I was never terribly good at boundaries, growing up. Being a parent taught me a great deal about boundary setting. It’s no good declining to give a child boundaries, because that can leave them feeling unsafe and unable to navigate. Boundaries that are too limiting and rigid create resentment and restrict a child’s growth. The boundaries have to shift as the young person develops and changes. Those boundary shifts have to be talked about, so that they can happen in the right way, and be understood.
It took me a long time to realise that all the same things apply to adults. We need to have some sense of where the permissible edges are. We need the right to hold boundaries, but also the freedom to change them at need. Where we draw our lines in one instance cannot be taken as the rule for where our lines are. If I say yes to something once, I have not said yes to it forever.
Developing trust between people can mean a process of changing where the boundaries are. The process of interacting with each other can change how we feel and think, what we need and expect, and what risks we’re willing to take.
In some ways I’ve become a lot more guarded with my boundaries in recent years. I am far less tolerant of people who try to cross my lines uninvited. That’s about emotional lines as much as it is about physical contact. In some ways I’ve become softer in my boundaries because there are people I trust to honour what I say, and to still honour what I say if I need to change things.
We like clear and simple rules because they seem easiest to work with. But for every rule – religious or secular – it’s easy to think of times when breaking the rule would be the better choice. Lying isn’t good, but if Anne Frank is in the attic and Hitler is at the door, of course you lie. I’m not in favour of killing people, but sometimes this is necessary to save lives. If a shooter walks into a school, there should be no question about trained police taking them out in any way they can. And of course because people are difficult, this kind of argument can then be used to try and justify arming anyone who wants to be armed. Give people clear and simple rules for all situations and a subset of those people will always try and bend the rules for their own gain.
When it comes to dealing with people, simple rules tend not to work very well. What we have are massively complex social structures full of privileges and power imbalances. Our dealings with large numbers of people are shaped by rules, habits, social norms. These are not easy things to think about, which is why I think it pays to focus on the most immediate and specific interactions where we have the most scope to make change.
How do we recognise and honour other people’s boundaries?
Do we have any habits of thought that might means we’re not listening? Do we assume our own rights or entitlements trump someone else’s? Do we think a certain kind of person just makes a fuss?
What do we do when our boundaries aren’t respected? Do we have choices?
How we deal with each other’s boundaries is a fundamental building block for our societies as a whole. What we normalise, or ignore. What we undertake to change. What we refuse to back down over. What we demand other people take seriously.