Week 35: Keeping Boundaries
There is a boundary that still kills me to practice.
A boundary. All buzz words lose their glamour (digital nomads?), but this one isn’t the same. It wasn’t created to flit about on the lips of an Instagram generation before vanishing into the vaults of the internet. There is still full presence to this word: boundaries.
I was 20 years old when the concept first stuck. A boundary, of course, is as normal a word as any in the English language. It’s a demarcation line, a barrier. But, before college, the concept of boundaries with other people was foreign, and I was confused by its usage. Boundaries in interactions, in relationships, in the professional world? How could it be so?
And then someone — a wise person — explained to me that, as children, we don’t have the power to practice them. We can’t act upon them and that, for once, is not the fault of our culture.
It’s the very nature of children to, because of their dependency, not be able to exercise boundaries — even if they love saying no. It up to adults to uphold their children’s boundaries for them and to teach, by example, how to embody autonomy. This translates into youth who can, upon rounding into adulthood, tap into their full, organic, unapologetic power of saying no. Youth who know how to respond when someone oversteps into their subtle or physical space.
But, for so many reasons, this doesn’t happen, and that is the result of our culture. So here we are, educated in Python and not in Boundaries.
Since college, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to practice them, as you can imagine any girl in her 20s might. I’m fluent in saying no, in not feeling guilty if I opt out, in asking for what I need. I wrote a post in June about leaving my job, and how saying no is the first step in saying yes to something joyful.
But there is a boundary that still kills me to practise.
As with all important matters, it is a matter of the heart.
A note: this post is a little cryptic and undetailed due to the nature of what I’m posting, so thank you for understanding. I’m using the example of a lover because it is my own experience, but the essence can apply to emotional attachment — a parent, a best friend, anyone.
In short: if you want to really test your boundary game, fall in love with someone who you feel at home with, who you feel safe with, but who won’t meet you in the middle. Keep trying in that relationship because you see what could be.
Move forward day by day by ignoring the burden of dysfunctionality in a relationship in which you’re pulling all the weight, and keep your mind’s eye on that carrot always just one foot away. Fall in love with a fantasy. Be fed by promises that never materialise. Let the relationship swell up, fatten, with dreams about the future. Believe that the next overpromise and underdeliver is the last one.
Then, choose to walk away. Harder yet, maintain your distance.
In my own life, these lessons have been several years coming. But accepting the gifts these lessons bear is no easy ordeal; to me, it seems like it constitutes a lifetime’s work.
Seeing the best in others is a good thing, not an illusion. Interacting with people through rose-tinted glasses does bring out the best in them, and the same is true for focusing on weaknesses (grey-tinted glasses?). But delusion arrests a person who invests her own emotions in the actions of another person when there isn’t a fully functional, reciprocal, dynamic relationship between the two. A person who has a personal stake in the hope that a beloved will change is facing a self-inflicted set-up.
Romance is a beautiful thing, but there are things more beautiful still. As magical and love-dusted as I want my partnership to be, is there any substitute for the basic functionality of a relationship? Is feeling magic with someone actually romantic if the forward momentum, the glue of meeting someone halfway, is missing? Or is it simply torture?
The heart is messy. My own heart’s breaking has been in wanting so bad to own a choice that belongs to a beloved to whom I have given my heart.
If a lover’s choice (in this case, a general to choice to (not) prioritise a relationship, which in turn governs many minute choices) and a beloved’s heart are at odds with one another, and if that choice checkmates that heart, that heart must make its own choice.
Learning to respect what others prioritize and decide, even when I wish they wouldn’t, is hard. Yes, one of life’s most excruciating trials — at least for me — has been to extract myself from the promise of who a person could be, how a relationship might be. I’m still learning.
People will choose what they will choose. We will choose what we choose. And choosing to keeping a boundary walling out someone that the heart is still fully invested in is not an easy way out, but it’s a way out.
It hurts, and it really doesn’t stop hurting. So how does one keep going?
For me, the only way forward lies in this treasure: a boundary’s intention isn’t primarily to keep someone out, it is to acknowledge the sacred space that it protects. By protecting my heart, I give it voice — a voice that was hardly ever acknowledged in my last relationship. After all, how can we expect another to heed a voice we ourselves don’t champion?
Ultimately, the reason we want others to change is because we want to override issues we have within ourselves by taking them out in an external world. I don’t accept myself? No problem: if you accept me, I will be worth something. I don’t think I’m important? No worries: if you choose me over everything else, it means I’m important. So please accept me, please choose me.
For every down there is an equal up, and the principle of free will is no exception. As I’ve just waxed and waned about: free will is hard to accept when it breaks our heart. There is another free will, though: when someone chooses to love us, when someone chooses to commit to us, when we choose ourselves — which is essentially what keeping a boundary means — sweetness takes on a whole other life.
To feel so emotionally tied to someone, and to still practise the art of maintaining boundaries of the heart, when that same heart runs wild with a deep susceptibility, poses an opportunity for the deepest growth towards the spires of this sweetness.
Take the example of sport. The moments we become stronger in say, running, are the moments we almost break and still keep going. A person, no matter how weak, strengthens by making a strong choice in a moment of weakness. It is these minute moments of strength that build up an immovable character.
Boundaries are inherent in any relationship — they’re even an indicator of health — but to have to distance yourself from someone in this way is a real, ass-whooping grind. I’m still very much in the middle of it, and I still haven’t reached a place where I feel this whole situation is behind me, even though it has been months of not giving in.
I do feel strong, and I do feel like I’m doing the right thing for myself…probably similar to giving up sugar, still craving it, and still not relenting to a Pumpkin Spice Latte (for real, I love those things, and a normal one has 50g of sugar). One day, I’ll savor the taste of a purely healthy relationship instead of pine for one that never delivered. These boundaries line the way there.