Boundaries

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.” – George Box

A boundary is a model for a healthy relationship between two people. It allows you and I to be in relation with each other, and at the same time to be individuals with our own thoughts and feelings, needs and wants. It prevents us from becoming enmeshed with each other (not knowing what’s yours and what’s mine), without putting a wall between us. Boundaries are all about balancing between these extremes.

Lots has been written on this subject, but the model created by Pia Mellody is the one that I prefer because of its clarity and simplicity. This is the sort of thing that should be taught to kids. Like many of us, I didn’t get the benefit of that instruction (and neither did my parents nor theirs). I learned this lesson much later in life.

A boundary allows us to really know one another. It separates my stuff from yours, where stuff is not only physical (body and possessions) but also intellectual and emotional (thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs).

In Pia’s model there are three boundaries: physical, internal, and sexual. And each has an inside and an outside – one side protects me, and the other contains me (it protects you from me).

This is the first in a series of three articles on boundaries. In this first article I’ll be talking about the physical boundary.

The Physical Boundary

For my physical boundary, I imagine an invisible shell about 18 inches from my skin. The distance depends on how much space I need between me and any given person in order to be comfortable. I imagine it expanding and contracting as as I interact with different people. It’ll be closer to my skin with a loved one and further away with a stranger.

The outside of my shell protects me from physical touch by others.

If you approach me closely, as you cross my physical boundary, my body alerts me with a feeling of discomfort. When I notice this I step back. If you don’t get the hint and keep approaching me, I’ll say, firmly and respectfully, “I am not comfortable being that close to you. Please give me some space.” This demonstrates self compassion and self respect.

The inside of my shell contains me so that you can be comfortable as well. I slow down as I approach you, watching for signs of discomfort from you – often I’ll feel it in my body before I have the thought, “She is getting uncomfortable.” If I notice that you are uncomfortable, I step back from you until I feel your comfort return. This shows respect for others.

When I feel like giving someone a hug, I ask permission first. “I’d like to give you a hug. Would you be comfortable with that?” Even then, I realize that by spreading my arms apart and approaching another, I loom larger than I already am, and that can be frightening. The vast majority of women (and also many men) have been assaulted at some point in their lives, and I might be triggering past trauma in them. Nowadays I prefer simply asking for a handshake, or offering a warm smile. If she wants a hug I figure she’ll ask. In more intimate relationships (e.g., family), this is less of an issue, and an arms-wide approach triggers love, not fear.

The physical boundary also extends to personal and intellectual property. Don’t touch my stuff, look at my email, etc. without asking my permission. I will give you the same courtesy.

As a man, as is typical in our culture, I was socialized to be “tough” and was disconnected from my body at a very early age. I’ve found mindfulness meditation very helpful in getting back in touch with signals from my body. I still can’t name many of the feelings that I have, but I can at least point at where it is, for example, “pressure in my gut”, then look that up in a reference to see some possible names. When I first started doing this I felt like a caveman pointing at my body and grunting, but I’m getting better at identifying my own feelings. What’s weird (but common) is that I am much better at identifying feelings in others, because as a kid that was an important indicator that helped keep me safe in an abusive household.

It takes energy and thoughtfulness to do this work, especially when you’ve not done it in the past. I’m learning that this is just part of being a healthy adult.

Next up, the internal boundary.

This material on boundaries comes from Pia Mellody’s work. Please support her efforts at The Meadows by purchasing her audio CD on the topic. She provides a lot of examples that will help you get your head around these ideas.

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