02 July 2009

Boundaries IV: What is a Boundary?

Previously I talked about having healthy emotional boundaries and then I went on to give some application in relationships through humans to the gods (both when they are talking to you and when you are talking to them).

This essay is going to try and abstract the concept of a Boundary and talk about it in a little more depth, and discuss the consequences of weak personal boundaries.

In short, a boundary is the identifying line between you and that which is not you. These may be between two concrete individuals (such as that I am not the same person as my girlfriend), or between two roles in a person's life (e.g., professional boundaries), it can also be between you and something you've worked on (such as a piece of artwork). So far I have focused on personal boundaries and not professional boundaries, and I will approach the issue of professional spirit worker boundaries in a future essay. For the moment, let's talk a little more about the nature of personal boundaries.

Personal boundaries essentially indicate where you end and the other person starts. It comes down to understanding some things are yours to own, some things belong to others, and everyone is basically responsible for their own choices in life.

It requires recognizing that not only can reasonable minds differ, but that they frequently come from a radically different set of premises. Sometimes these beliefs can be harmful or beneficial, but having good boundaries involves recognizing that--good or bad--they are not you.

Examples of Poor Boundaries

People who have poor boundaries find it manifesting in a variety of different ways, depending on the severity and origin, and may not even realize that the problem boils down to their view of themselves as a distinct individual.

Examples of consequences of poor boundaries include:

  • Reacting strongly because someone has a different view than you, even if that opinion may be justified.
  • Not asserting/respecting/enforcing limits with a stranger, friend, coworker, or partner.
  • Placing your self worth in the opinions of other individuals.
  • Projecting your emotional state in to others (aka, projective identification).

There are many others, depending on the nature of the poor boundaries, but these four form a good starting point. Going in to more depth:

Separate Beliefs

One silly example gives us a good example of a mild, everyday situation in which poor boundaries might show themselves:

Even a situation such as your saying I thought the end of Harry Potter was ideal and appropriate, and someone else’s responding with How can you possibly think that?! The ending was totally contrived, is a small boundaries violation.

It isn't in having a different opinion from the individual, it is in the level and nature of the response: How could you possibly think that?! A more appropriate response might be Really? I thought the ending was totally contrived. They may agree or think that such doesn't matter and that it is ideal and appropriate for other reasons, they may disagree, but either way what each individual believes doesn't reflect on the other.

In relationships this comes up in the form of taking offense when it turns out that your partner's preferences are different than your own (True story: I had a girlfriend at one point who didn't like pizza and who declared--she never asked--that I didn't like pizza either and took semi-mortal offense when she found out that I did).

We also encounter this all of the time in the religious world. People who don't just disagree or who will state that some beliefs are wrong, but take extreme offense that others might see the world any differently and react emotionally to those differences. In general, so long as Safe, Sane, and Consensual boundaries are respected, I tend to take an attitude of Your Kink Is Not My Kink But Your Kink Is Okay (YKINMYBYKIO).

Setting, Respecting, and Asserting Appropriate Limits

One example of something someone with healthy boundaries might say is:

Yes, I do care for you. And, I also have a need to be out of the house to see my friends at least one night a week.

This is asserting a self identity and protecting the core being of the self. Someone who has to check with their husband to see if it is okay (barring a pre-negotiated relationship in this regard, of course), or who says if me going out will make you lonely, I won't go is not asserting proper boundaries. No matter how much I may care for an individual, I cannot drop everything on a continuing basis for them and retain my own self.

Similarly, I cannot expect others to drop everything for me simply because I am upset or having trouble. Nor can I expect people to respect boundaries I have not informed them of. People who are not me cannot be expected to know what is on my mind and to know how I feel about things.

The dangerous other form of poor boundaries here is respecting limits that have not--and would never be--set or asserting unreasonable, overly restrictive, or counterproductive boundaries. It is easy to fall into the trap of saying I don't want to bother her when in truth both her boundaries and yours not only allow, but encourage, contact. It is also easy to feel like your boundaries are being violated by someone who isn't really encroaching (e.g., someone who can't stand having anyone over, even when the request is reasonable) or who has not received adequate communication.

Tying Self-Worth To Others' Opinions

We are what we are, and the words of others do not change that. Sure, praise may make us feel better and insults make us feel worse, but we are what we are. To go back to my first essay on boundaries where I quote Fuensanta Arismendi in Root, Stone, and Bone:

That voice told me that maybe I was indeed stupid and insane. If so, this was not because my father screamed so, nor was it my fault. Maybe I was intelligent and perfectly sane; if so, my father's screams did not change this, and it was not my merit. My father was unkind and uncontrolled and that was his behavior to own--not mine to own for him. So I took back what was mine: my self-worth--and gave him back what was his: his ranting. From that moment on, insults had no hold over me any more.

Insults lose their sting if we can take them in perspective and recognize ourselves as distinct individuals. Criticism of our work can be taken in beneficial way if we define good boundaries between ourselves and our work, since no matter how much of ourselves we put into that work it is not us. Praise doesn't go to our heads if we take it as a positive indicator of direction and not a validation of our own self-worth.

Projective Identification

One example of how poor boundaries can manifest is called projective identification, whereby an individual takes emotions that they do not want and puts them into another individual. To quote Babette Rothschild's book Help for the Helper:

When an infant's distress cannot be alleviated by his mother, he may feel himself to be bad--I'm inconsolable, so I must be a bad baby. Since feeling bad about onself is not a comfortable feeling, the infant may project that perception of badness onto his mother, believing her to be bad because she cannot calm him. When the infant is calmed, he then perceives himself to be a good baby, and also projects that perception onto his, now, good mother--She is able to care for me.

Similarly, if the mother has poor boundaries she may believe that her baby being inconsolable or in some other way a bad baby must make her a bad mother. A more confident mother with good boundaries will recognize that the child will eventually calm down, and how long it takes doesn't really impact significantly on whether she is a good or a bad mother.

Most people have done this to a greater or lesser degree, at least when we were growing up if not when we were adults. The child of a friend of mine when he was around 4 or so would say scare you when he was scared, indicating that you were the one who was actually scared. Many people know someone who, as an adult, will accuse someone else of the behavior they are showing (e.g., "stop shouting at me!" said in the loudest possible voice).

As we grow up we get better at discernment, at telling what is ours and what is someone else's and understanding it is okay that these are not the same thing.


These are just some of the many areas that poor boundaries can manifest themselves. Most people in society could stand, at a minimum, to tweak their boundaries.

As occultists, a strong sense of self is vitally important. We have to be able to discern what is us and not us not just with people or objects, but with who we want to be and everything from gods and wights to thought-forms that we deal with on regular basis. The place to start working on it, however, is in our relationships with other people and understanding our own, separate, identity as it exists independent from others.

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