Quaker Rufus Jones tells the story of a youth pastor who owned a summer cottage on the coast of Maine. While leading a Bible study with local teens he asked “how many of you have seen the Atlantic Ocean?” No one raised their hands. Given the blank looks around the room, the youth pastor realized that though the teens grew up surrounded by the Atlantic ocean on all sides, they still didn’t know it by name. I tell that story because boundaries are like that...they surround us on every side. But most of us don’t know them by name.
A boundary is personal property line. Like a fence around a yard, It defines where you end and another person begins. Boundaries can be external (like a sign on a door that says “closed”) or internal (like the word no). God exercised external boundaries when separating the sea from the sky and the plants from the animals in the creation story in Genesis. Jesus set internal limits when he refused to go back into the city despite his disciples insistence in Mark’s Gospel (1:38). Boundaries are relational tools that empower us to differentiate ourselves from another. They enable us to navigate closeness and distance in our relationships. Finally, they also function as a separateness tool that sets limits when we are in harms way. Dr. Nancy Cole sums them up this way: “Boundaries are the sacredness of self in relationship to others.”
Psychiatrists suggest that boundaries begin in our families of origin. Dr. John Bowlby taught that boundaries were strengthened by the recursive action of attaching and detaching from our parents. Children do this to achieve a separate identity. Toddlers do this by holding onto mothers leg and then letting go to test the limits. The “terrible twos” do this by repeatedly saying no. Teenagers do this by shutting the door, keeping private diaries and preferring relationships with peers over relationships with parents. All of these behaviors are ways of flexing our boundary muscles.
When children are not allowed to have their age-appropriate no’s, they can become overly compliant. Rather than being their own person, they can lose themselves in performance and pleasing others. While all healthy relationships require reciprocity and a healthy give-and-take, when one person does all the giving relationships become asymmetrical. This can become a repetitive pattern that puts us at risk of losing ourselves. This condition is called codependency. When we lose touch with what we think, feel and need we lose our voice. We trade ourselves to another and forfeit the power to speak our own truth.
But because boundaries are a relational skill, they can be recovered. Raising awareness, letting go of the agony of involvement, making a plan and practicing new behaviors can provide hope and help for healthier relationships. New England poet Robert Frost penned a poem that made fun of a neighbor who said “Good fences make good neighbors (The Mending Wall). Personally, I think Frost’s neighbor made the better point.
©Beverly Blaisdell Weinhold