In this day and age with our population growing in leaps and bounds, we’re finding less and less space to be able to expand in. Some cultures find it easy to live in close quarters. Others of us, like those of us who have become acclimated to the wide open spaces of the western hemisphere, find close quarters and people who move too close to us, unnerving and sometimes even painful. For some of us, we may find it surprising that there is more to establishing personal boundaries than just deal with physical proximity. Because physical space is tangible and essentially visible, it is easy for most of us to understand why we might feel the pressure we feel and can easily comprehend what needs to be done to minimize its effects. However, the feeling that we may be encroached upon emotionally or intellectually includes much more than just the visible space we can see and feel. Since it is intangible, it is also much more difficult to navigate let alone to recognize that we are emotionally or intellectually being squeezed. In this article I’ll cover:
- Boundaries operate from two perspectives,
- Cultural Differences,
- Family Dynamics,
- What causes the necessity for personal boundaries and
- Points to remember that will assist you in clarifying the limits to which you’d like to protect your self-determinism and comfort
Boundaries operate from two perspectives. In both tangible and intangible cases we do our best to establish boundaries or fences, if you will, to prevent encroachment. Generally, we think of these fences as keeping people out of “our space.” But these boundaries give us something more. They give us perceptual limits to know where our space ends thereby giving us our limits and permission as to how far our reach and responsibility might be allowed to extend. An analogy might be if we owned property that was tangent to another property owner and there were no land marks to tell us where our property ended and our neighbors’ began, we would have no way of knowing how much space we had to work with or what we were responsible for. But if a fence marked the dividing line between the two, we could easily have a feeling of what we had to work with and how far we could develop it. Our emotional boundaries work exactly the same way. They enable us to feel how far we can go while also telling us when our neighbor has stepped too far into our space. The difference between physical space and emotional space is that physical is established by traditional distancing by way of culture. Emotional “space” is established by the prevailing implementation of manners inherent in the culture and etiquette concerning self-determination.
Cultural Differences: A major component to look at in establishing personal boundaries is that where we set our fences will be different for each person and their culture. For example, in a tangible format, southern European people are used to living in close quarters and in a hot climate. This gives an intensity to not only their rapport with us but tends to draw them in closer physical proximity to us when they are relating. Northern Europeans also live in close quarters but their climate is much cooler which also reflects in their proximity in creating more space between themselves and the people they are relating to. Hence, the perception that northern European people are more cool and “stand-offish” than southern.
Generally, our physical boundary settings transfer to our emotional boundary settings as well. That is, we will find southern Europeans behaving in a more intimate manner with us than northern Europeans including much more flexible allowances when it comes to interpersonal manners. So emotionally we find northern Europeans to be cool, calm and reserved and with more rigid emotional guidelines while we find southern Europeans to be hot, animated and expressive with looser emotional guidelines. When they relate to each other the northern European will find the southern European agitated, pushy and invasive while the southern European will find the northern European elusive, withdrawn, rigid and secretive.
Family Dynamics. Since our country is such a melting pot of cultures, there is a tremendous variety in how people relate to each other. Our expected boundaries between us and others will be a reflection of how we perceived our family and its boundaries. It is in this way that we will approach others and consider ourselves considerate if we stay within our learned boundaries. Most of the time we don’t recognize differences with others until they encroach or evade. So, when things include someone outside the family structure, things often become a little dicey.
What causes the necessity for personal boundaries? We can easily understand the dynamics where physical boundaries might be involved, but suppose we are relating with someone who wants to emotionally direct our behavior for their own benefit. Their assumptions about how they expect us to behave may lead them to putting us in a social situation where we might feel shameful if we didn’t respond in a specific way. For example, if someone they know is having difficulty performing an activity or is unable to perform that activity, the person making the assumption about us may volunteer our services to their perceived person in need. Suppose that this is an activity we would rather not involve ourselves with but saying no would make us appear to be selfish in the eyes of others. This would make us feel that if we didn’t perform what we were offered for, our social standing would be diminished in the eyes of the person being “serviced” and surrounding individuals. The person offering our services either has no awareness that performing as such would be disagreeable to us or, in a more sinister way, they volunteered our services so they would not have to become obligated yet gain “credit” for finding someone the assistance. If we don’t speak up, we would find ourselves cornered and performing. Yet if we do, we look as if we are behaving selfishly.
There are many people in the world who are master craftsmen at manipulating us into performing in ways that will augment their social status and benefit while augmenting our responsiveness to their coercions through a form of emotional blackmail. Yet, there are also still people with whom we come in contact with that have no comprehension of the pressure they put us under to perform in the ways that they assume simply because in their family and culture it’s the way that they would have responded. We need to be aware that those who coerce us are aware that their coercions can be and most often are interpreted as innocent expectations based on their own culture. They play this game much like a double entendre provides an opportunity for a manipulator to “be excused” from blame simply because it’s possible that they acted innocently. Personal boundaries are necessary because of both scenarios; the innocent assumer and the crafty emotional manipulator.
Erecting personal boundaries has a lot to do with our self-perceived social image and the amount of Self-Trust and personal dignity we were allowed to develop as we were growing up. The more Self-Trust and dignity we were able to develop, the more likely it is that we will permit ourselves to set up strong personal boundaries. The less Self-Trust and dignity we were allowed to develop, the more likely it is that we won’t speak up and will have weak personal boundaries thereby finding ourselves performing the tasks assigned to us by the “assumers” and the emotional manipulators. So, what must we do and not do relative to establishing personal boundaries?
The following points will assist you in clarifying the limits to which you’d like to protect your self-determinism and comfort…the goal of setting personal boundaries.
Point #1 – We must learn to speak up even if we are put in a position of appearing cowardly, selfish or lacking compassion. The person who innocently assumes that we will act the way that they would will simply be surprised at our lack of conformity. The person who is attempting to emotionally manipulate us will really lay into us by emphasizing their perception of us as being selfish, cowardly and lacking of compassion relative to their comfort or preference. They will essentially threaten us with the potential conveyance of this perception to the individuals involved in the circumstance they are manipulating. This will trigger our acquiescence into action thereby preventing the need for conveyance. We must not give in. We must still refuse even in light of this threat. If we do give in, it will open us up to future manipulation by them and others just like them. The key with handling the manipulator is that once we get past their initial assault by sticking to our guns and not capitulating, they will most likely not use us again in this fashion for fear of being exposed for dishonest manipulation themselves. They know that if they push their perception too far, most people receiving it will sense something “fishy” going on and their cover will be eventually be blown. They will then simply move on to someone else whom they feel will be an easier touch. Remember, it’s getting past that initial assault that frees us. Once you’ve given in once it’s much harder to turn off the manipulation.
Point #2 – It’s extremely important that we have a clear understanding of what we want and what we don’t want. This way our erecting of personal boundaries will be solid and clear, especially, to us. Then, when someone contrives a situation that attempts to waffle our convictions and our fear of social disapproval, we can simply say, with certainty and comfort, I don’t feel comfortable doing that. You should know that it takes courage to offer a flat refusal. You are essentially calling the manipulator’s bluff and are forcing his or her hand. Many will launch into conveying your “unworthiness.” But you must remember that if you allow this to happen once there may be many more repeat scenarios. It’s better to endure one “besmirching” than to live through a whole series of them. Your best defense and support is a strong Self-Trust and respect. You can develop this easily through listening to your own feelings and intuition and respecting their validity…something many of us have been inadvertently programmed by our parents to disregard in our early childhood training.
Point#3 – When we do say I don’t feel comfortable doing that, do not offer an explanation as to why! The manipulator is a master at turning the game around to his or her benefit. If he or she can show you the holes in your preferences and reasoning, you will then again feel obligated to do what it is you’ve decided that you don’t want to do because the obvious reasoning has been invalidated by your manipulator. If you don’t perform what your reasoning has been trashed for, you will again feel like a fool in the eyes of your peers.
It’s important to know that emotional manipulators can “smell out” those of us who have weak Self-Trust and confidence. It’s as if we broadcast “I’m easy” simply by the way we hold ourselves and the way we interact with others. Once we develop stronger Self-Trust and confidence, the way we hold ourselves and the way we interact with others will broadcast that we’re not susceptible to manipulators. Then, they will set their sights on others to fill the mark.
Personal Boundaries are not something that we need with everyone. That’s one of the reasons why it is so difficult in knowing when to express them. Those who are unaware that they are overstepping them are often very apologetic and sometimes even ashamed. As long as you verbalize your preferences, it is enough in dealing with them that they won’t be transgressed again. It’s when you encounter emotional manipulators that you must remain aware and up on your game. The best way you can do this is to know your limits ahead of time and not be afraid to express them and stand up for them even in lieu of potential personal assault of your character in the eyes of others. Your limits and preference must be clear and apparent to you. Their best tool is their ability to tune into and use your hidden shame, self-consciousness and any lack of self-confidence or Self-Trust as their weapon to implement your coercion. Building your Self-Trust and respect is the best thing that you can do to guard against being manipulated. Remember, you are responsible for your own subversion by letting them do so…not them! It’s all in your hands…