What You May Not Realize Your Own Deep Rhythms for Closeness and Separateness
by John Lee
Many authors and therapists tend to take for granted that everyone knows about boundaries, so I’m not going to do that here. I’d like to give you a further, fuller explanation about this. Good boundaries actually increase intimacy, clarity, and communication and increase vulnerability because you can say “no” when you need to. As children we didn’t have “no” as an option. As an adult, you can also say “yes” when you want to. You know where you stand, and this lets others know more about you. Knowing your boundaries enhances other people’s feelings of safety and trust because they can rely on you when you say, “No more.” “Enough.” “Stop.” or, “It’s okay, you can come closer.” When we stay true to ourselves and don’t compromise our boundaries and limits, no matter what others may think, everyone involved wins in the long run of the relationship. Knowing what our personal rhythms for closeness and separateness can reduce and even eliminate much unneeded and unwanted, time-consuming conflicts and misunderstandings. Boundaries and limits are the gatekeepers for our personal rhythms.
A boundary is simply “This is how close you can come to me” in any area of life. This can be physical touch, emotional closeness, information closeness, financial closeness and many other different ways. For example, you might not feel comfortable talking to your mother about your finances and so you draw a firm boundary around that, whereas with your wife, the boundary would be very close in, if not completely disappearing at times. As an adult, you get to say when you need stronger boundaries or looser boundaries and you can move them accordingly based on the information that you have about the person you’re dealing with.
Most children who grew up in the 40s, 50s and 60s, perhaps even 70s, did not see boundaries put in place in a healthy and functional way. Instead, what most of us learned was how to erect walls due to the lack of ability to create boundaries, and many of us are still confusing walls with boundaries. Here’s the difference: boundaries create intimacy and can change with time and information. Walls are static, immovable and stay put with time and information.
In my case, my informational boundaries were not respected, given I didn’t have any. So my mother would tell me things that were very age inappropriate and so even with all I know today about boundaries, I still have trouble when parents ask me what they should say to their children. Though I do give answers, they’re not quick ones because I have to stop and think for a minute what is appropriate versus what I myself experienced.
The critical element of establishing your rhythm of closeness to anyone and everyone is first really knowing what your boundaries are and also to remember that a boundary which is not able to be defended is not a boundary, but rather just therapeutic words or a good idea. When you are determining what your boundaries are and what feels right to you, it’s can be difficult to know right away, and that’s okay. For example, you may think that you can visit home for four hours at a time, but find out that is still too long. Also, when you begin exercising and enforcing your boundaries, you may meet some resistance from those people in your life who are used to you not having these boundaries. Keep working towards what you need, and this will increase the chances that you’ll build stronger, healthier, adult-appropriate relationships.
Saying “No”—a Great Boundary Word
If you don’t desire to build walls which cannot be changed or moved, what do you do? You learn to say and mean the following words and statements that many people almost never say (and mean), perhaps only a few times in their lifetime:
“No,” is a complete sentence. The famous (or infamous) Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls said, “If you can’t say ‘No,’ then your ‘Yes’ doesn’t mean a damn thing.” The boundary-less person is constantly playing the role of the “Yes” man or woman, to the detriment of their own physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Why is it so difficult to say “Stop, I don’t want to hear anymore. No more! Enough!”? Because most people regress back to a time, usually childhood, where these words were not allowed or our primary role models could not use them successfully without negative consequences.
There are other ways to stop and defend boundary violations, encroachments, and invasions:
*Identify the specific violation: “When you don’t knock before coming into my room…”
*Tell the person how you feel to not have your space, needs and feelings respected: “I get angry and scared….”
*Add energy, body language, and sterner words: “I’m serious about this,” while putting up your hand in a stop motion or planting your feet firmly.
Know what you will do and won’t do should the violation continue or occur again. This is important for you to know, but it is also very important that you don’t tell the other adult. If you convey the consequences to them verbally, they will more often than not interpret your words as a threat or ultimatum. (However, you do tell children what the consequences will be should they violate or disregard your boundaries so they can learn to make healthy choices in the future.)
Knowing Your Limits
Limits are even more of a mystery than boundaries. Even professionals confuse boundaries with limits if they discuss them with their clients at all. In a nutshell a boundary says, “This is how close you can come to me.”
A limit is the emotional and intellectual knowledge of how far you’ll go along with a situation, condition, marriage, job, parent, child, addiction or behavior or how long you can stay with someone and not regress or regret it later. I used to visit my parents and stay the whole weekend. It would almost always end badly. Finally I learned to stay for an afternoon or evening and then spend the night in the comfort of a nice hotel and we would always enjoy the shorter but quality time.
Many people have trouble knowing what their limits are both in personal and professional circumstances. Mildred, a very compassionate and thoughtful mother who was overly active in her 36-year-old son’s life, called very upset and angry. “I’m so angry with my son I don’t know what to do,” were the first words after, “Hello.” “I told him I would put him through two alcohol and drug treatment programs and then he’s on his own.”
“How is that going?” I asked.
“Not too well. That is why I’m so mad at him. I have now put him through four of the best and most expensive, treatment centers in the country.”
“Mildred,” I said, “What were your limits?”
She fired back, “I said two. But obviously it wasn’t. That’s why I’m so angry.”
“So you don’t know your limits and you’re angry with him because he doesn’t know them either?”
Mildred laughed and said, “Oh!”
Setting limits can actually lead to deeper connection to those we care about. When we don’t know our limits we go much further or stop very short of where we want to be and how much we want to do with or for someone.
Not knowing our limits can turn us into caretakers instead of care givers. Caregivers have good boundaries (and know their limits). Caretakers go way beyond and further than they really want to go. Unfortunately, caretakers often end up taking something out of those they are watching over—like their integrity, energy, self-esteem, or the money they find underneath the cushions on the couch or lying around. Many people who don’t know or pay attention to their limits tend to feel resentment and therefore need some kind of payment or restitution. In other words, we feel we have to take something for giving up something of ourselves that we really do not want to give. People who know and respect their own limits can care for others without resentment, without feeling like something is being taken from them and as a result they actually feel energized by their giving to others.
As said earlier, when we listen to our own internal rhythms for closeness and separateness, we know what our limits are. If we stay true to our rhythms we know how long we can visit our parents without falling into old, destructive conversations and patterns. If we know when to seek solitude to recharge our batteries then we won’t have to push people away or run away from a relationship just because we can’t say, “I need some time alone.”
Let’s recap. Adult men and women can easily set boundaries and limits that, depending on the individual situations and people, can be pulled in, extended, or shifted based on choice, new information, or more experience. Our boundaries and limits should be clear to us and to those we live with, love, or work with. Good boundaries and limits help protect us without isolating people or pushing them away. They keep us at a safe distance so that we don’t have to accept anyone’s smothering, guilting, rageful, shaming, abusive, or demeaning words, actions, or behaviors.
John Lee, the best-selling author of 19 books, including The Flying Boy: Healing the Wounded Man, and, most recently, The Half-Lived Life, has been a nationally known, widely covered consultant, teacher, trainer, coach, and speaker specializing in addiction/ recovery, relationships, men’s issues, spirituality, parenting, anger management, and creativity for over 20 years. www.johnleebooks.com