Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Building Better Boundaries - Part 1 (by Ron)

This is the first installment of a series about boundaries. In it I hope to introduce you to our concept of boundaries. The first thing I did was to ask the internet to help me define boundaries. It’s not as simple as you might think. In fact, according to the magic of Google the list is almost endless. Here are a very few of the more interesting definitions:

  • According to a boundary is “the line or plane indicating the limit or extent of something.” I kind of like that one since it includes limits.

  • In, as used in Topology (a made-up word for Geometry?) a boundary has something to do with “a subset S of a topological space X is the set of points which can be approached…” The remainder just gets worse but it reminded me of how confused many of us are about our boundaries so I included it.

  • And this definition from says it like I think it should be said. A boundary “indicates a border or a limit.” A Limit, again! That’s what we all strive to develop in our lives from the first breath we draw until the last – Limits!
This and following installments will strive to help you understand your boundaries, or lack thereof, and hopefully, how to improve them. So what are your personal boundaries? Your skin is one. It helps keep out illness, among other things. Your beliefs are boundaries. They protect you in many ways and are constantly being bombarded by outside (and inside) forces. The physical space around you is a boundary. Your physical body is also a boundary.

Over the years as we spoke about boundaries in our workshops, Gayle and I developed two quite different metaphors that reach the same conclusion. Gayle likes to explain boundaries with a sausage link metaphor. When you put a whole sausage into a pan or skillet with other foods the permeable casing (boundary) allows flavors to pass both ways, into and out of the sausage. This blending of tastes enhances the flavors of all the foods involved. No one taste overwhelms the other. When you take the sausage out of the casing and cook with it, it loses its shape and form. It's flavor adds to the dish but you can no longer tell where the sausage begins or end.

I prefer a chain-link or picket fence metaphor. Since we live in Texas it’s much more likely that we would have six or eight foot privacy fences but even these fit into the metaphor. If you have a picket or chain-link fence there are lots of open spaces. If you have dogbabies, as do we, they can easily commune with the neighbors' dogs without fear of coming into physical contact. If your boundaries resemble these fences then you have developed space around you that allows the in and out flow of ideas but no physical or emotional contact that you do not invite. These boundaries allow an exchange of ideas and of your person, should you wish.

So, think of your boundaries as being flexible and strong even though they allow permissible ideas, thoughts, and personal contact. They are not like privacy fences which don’t allow exchanges. Those are walls, not boundaries.

As you read this try to imagine these boundaries around you. Think about who invades them and who respects them. Ask yourself how you fail to tend to your boundaries. The next few blogs will get into some specifics about how we succeed and how we fail to protect our boundaries.

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