“Good fences make good neighbors” is the quintessential line of Robert Frost’s poem “The Mending Wall,” published in 1914. This line itself is quoted from an ancient proverb of unknown origin. In the poem, it was used in the context of a neighbor helping the narrator to repair a wall that was worn down the course of natural elements and passing of time.
At face value, we can take the meaning of this proverb as minding our own business as we create barriers to keep other people out. Sort of like the old man and the “Get off my lawn!” meme. On the other hand, we can look at this adage in terms of how setting boundaries can help us to coexist with other people healthily.
In this day and age, we aren’t referring solely to physical boundaries. More importantly, we are also going to talk about non-physical barriers as well. With telecommunications and digital technology continually improving and getting more ubiquitous, we must establish and maintain boundaries for our own personal wellbeing.
Why set boundaries?
“You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Many of us carry on with our daily lives with little to no boundaries. Ironically this becomes more pertinent when it relates to the “close” to us, such as family and friends. However, this is not a very healthy practice if we desire to wholly grow and develop as an individual. If we are to let external factors dictate how we behave, think, and feel — we become unwitting marionettes of circumstances beyond our control.
Boundaries are a personal responsibility, but at the same time, they cannot be established and enforced if we allow our interpersonal relationships to erode them. One thing to keep in mind when it comes to this is that it’s essential to clearly define and maintain these boundaries.
Another thing to be aware of is that it takes time and effort for these boundaries to be built. And just like in Frost’s poem, we will always need to be consistently mending them, and more often than not, we will definitely require the help and cooperation of others to do so.
Let’s start with something fundamental: material boundaries. At some level, we all have the capacity for being generous, but we should realize that our possessions are also an extension of ourselves. Not only that, but we definitely spent precious time and effort working to acquire the things that we own.
Let me give myself as an example. At this point in my life, there is only the classification of a material object that I will gladly “borrow” and never return, a good book. So to my college roommate, who’s looking for his copy of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, I am genuinely sorry. Never mind that you got it from Scotland during your final family vacation, yeah the one before your parents got divorced, but that book is staying here with me.
Seriously though, people get their stuff for a reason; and what we perceive to have little value to us may mean the world to them. So when it comes to stating boundaries on what we own, be it the mayonnaise in the office pantry or a precious family heirloom, be firm when it comes to setting boundaries.
When writing this article, the world is experiencing Covid-19, so physical distancing has indeed taken on a whole new meaning. I’ll also be refraining from writing about physical boundaries in a criminal sense. In fact, the only thing that I can say about this is to respect other peoples’ personal space.
Of course, personal space varies from person to person, across cultures, social norms, and circumstances. Nevertheless, you should always remember that it is never okay to feel uncomfortable when it comes to other people violating your physical boundaries. Voice out your concerns whenever you feel this way, or remove yourself from the situation if possible. Worst case scenario, you will need to formally approach the proper authorities.
This extends to friends, family, and yes — romantic partners too.
I will be citing an example from someone I know who comes from a close-knit family background. So much so that it wouldn’t be unfair to describe them as being codependent. Let me put it this way: I once joked that they should build a bathroom with multiple toilet seats so that they’ll be able to hold each others’ hands when they’re doing a number two. My friend thought it was hilarious, in a self-deprecating and reflective sort of way.
Sadly, this behavior had led to a lot of problems for this family when the children reached adulthood and had to leave the roost. They would continuously reach out and call each other for emotional support. Not that there’s anything wrong with calling your family to tell them about your highs and lows, but it reached a point that it impaired their ability to function as their own separate selves in “the real world.”
My friend was able to overcome this plight by setting emotional boundaries. From her experience, she had to overcome feelings of guilt and selfishness by becoming emotionally unavailable. Gradually, she established a new set of relationship dynamics by being firm and resolute when it comes to “emotional dumping.”
One way to do this is not dropping things in life at the drop of a hat when someone close to you wants to engage in this behavior. This could be in the form of not responding to messages or calls right away. It’s going to be difficult at first, so try to come up with canned responses such as “Let me think about it and get back to you.” The important thing is not to let intrusive behavior gain momentum by feeding into your emotions.
You can practice replying with a set response (you may need to prepare a list ahead of time) instead of saying “yes” or “no” right away.
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