Boundaries: From A Buzzword Into Bustle

When I lived in London prior to my return to Australia, I would take my hour lunch break in the South-side hood of Borough to explore back streets, quiet parks and lanes where ice-cream vans would line up. I found myself stumbling across a mural painted on a wall which backs on to the view of the Shard in the distance. The statement painted in clear, black text read:

"Nothing for myself that is not also for others."

Though a Buddhist saying, the notion stems from somewhere I can only identify as Heaven itself. A place where all live harmoniously simply because they uphold and respect one another, and deeply love one another.

But we live in a broken world. A world where unbeknownst to us we hurt people on a daily basis. Intentionally and unintentionally. And so with that comes the necessity to reeducate ourselves in appropriate interactions and displays of love to self and others.

And so, there is a resurgence in today’s thriving young generation of the terminology “boundaries.” I use it daily in my practice as a counsellor. I use it when discussing past and present friendships and relationships. For me, it is a professional and personal term that holds a whole lot of meaning - and this is much the same for others today.

What I want to explore, however, is where boundaries actually work. So much emphasis has been placed on “my boundaries” when we talk about people that cross them. These boundaries may be in terms of physical interactions within romantic relationships, within how much of our time we give to our parents in our day to day lives, within our capacity to say “yes” or “no” at the appropriate time when it comes to work.

We see that even Jesus established boundaries in His ministry and personal life. Jesus knew the importance of personal integrity, but most interestingly He always set the example that boundaries were not merely for Himself. They, in all actuality, were to serve others. He told the demoniac in Gerasene after healing him from possession to “go home” rather than stay with Jesus (Luke 8). This firm boundary, though challenging to the ears of those around at first, would have served both the demoniac and Jesus in more effective spiritual growth for the demoniac, and more Kingdom growth for Christ. Jesus withdrew from crowds to get reset time with the Father (Luke 5), which restored Him for further service to the people around Him.

The common reality was always that Jesus never did anything that was not also for others. He lived this motto. His boundaries always served both Himself and those around Him. I wonder if we as humans on planet Earth in 2019 are truly reaping the benefits of boundaries: do we know the full strength, the full potential of what it offers to us in the context of relationships? I hear the term “boundaries” too often thrown around, often by women who declare royally that their boundaries need to be respected. I question “why?” Why do they need to be respected?

We can establish boundaries quite easily, in fact. But our purpose behind establishing them will ultimately determine their effectiveness. Reading this statement on Instagram recently, I came to a standstill:

"A boundary isn’t an attack, but rather an opportunity to courageously understand and love one another better.”

We don’t see Jesus white-girl waving His hand saying “they need to respect my boundaries.” The all-too-evident reality is that some people won’t. It’s not an entitlement that we rightfully are bestowed by virtue of existence. It is a privilege. When Jesus went as far as to get in a boat to sail off and catch a breather, others began sailing behind Him.

In recent events in my life, I’ve seen how I’ve adjusted from the mentality of “respect my boundaries or rack off” to “this is how I’m going to love you the best way I can.” In a recent relationship, exploring boundaries was nerve-wracking for me. In loving the person deeply, I had to establish and reiterate boundaries. I felt that if I didn’t, then it didn’t show respect for this person. I hoped that by communicating clearly the boundary and why I thought it was necessary, it would provide a mutual opportunity for us to “courageously understand and love one another better.” I reflected on this statement and used this to direct my conversations and my boundary-building:

"When people set boundaries with you, it's their attempt to continue the relationship with you. It is not an attempt to hurt you."

In my example, my boundary meant I could watch that person safely flourish. I could redirect them to Christ. I could free them from the perspective that in our connection, they’d find all their needs met. And I could function sufficiently to serve them through prayer rather than in physically “being there.” If a person, for instance, is told “no, you can’t touch me like that,” they can either take this as a personal affront, take offence to the statement and grouch because they’ve been “told off”, or they can perceive that it is for their benefit as much as the other person. It is because in this instance, they learn that a body is not theirs to take, but something that someone freely decides to share. They learn the value of consent. They learn that they can have the entirety of another person when the other person decides they have reached that level of trust. And how utterly beautiful that journey to mutual respect and deepened love becomes!

When I say no to a student who wants to see me at a particular time in a particular place, I respect myself and my capacity to be in only one place at one time. I respect my prior commitments to other students and staff which contribute to a smoother running system in our wellbeing service, but I also teach the student that I believe they can self-regulate and keep a handle on things until I do have time for them. I teach them that respect and “waiting your turn” can get you places in life. I teach them that whatever is going on isn’t “the end of the world.” We all win when the purpose and the communication of the boundaries are clear and other-centred.

Either way, boundaries have such a strong potential for shaping relationships to be open, centred and truly loving in their execution. And, as a culture, I think we need to learn more about being on the receiving end, or the “outside line” of a boundary, and to remember that boundaries continue relationship. They are for healing, not for hurting. They are not an attack but an opportunity to love even deeper.

Ruth Hodge

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