By VICTORIA SARNE
How invincible or permeable are the boundaries you set around yourself?
This may sound like a strange question, because I am fairly sure that many of us do not consciously think about the idea. Most of us do have an innate sense of self-preservation, at least physically meaning that subconsciously there is a line in the sand which either we do not cross to endanger ourselves nor allow others to step over for the same reason.
Potential danger is an extreme example and most of us know how to react in such a situation, but my question relates to the space we keep between ourselves and whomever enters our personal worlds of work, family and friendships. You might wonder if that should matter or is even relevant; aren’t we supposed to be creating measures of openness and trust within all of the physical and emotional circles we inhabit?
This is true, but is not to be confused with setting boundaries for what constitutes normal and non-abusive interactions. I have found that women in particular frequently have a boundary that has as many holes in it as a leaky sieve, allowing for too many intrusions, both well-intentioned and otherwise. We are sometimes careless, unaware, unsure or allow ourselves to be guilted into letting them happen.
I am not necessarily referring to sexual harassment, misconduct or physical abuse, although th-se are clear and obvious betrayals of crossing a line and the onus is on the perpetrator, not the victim. I am talking about the small things that might occur during a regular day or week and whilst seemingly innocuous may, in the long term, lead to distress, discomfort, resentment or embarrassment: behaviour which impinges on your privacy. This can be friends or acquaintances who ask too many personal questions or want to know your business; strangers who might persist in trying to engage you in a conversation that makes you feel uncomfortable or who may simply stand too close to you; questionable jokes, prejudiced or racist commentary.
If you have a solid and healthy sense of what is acceptable to you then should be relatively easy to say “no” or walk away. What may not be quite so comfortable is dealing with any of these things in a family context: a spouse, significant other, children, or parents making demands and expectations of your time and energy with little or no respect or understanding of your needs and priorities.
If you don’t take a stand and explain rationally what is or is not acceptable then you are allowing them unlimited access to your personal space and implying your time and energy, your needs, have no value. We all have different amounts of energy and levels of tolerance but at some stage they all have a limit and if we ignore our own capacity, we can become exhausted, resentful, angry or depressed. Any one of these conditions will have a negative effect not only on us but those around us and our relationships will suffer.
Too many times we make allowances and excuses for bad behaviour because we either don’t know how to respond or we don’t want to offend or cause an upset. But this is wrong. Anything which makes you feel uncomfortable whether word, a demand or a touch or having a ‘feeling’ does not have to be tolerated and you are entitled to take any appropriate action either verbally or by simply disengaging.
It’s healthy, normal and good sense to keep some space between you and the rest of the world. Maintain a strong and realistic sense of self-determination and acknowledge your own needs. Think of erecting a fence with a gate which you can see over but which protects you. You are the gatekeeper and need only allow access to whom and what you want.
• Victoria Sarne is an entrepreneur and writer. She headed a team to establish a shelter for abused women and children in Canada and was its first chairwoman. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.lifelineswritingservice.com.