The subject which many practitioners, and even many so called religious leaders tend to tip-toe around, but never come to terms with the actual meaning of, is boundaries. On a map they are clear-cut and well defined, but as an ethical principle boundaries are often overlooked, or at best interpreted incorrectly.
The word boundaries define limits and marks off dividing lines. The purpose of a boundary is to make clear separations between different turf, different territory, or different limit. That’s it, but when one looks for specific ethical principles on boundaries, one can encounter hundreds, if not thousands of differing views on what is acceptable or unacceptable boundaries. They run through personal, professional, developmental, religious, medical, psychological, social, political, as well as many other wide varieties of ethical considerations. There are even established boundaries for specific social groups or ethnic groups.
The purpose of having boundaries varies from person to person, but ultimately we share common boundaries to protect and take care of ourselves, our families, and the “status quo”. We have the right to protect and defend ourselves. We have a right to take responsibility for how we allow others to treat us and by the same token, we have a responsibility to treat others with the same dignity and respect we demand for ourselves. No one else can ever hold power over us, unless we give them that power, or relinquish our rights and responsibilities through other means. Our boundaries are clear definitions of acceptable action, but sometimes even the best defined boundaries can become blurred.
I grew up believing I had the very real power to make my father angry and to break my mother’s heart. I thought that I was supposed to be perfect, and that if I was not, I was causing the people I loved great anger or severe pain. I grew up believing that I had power over other peoples feelings simply because the boundaries of abuse (both physical and emotional), and love were severely blurred.
Today there are so many different violations of personal, professional, and ethical boundaries that it has become quite difficult to distinguish between all the background noise, and actual violations of boundaries. Boundary violations of any sort tend to cause relationship problems, whether that relationship is personal or professional. This becomes even more pronounced if the boundaries between personal and professional become mixed or blurred.
The truth of the matter is there will always be those who will break boundaries unintentionally, and there will be those who simply don’t care if they have trampled all over your life.
What is of great important is that each and every one of us recognize we are dancing in an ever increasingly difficult movement of right and wrong. As our society grows and discovers itself, what was once acceptable may no longer be the case, and what was once unacceptable behavior may now be tolerated. The key is to set and define those boundaries, no matter the situation, and stick to the real consequences of breaking those set definitions.
Learning how to set boundaries is a vital part of learning to own yourself, of learning to respect yourself, of learning to love yourself. If you never have to set a boundary, then you will never get in touch with who you really are and you will never learn to define yourself in a healthy way.
No one deserves to be treated abusively. No one deserves to be lied to and betrayed.
We all deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. If you do not respect yourself, if you do not start awakening to your right to be treated with respect and dignity (and your responsibility in creating that in your life), then you will be more comfortable being involved with people who abuse you than with people who treat you in loving ways.
Learning to set boundaries is vital to learning to love yourself, and to communicating to other’s that you have worth.
Setting a boundary is not making a threat, it is communicating clearly what the consequences will be if the other person continues to treat us in an unacceptable manner. It is a consequence of the other person’s behavior.
Setting a boundary is not an attempt to control the other person although some of the people who you set boundaries with will certainly accuse you of that, just as some will interpret it as a threat. Setting a boundary is a part of the process of defining yourself and what is acceptable to you. It is a major step in taking what control you can of how you allow others to treat you. It is a vital responsibility to yourself and your life.
Setting a boundary is not a more sophisticated way of manipulation although some people will say they are setting boundaries, when in fact they are attempting to manipulate. The difference between setting a boundary in a good healthy way and manipulating is this: when you set a boundary you let go of an outcome.
When you look outside yourself for self-definition and self-worth, you are giving your power away and setting yourself up to be a victim. Society has trained you to be victim. You have been taught to give your power away.
To set your own boundaries and say “I choose” is not only the truth, it is empowering and acknowledges an act of self-love. When we “have to” do something we feel like a victim, and because we feel victimized, we become angry, and want to punish whomever we see as forcing us do something we do not want to do.
We always have a choice. The choice may sometimes seem to be awful, but in reality, allowing ourselves to buy into the illusion that we are trapped will have far worse consequences in the long run.
You have a right, and a responsibility to set your own boundaries, and stick to them. If you find someone is abusing you through their own sets of “boundaries”, move as far away as possible from the abusive situation and know you are protected by your own boundaries.
The Rev. Father Kenneth Nelan is the pastor of the Sacred Wandering Pastoral Center in Milwaukee Wisconsin. He is also the celebrant of the Sunday Mass broadcast on Facebook.