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Boundaries: A Great Gift for Everyone

Bounary lines on sports pitch
Image credit: photo by Ben Hershey on Unsplash.

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Let’s see … A sharp pointed stick in my eye, or going home for a visit? What a difficult choice! Do we go to “Family Land,” ride the emotional roller-coaster, and lose our appetites, or can we return home and enjoy ourselves in a way we may never have before?

I used to be a southern Sisyphus--I would roll three huge boulders up the family mountain and down they would come. Roll them up again next time I went home, and down they would come again,. As you can tell, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to going home.

I would take a little trip down memory lane (which happens to be a cul-de-sac) and I’d go in to what the self-psychologists call a “regression”. In other words, I decided to go home in my forties.

By the time I got on the plane, I would feel like I was in my twenties and by the time my mother met me at the airport, I was headed back to my teens.

I had imaginary pimples even though I carried a driver’s license that said I was almost eligible for Medicaid, and credit cards saying I was old enough to be ridiculously in debt.

By the time I got into my parents’ house and had one short conversation with my father (who by the way has to be right and know everything), I’d be about five looking to crawl into a womb.

Now how do I keep from feeling small or losing my adultness during stressful times year? The answer in part is by setting and defending my boundaries—something I didn’t know much about back then.

What Are Boundaries?

  • Boundaries, if created and defended appropriately, will help keep you from getting angry and regressing as often, because you will not feel violated, offended, abused or exhausted as often.
  • Boundaries are lines that you draw in the sand, on the carpet, in the air, in your soul, in your body and in life in general. These are lines that others can’t cross without consequences and repercussions.
  • A boundary is not imaginary, though you may not be able to see it. It says, “This is how close you can come to me—physically, emotionally, spiritually, financially, sexually and verbally.”

Physical Boundaries

Different cultures allow for differences in physical boundaries.

The standard physical boundary for most Americans is about eighteen inches, depending on who they are and our relationship to them, how safe we do or don’t feel with them. They can change, shorten, or lengthen depending on how someone feels at the moment.

Emotional Boundaries

We let others get close to us in direct proportion to our level of safety with them and our level of trust in the kind of relationship we have.

Acquaintances can only get so close…friends a little closer…good friends even closer…best friends very close--but all of these differ from the emotional closeness we might allow lovers, husbands and wives, or certain family members.

Spiritual Boundaries

People will discuss their spirituality with only those they feel comfortable with.

They will likely allow a minister, spiritual guide, priest or Rabbi to come closer than someone like the person handing out spiritual pamphlets in the airport.

Financial Boundaries

One person may know your money situation—your accountant, but not your father. You might tell your best friend your financial situation, but not your son. Your wife knows everything about your financial life, but you may not completely trust your best friend with this information.

Sexual Boundaries

You may choose not to make love with someone you’re not committed too. Or, perhaps you only make love with someone you have known and trusted for a certain length of time.

You might make out, but not go “all the way.” You may not do certain things. You won’t even be asked to do certain things. You might only want to be held, regardless of the fact that fifteen minutes ago you made love.

Verbal Boundaries

You may decide it is not acceptable to be called names when you argue, but it is okay when you are playing or not serious.

Or, you won’t be criticized under any circumstances unless you ask for it. You won’t be yelled at. You won’t be shamed. You won’t be compared to a past lover or spouse. You won’t allow your body to be discussed by anyone, no matter who they are.

You have a right to set any boundary that you need, and you have a right to change those boundaries as you feel safe or trust. No one can tell you that your boundary is unreasonable unless you ask that person—for instance, a therapist or sponsor.

Defending Your Boundaries

The real problem with boundaries, however, is that most people don’t know how to defend them, once they finally realize they have to set them.

A boundary not defended is not a boundary, but just another good personal growth or recovery idea.

Jason told me that he didn’t have trouble setting boundaries, but that most people didn’t honor them. I asked him to give me an example.

Example 1: What Jason Said About Boundaries

Jason said that when he goes home and sits down at the dinner table, his mother puts food on his plate. “I tell her I don’t want certain things and she puts them on my plate anyway, and says that I have to try them. I tell her I don’t want to. I set a boundary, but she doesn’t pay any attention to it.” I told Jason then it isn’t a boundary, and he argued for a couple of minutes that indeed it was, and that she ignored it.

Exasperated, Jason finally said, “Okay, what can I do to make her honor my boundaries?”

“There are literally hundreds of possibilities. You eat a meal before visiting your mom and tell her you’re not eating. You take the food she puts on your plate and walk over to the garbage can and throw it away. You push back from the table. You get up and leave. The list is endless.”

He looked at me stunned. “I never thought of any of those before. I just thought that because she is my mom, I shouldn’t be rude.” Did I mention that Jason is thirty years old and finishing his doctorate in psychology?

When we can set and keep boundaries, we will be less prone to anger and almost never enraged. The less you set and defend your boundaries, the more you will tend to get angry and end up feeling victimized, resentful and relapsing.

Example 2: Robert's Experience With Boundaries

Robert, a very well-educated dentist who has been in private practice twenty years, came to see me for a consultation. During the hour he told me how his ex-wife “won’t leave me alone,” and “I tell her not to call or come by and she does anyway. I’m so angry I could kill her.” I listened and then asked if he would like my response.

He said he would. “You know who I let in my house? Only the ones I want in. If they have a gun or a knife and want in I will have to let them. If they don’t and I let them in anyway, even if I don’t want to, who is responsible?”

“But you’re not listening to me,” he returned. “I tell her not to call or come by, and she shows up at my house anyway.”

“She does, because she can--because you have not set a boundary that you are prepared to defend.”

“I wish I could just keep her out of my life instead of learn how to set a damn boundary. Why didn’t someone teach me how to do this?”

Surprising Conclusions And What Can Be Learned

Jason and Robert both thought they were setting boundaries, and they were using the right words, but their actions did not match their words.

Most people who do not know about boundaries when discussing them get very frustrated because they tend to see only black and white — either I let my mother, ex-wife, etc. do what they want or I have to “leave” or “go away.”

There are many ways to defend boundaries, once we understand that we have to in order to have healthy and functional relationships.

Here are a few ways to set and defend your boundaries and like I told Jason -- there are literally dozens of things to do.

Go inside yourself, take a few deep breaths, and ask yourself, “What do I need in this situation or with this person?” State it clearly. For example, I will not listen to racist or gay-bashing jokes. If someone starts to tell one I say, “Please stop. I’m not open to listening to these kinds of jokes.” As I mentioned earlier, this is a form of rage.

If the person has not listened to your request, repeat it again.

Most people will honor your request. If he or she still refuses to comply, chances are you are dealing with someone who has no understanding of boundaries, frequently tramples other people’s boundaries, and is likely to be regressed. Such people need to be handled with extra care. Here are further steps you can take:

  • If the offense is verbal, you have several options. You can move to another part of the room, turn on a radio, talk over the person, or even stick your fingers in your ears and start humming (this may seem juvenile, but you have permission to do whatever you need to protect your boundaries, provided you do not hurt yourself or anyone else.)
  • Leave the room for a few minutes.
  • If necessary, you may need to leave the house, party, or work environment. A simple walk around the block can calm you and provide a new perspective on the situation.
  • You may have to get creative and think of a solution unique to the situation in which you find yourself. The important thing to remember is that you always have options, even if you elect not to use them. Situations where you are limited to the two options of tolerating the behavior or leaving are rare. Most solutions dwell in the gray area between the two.

Good boundaries equal greater and safer connections at any time of the year, but especially during holidays.

I wish you all beautiful boundaries.

The author is John Lee who is one our personal mentors and teachers. Nassau Guidance highly recommends his books and work toall who want to experience a higher quality of life and emotionalhealth.(

Author: John Lee, best-selling author of The Flying Boy: Healing the Wounded Man, has written sixteen books, including his latest release The Missing Peace.

John's highly innovative work in the fields of anger management and emotional regression has made him an in demand consultant, teacher, trainer, coach and speaker.

His contributions in the fields of recovery, relationships, men's issues, spirituality, parenting and creativity have put him in the national spotlight for over twenty years.

He has been featured on Oprah, 20 / 20, Barbara Walter’s The View, CNN, PBS, and NPR. He has been interviewed by Newsweek, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and dozens of other national magazines and radio talk shows.

John Lee has consulted and trained prestigious institutions in the clinical environment including The Betty Ford Clinic, Guy’s Hospital (London, England), The New York Open Center, South Pacific Hospital (Sydney, Australia), and Mountain Area Health and Education Center (North Carolina), and numerous others.

John's work in recovery, co-dependency, and adult children has positioned him as a leader in the field of addiction.

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