appropriate boundaries. What may seem perfectly innocent to one, may be deeply offensive to another. From family to family standards differ. Moreover, boundaries are permeable, and knowing when, how, or why to let someone cross yours, or for you to cross another’s, is governed by complicated, unwritten rules, social norms, experience, law, emotions, intent, and a hundred kinds of circumstances. Sadly, there are also power predators who intentionally cross boundaries to intimidate and subdue others into subordination. They have no intention of allowing others to set or observe their own boundaries. Their boundaries are barriers behind which they hide as they subdue those around them. It’s a form of evil that sometimes wears the mask of strong leadership.
If that wasn’t enough, the climate of polarized politics has complicated it even more. It’s created barriers out of boundaries, not in the way of power predators, but out of fear. They’re fortified barriers separating people who believe one way from all others who believe in any other way. When interpersonal boundaries become barriers, they shut off the possibility for relationships to develop in constructive ways. So the question is, how are we to understand appropriate ways to set and observe permeable interpersonal boundaries?
Getting personal about it, I have a personal boundary of a little less than an arm length. Consider it handshake distance. Inside it is my personal space. It makes me uncomfortable for others to enter it without my permission, which I offer in obscure ways not easy to understand, even by myself. I dislike receiving hugs from people I don’t know well, yet have learned to tolerate the huggers in my life, one at a time, depending on who they are. Social kissing is out. I enjoy giving hugs to my loved ones at the right time in the right place, and, with some reluctance, to a few friends who seem to expect it. There is a kind of gentle side hug that can be comforting and reassuring for some from whom I’ve learned it would be welcome when comforting reassurance is needed. As a pastor, I never touch someone for a prayer or blessing without asking permission, and telling them what I am going to do.
Those are my physical boundaries. You have them too. What are they? We also have emotional boundaries, the parts of our lives not open on demand to public discussion. Language boundaries set limits to the vocabularies we deem appropriate in different circumstances. Moral boundaries establish limits to what we believe is right or wrong, good or bad. Remembering that boundaries are always permeable, what are they for you in each of these areas?
Describing in a few words what your boundaries are is a good way to start. There may be several sets of boundaries important to you depending on circumstance: family, close friends, acquaintances, business, strangers, dates, defined moment of intimacy, etc. Don’t make it too complicated, but once done it’s less awkward to let others know what they are. Not that it always works. A woman I’ve known for twenty years insists getting her face as close as possible to mine whenever she has something to say. She does it to everyone, oblivious to how uncomfortable it is for others. And, as we’ve learned from the #MeToo movement, there are many men, and some women, who take liberties where liberties have not been granted, because they think they have the right and power to do it.
Boundaries can expand and contract. In crowds, physical boundaries can contract to almost, but not quite, nothing. They can be expressed formally in business settings, but looser, more relaxed in social settings. When in places where the dominant culture is alien, adapting as you are able keeps boundaries from becoming barriers. Fortunately, there’s a rule of thumb that makes all of this easier: respect the dignity of every human being, and expect respect in return. At a minimum it means doing no harm to another’s well being. Mistakes happen. When they do, it means apologizing. Not the, “if I offended you,” non apology, but the more honest, “I offended you and am sorry. What can I do to make it better?” In the Church we call it it confession, repentance and restitution.
More, perhaps, at another time.