Boundary Series

In the next few posts we will be discussing the topic of building boundaries as a means of establishing and growing healthy relationships. This first one is all about the basics. You may have heard the word boundary but what does it mean?

What is a boundary?

In the simplest terms, boundaries show where one thing ends and something else begins. Like a fence around a yard. Applying that to relationships is where it gets complicated. So let’s expand this definition to include oneself. 

What defines a person? Needs? Wants? Intellect? Our body? Our identity or sense of self? Well…yes. In terms of boundaries, we can say that our personal boundaries are where one’s personhood (that includes all the things above) ends and someone else’s begins. What does that even mean? Let’s use some examples.

The boundaries that are easiest for most people to understand are physical boundaries. Let’s start with your skin. You get to say what happens to your skin. Someone does not get to come and touch your skin without your permission. Or put something IN your skin without your permission. It’s a violation of your boundaries. Without your consent, doctors, friends, loved ones etc do not have permission to violate or harm your skin.

This is called bodily autonomy or bodily integrity. Here’s how Wikipedia defines it.

Bodily Integrity

“Bodily integrity is the inviolability of the physical body and emphasizes the importance of personal autonomy, self-ownership, and self-determination of human beings over their own bodies.”

Touch that harms

In generations past, corporal punishment was still very common. Young people had their bodily autonomy violated by people they trusted and/or loved without their consent. It can be difficult to determine good or healthy boundaries when someone is most familiar with physical mistreatment. Even if that physical mistreatment was given as discipline, according to this study, the body cannot tell the difference between corporal punishment as discipline or corporal punishment as abuse. If you would like to read more about this topic, here is a useful article.

For someone who grew up in a house with a lot of emotional chaos and/or physical punishment, setting even the most basic of boundaries is difficult. That child was unable to consent to their environment, but it became what they were used to. Adult relationships often mimic childhood relationships. These types of relationships feel familiar and acceptable, even when they are harmful.

When touch doesn’t hurt or harm but still happens without consent

“But”, you may ask, “what if someone is using gentle touch and not ‘harming’ me, even though I don’t want to be touched?” Unwanted but gentle may not seem like it’s not a problem, but that is incorrect. Unwanted touch of any kind is a violation of our boundaries. In our society, we know this as consent.

Consent is a new concept culturally, a word not commonly heard outside of medical or legal proceedings until the latter part of the last century. It was the 70s and 80’s that brought us the codification of sexual harassment laws, even though it was made illegal as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The word consent has now come to be woven into our modern society, especially in terms of sexuality, but it pertains to all types of interactions we have with people.

What are MY boundaries?

How do you know what boundaries to set? How do you maintain them? Good questions. 

With the help of a good therapist and practice, we get better at listening to our bodies and our minds. We learn to hear what we need. Feeling anger or irritation or resentment can be a good clue that a boundary is being violated. It’s time to get curious about why we feel that emotion. What happened that brought it up? For those of us who did not get any practice doing this in our childhood, even recognizing resentment can be difficult, but with practice it is possible to get to the root of what is causing the resentment or anger. 

We can use the idea of bodily autonomy or consent to help us find where our boundaries lie. 

The most basic concept of Bodily Autonomy, or consent is: I get to say what happens to my body. 

  • I get to say who touches my body, whether in care or harm.
  • I get to say where my body gets taken, whether in care or harm.
  • I get to say what my body needs.

Here are some examples:

  • I’m hungry: I get to eat something rather than someone telling me what I can or cannot eat.
  • I’m tired: I get to rest, even if someone else says it’s not the time, or not necessary.
  • I get to ask for what I need: I need a hug today. (or 8) 
  • I need to have a hard conversation or to be heard by the person I am speaking with. I ask them to take time to listen to my concerns.
  • I get to manage my sexuality: I am feeling amorous or sexual and I can initiate that kind of contact with my partner without shame or fear. Conversely, I am NOT feeling amorous or sexual so I am going to say no when I need to. In some relationships a different need has to be met before someone can feel sexual. It’s ok to say “I need to connect emotionally or mentally first”. Or I mentally want to be sexual, but my body is not feeling it right now. Maybe I need rest or something else and then we can revisit this.

It’s crucial to add that this goes for each person in the relationship. Friendship or romantic, work or social. That person can set a boundary too.

 Here are some examples of physical boundaries others may set.

  • I really want a hug but the person I want to hug doesn’t want that kind of touch right now.
  • I am feeling sexual but my partner needs time to themselves right now because they have been touched all day by small children who needed a parent.
  • I am feeling unheard and angry but the person I am speaking to can’t tolerate being yelled at. They get to say no to my need to be heard until I can do it in a calm way.

In the next part of this post series, we will discuss what types of boundaries one might need and talk about practical ways to set those boundaries.

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