My father created chaos in our house when I was little, intentionally and unintentionally, because it worked for him, but living in his house made me feel like the floor was going to drop out from underneath me at any moment. He resented closed doors, even though he wanted to keep his own door closed; and he used all of the bathrooms in the house, even when he could easily get to his own private bathroom in time, almost like a male dog marking his territory. He set the rules, and often broke them, and then yelled at us for breaking rules he’d never told us about. All of that has left me handicapped when I try to figure out what “normal” boundaries should be, and when I have the right to enforce them.
And when I realized, recently, how hard (impossible!) it was for me to set boundaries with my doctors, and limit the damage they could do with their comments about my weight and their minimization of my symptoms, I decided that I needed to do some more basic research on boundaries, and figure out what the hell they are.
First and foremost, when I think of the word “boundaries,” I think of something like a fence or a wall, something solid and visible, but interpersonal boundaries aren’t supposed to be either. I think they’re supposed to be more like the semi-permeable cell membranes we learned about in High School Biology class, the ones that allow some molecules in and not others. But those molecules supposedly got through based on their size, rather than something more vague, and the cell walls were visible, at least under a microscope, and interpersonal boundaries just aren’t.
Each article I’ve read seems to have a different idea of how to set interpersonal boundaries, and even what they’re good for. One said that boundaries are a way to set a clear line between what is me and what is not me. For example: my father’s feelings, needs, crimes, etc., are not my responsibility, no matter how many times he told me that they were. Another article focused on how boundaries are a way to determine which behaviors you will accept from other people, and which ones you won’t (though they didn’t explain how to not accept behaviors you don’t like, and the assumption that I can just walk away from a bad situation feels dismissive, of me). The articles also talked about different kinds of boundaries: physical, emotional, material (stuff), time, intellectual (this one was blurry to me), sexual, etc.
My most obvious boundaries are the ones around my body, if only because my internal alarm system is so loud when my physical boundaries are crossed.
I remember going to a new doctor when I was nineteen years old, probably transitioning from a pediatrician to my first official grown up doctor, and the nurse came into the exam room before I’d even met the new doctor and told me to take all of my clothes off and put on a paper robe. And I said, well, can I meet the doctor first, because I’m not comfortable taking off my clothes right now. I didn’t think I was being unreasonable at the time, or even setting a boundary, but the nurse got mad at me and brought in someone else from the office to yell at me and tell me I was being obstructive and if I didn’t take off my clothes I would not be allowed to see the doctor. So I jumped off the exam table and walked out. I didn’t choose to set a boundary, I just knew I physically couldn’t take my clothes off. I felt the boundary; though afterwards, of course, I felt guilty for being so immature and uncooperative.
Covid’s social distancing and zoom meetings have been a godsend for me, because finally everyone else’s physical boundaries have had to be more like mine (no touching and at least three feet away, I don’t know anyone who managed the six foot distance), but I’ve also become more aware of how much less personal space other people seem to need or want, and I’m worried about how I will deal with that again once the Covid precautions end.
I’m also a big fan of time boundaries – like the ones created by a forty-five minute session with my therapist, or an hour and a half limit for a class, but I’m not good at setting those time boundaries myself, like for phone calls or conversations that I wish were much shorter than they turn out to be.
I’ve been told, many times, that my boundaries are too rigid and keep me isolated from other people, but my rigid physical boundaries are there to protect me from my more blurry emotional boundaries: like my inability to recognize what’s my fault and what’s not, or what’s my responsibility and what isn’t, and my fear of telling people to stop hurting me when their weapons are words instead of hands.
It seems like, in order to relax my rigid physical boundaries, I’ll need to learn how to say no to conversations I don’t want to have, and to believe that I have the right to my own feelings and beliefs and opinions even when someone else disagrees with me. But it all feels so uncomfortable. I struggle with navigating the gradual boundary crossings required for building friendships, because each small step closer to another person feels like I’m losing control over my boundaries completely.
I remember when we adopted Butterfly (an eight-year-old Lhasa Apso rescued from a puppy mill after many litters), and her boundaries almost glowed around her. When she was in the cage at the shelter, she was desperate for contact and outgoing, licking me through the bars of her cage, but as soon as she was taken out of the cage she was terrified and unsure where to look or what to do. She healed so much in the almost five years we had with her, but she never became like Cricket, who always needs to be physically attached to, preferably suffocating or pinning down, her people.
Butterfly knew she had a home, and enough to eat, and a lot of love, but she was never quite sure that the people who were being kind to her one day would still be kind to her the day after that, and she seemed to wake up each morning needing to test the air, just to make sure her world hadn’t changed again. And that resonated with me. I still do that, unconsciously but consistently, every day, worrying that my good fortune is about to run out.
Ellie, who came to us from a home breeder, instead of a puppy mill, and was retired from breeding at age four instead of eight, is still unwilling to stand up to Cricket’s boundary crossings and bullying, choosing to walk away rather than fight. And I see myself in her too: the way I can be overly accommodating, at times, because I’m afraid of what will happen if I say no.
It’s interesting, though, that I am comfortable sharing so much of myself in my writing. It’s as if the writing itself acts as my most secure boundary, allowing me the time I need to choose what to share and what to keep to myself. If I could take a time out during a conversation, in real time, and think about what I want to say instead of saying the first thing that comes to mind, I’d feel a lot safer. But I haven’t figured out how to stop time, yet. It’s been a lifelong goal, though, and at this point I have about equal faith in my ability to develop magical powers as to figure out how to set healthy boundaries and enforce them.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?