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What the #@$% are Boundaries?

            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.

“I always enforce my boundaries. Preferably with my teeth!”

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.

“Even I can hear it,”

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 think the phone should never ring.”

            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.

Miss Butterfly

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.

“Uh oh!”

            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.

“Could we have magical powers too?”

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?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

85 responses »

  1. You’re right, Rachel, it is surprising that you are able to share so much of your personal struggles in writing. But I’m so glad you can. I can’t help but think that doing so is therapeutic for you. But as well, what you are describing will resonate with many readers and help them feel that they’re not alone. Also, your writing helps readers like me recognize how important it is to be sensitive to the different comfort levels of personal space people have, and to treat those comfort levels with respect.

  2. Sending you big hugs ༼ つ ◕_◕ ༽つ

  3. ramblingsofaperforatedmind

    It can be hard to set boundaries. Mine tend to be well defined and ferociously guarded. You have the right to defend yours too.

  4. Rachel, at this ripe old age, I an finally learning to not only set boundaries, but stand by them. It has meant some people have left my life. But as my therapist says, if they are only present for what they need, and not what I need, then I’m better off. I went through the book “Co-Dependency No More” with a coach. It was life changing. In baby steps, I stood up for myself, and said I didn’t want to talk about certain things. I won’t kid you, it wasn’t always taken well. But I feel so much better. I recently had to tell someone I could not come stay with them post a medical procedure. I did offer to make and bring meals as a way to help. Basically, I was told my offer was not good enough. I haven’t heard from them since. It stings, but my boundaries are too important to me.
    And by the way, I have refused to have a gyn appointment until I have met with the doc first. How dare they yell at you. Good for you for walking out.

  5. How ironic that your clear, transparent, well-written piece on personal boundaries concides with the West setting boundaries on Russia as it breaches the boundaries of Ukraine. Thank you for your shared thoughts. I am sure they are helpful for all your readers.

    • Thank you! I’ve taken to calling Cricket ‘Russia’ lately when she bullies her sister. I don’t think she gets the reference, though she watches the news as much as I do.

  6. No one needs to (or can) know how much of your novel is real and how much is fiction. This is the beauty of fiction. You can say whatever you want to say, Your dogs are a big help to you in this! 😉

  7. I think writing firms up boundaries and solidifies our thinking about how we want others to know us and interact with us.

  8. This is so well written, Rachel. I can relate to everything here. I wish I could explain things like you do! And wow — you were so brave at 19! You did exactly the right thing. ❤

  9. I LOVE your writing, Rachel, always.. Today’s post truly spoke to me, especially the analogy of the semipermeable membrane boundary. You know yourself better than you think you do. I wish you continued healing, as do your many readers.

  10. You were right to walk out on that doctor. I can’t believe (yes I can) that the nurse would be so insensitive. I recall several times in my life when I was called immature or unreasonable because I didn’t feel comfortable with something. That’s bullying. It’s easy to second guess ourselves, especially when the bully is a “benign” person with some authority. We want to please, but we have the right to stick up for ourselves, even if we’re being “unreasonable.”

  11. I also would refuse to undress before I met the gynecologist.

  12. I hope this writing is as therapeutic for you as you suggest; it’s also brave and generous of you to share. To some degree, I think we all have boundary concerns. For me, this post is food for thought.

    By the way, the molecules simile seems right on target—and memorable writing.

    You’re clearly a kind soul who’s been through a lot; you deserve a more laid-back inner critic. Now there’s a boundary that may be worth relaxing…

  13. No easy answers – I think you were quite right to expect to meet a doctor for the first time with your clothes on! A lot needs changing in the world to make it better and I can imagine why you would be wary even though things are much improved for you now. But you express yourself so well and despite the difficulties the photos and the captions always make me chuckle! Thank you.

  14. Boundaries are something I’ve grappled with for many years. It took me longer than it should to even understand the concept. Hopefully, I’m engaging them more effectively these days.

  15. This is very sound Rachel. You have every reason to be careful of physical and emotional boundaries

  16. I would hate to wake up every day worrying about resetting any boundaries. I hope as you grow older, you become more comfortable with life around you.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  17. Rachel, I wish that I could look at you face-to-face, even with a 6-foot space between us, and let you look into my eyes as I tell you that you are not alone in your struggles, that there are people who are further ahead on the path and others who are behind you on the same path. Personally, I don’t believe that setting boundaries will ever become second nature to me. As a result, I also recognize that I lose what may be wonderfully freeing moments with someone because I have to consciously think about what boundaries I may need with this person and mentally make certain I have them on hand.

    My heart aches for the struggles you face based on an alleged authority figure you should have – and therefore did – trust.

    Meanwhile, hold onto the understanding that living life is a journey and not a destination. Keep on the path forward, forgive yourself when you stumble and try to avoid the obvious rocks along the way that will cause you to trip. The only failure is when you give up fighting for yourself. You have a voice, and you’re entitled to use it!

  18. Rachel, it reminds me how different we are in terms of what we prefer. Boundaries vary by individual. I used to have a boss’ boss who violated personal space, sometimes getting six inches from your face when he talked to you. My immediate boss said always to have a table, desk or something in-between you when you chatted with his boss. To me, we need a door we can close in a house, so I would not want to live with your father’s rules. This is especially true if you are a parent and need privacy for well, you know. So, be safe, be secure, be as private as needed. Keith

  19. I think you are doing a very good job of learning about boundaries in general and what yours are in particular. Learning to enforce those boundaries is a process, but you’re on the road and actively working at it, which is what counts. You have the right to say what is, and isn’t acceptable for you, just as all of us do! I’m so glad that you walked out on that doctor. Your request to meet him fully clothed wasn’t unreasonable (in many practices it’s routine), and the way they responded to it was indicative of how future appointments would have gone.

  20. One suggestion that has worked for me is to set a timer when I am on a phone call and when it goes off (I use the microwave timer), I say, “Oh, there’s my alarm. I have to go.” Also, I found the book “Boundaries” by Cloud and Townsend helpful. .

  21. About that first doctor visit…
    You were NOT being uncooperative or immature. In fact, you showed great maturity by standing up for your rights and walking out. They were being uncooperative and insensitive.

  22. Pingback: What the #@$% are Boundaries? – Urban Fishing Pole Lifestyle

  23. It’s kind of eerie, but this is the very thing my therapist and I are working on right now. Boundaries mystify me and perhaps always will. I didn’t grow up with healthy boundaries and so as an adult I don’t believe I have the skills to know the difference. Sometimes I get the sense I’ve crossed one with someone and then I’m horribly embarrassed and just want to run away (flight). I did that for a very long time though, and have found that it doesn’t get easier if you don’t practice at it and the people who caused the reaction get an idea that it’s okay to do again.

    It involves watching people more closely for clues. If you’re comfortable doing so, telling them that you have a bit of trouble picking up on social clues and that you might inadvertently do or say something they find strange or hurtful. I’ve never been able to do that last thing by the way, but I am more vocal about apologizing if I recognize I’ve done that.

    My therapist gets a bit frustrated with me I think, because I often say “I don’t know. I never learned about them, so I just DON’T KNOW.” when she asks me about boundaries. She said recently that learning to use words like “in my opinion” or “as I see it” when engaging in conversations that seem to violate boundaries (mine or the other person’s), and to tell the other person that we’ll have to agree to disagree or that I respect their choice, but it’s not the same as mine, so could we change the subject?

    Sounds like a lot of work and to me? It is. It’s hard and it’s confusing and has made me break out in tears and run away. I do that less though, since I’ve been focusing on the boundary ‘problem’ for two years now. It’s very slow progress, but I see some progress nonetheless. I think you will too. Patience isn’t my strongest characteristic, and I think learning about these boundary things takes a lot of that. One thing you might begin to notice is that as you learn about your own boundaries and what makes you uncomfortable and so forth, is that you gain strength from that knowledge and it becomes less scary to confront or insist on keeping the boundary.

    The clothes thing would have bothered me too and once I’d have run out the door, probably crying. Now? I’d be able to explain to the nurse that I have trust issues with new people or that it’s crossing a big boundary with me to get naked (even in a paper gown) with a strange man, and that after I meet the doctor, I’ll probably be able to comply. If she refused to understand and caused such a big fuss, I’d be able to fight (verbally) her over it, which isn’t a useful thing to do, but does underline the point I think. I wish you nothing but success as you find your way down this path. You’re not alone in the journey! (Fight, flight or freeze are the three ways of coping with awkward or hurtful situations and I’m sure you knew that already). Take care Rachel!

  24. That nurse and her colleague were out of order to demand you take your clothes off when you were uncomfortable about it. Good for you sticking to your guns.
    Boundaries are confusing……….. we are setting them for Maya and she is constantly pushing them, but we push right back. She’s only been with us 10 days after all! keep safe Rachel.

  25. This post as given me lots to think about in relation to my own ‘boundaries’.

  26. I think I am a natural social distancer in many ways. Covid made some things easier for me, as well. And recently I’ve realized that there are TONS of people who found working at home and/or not having to engage so much really a relief. It’s such a myth to pretend that every one loves to be around people in the same ways. Bravo to you for talking about it!!

  27. Yes, speaking of boundaries, can you imagine saying no to your rabbi when he/she asks you to be on a committee or whatever? My priest kept putting me on committees, altar guild and the such without asking me, and I hate doing that kind of stuff. So I finally told him that I had quit the last committee, and oh, by the way, please do not put me on anything else. I then proceeded to tell him my strengths and what I would be happy to do if the need arose. I feel liberated! So maybe along with a No, could come a suggestion for an alternative. i.e. no hugs, but a fist or elbow bump is ok. Ok, so I know it’s not that simple. Just know I support you 100% in having boundaries!

  28. This is a very informative post Rachel. Setting boundaries is very important in all the sense you’ve mentioned. Thanks for sharing

  29. Setting boundaries must have some teeth in it. 🤔😉

  30. Thought provoking piece.

  31. A very thought provoking piece – and such lovely images, too!

  32. Sadly there is no easy way to begin to feel safe around other people without starting to be around other people, at least in small steps. I have expanded my safety space to several people and am learning to set boundaries with them. It is never easy, and it seems logical to just stay away from everyone. But much to my surprise it is beneficial to have people in our lives! They aren’t all boundary crashers.

  33. Reading your post today hit home. I could envision my own childhood and the boundaries that were crossed as well. I feel entirely where you are coming from on having to figure out boundaries later on in life, it’s been a struggle for so long. I’m looking into your book now and will add it to the books I’ll do reviews on! I’m looking forward to reading it!

  34. Hi! Nice to meet you! I am so relating to all you wrote here! Boundaries are very important IMO! I am following you because you resonate with me and I am a dog lover too! Xx

  35. vickielynnrubin

    Such an insightful blog!!! I love your blogs and of course your funny dog photos/captions!

  36. vickielynnrubin

    I love your blogs and I love your photos/captions. Sharing your experiences is helping many people.

  37. Your post was so touching and helpful. Thank you for sharing words that will change others lives, from out of your misery.

  38. You are an exceptional writer. Most writers are like you; it is much easier to be honest on paper and in writing than in a face-to-face conversation. Even God sets boundaries. Psalm 104: 5-9 says that God laid the foundations of the earth and set boundaries for the water that it cannot pass. So don’t feel bad about your boundaries. God bless you.

  39. Rachel,
    You might find reading the e-book “Boundaries for Writers” by Kristi Holl interesting. She starts out by saying why boundaries are important, different kinds of boundaries, and why writers need boundaries. She goes into examples of what happens when emotional, mental, spiritual and physical boundaries either aren’t there, or aren’t enforced. She encourages readers to read the book of Nehemiah, who gave good examples of boundary-setting. As a person who experienced a good deal of trauma in her younger years, Kristi can speak about the importance of boundaries and enforcing them. She lists several books as resources.


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