Difference Between Boundaries and Walls.

August 20, 2012


Berlin’s once impenetrable”Checkpoint Charlie”.

It’s amazing how self-growth works: within one week I have been called upon to define boundaries not once but thrice within the same week! Sudden, but not so strange when you think  about it. The more a man grows in self-awareness, the more inclined he will be to set boundaries in his relationships. Allow me to illustrate what I mean.

It was my birthday last week, and family and Facebook friends sent me cards, phoned, or wrote short, pleasant wishes on my Facebook wall. All except a niece in a far away city, who chose to use the the occasion to proselytize. She has converted to Christianity. Not mainstream Christianity mind, but one of those American evangelical cults. My Facebook wall was cluttered with a long tirade about her invisible best friend who died for my sins, yada, yada, yada. I was in a dilemma. This was not first time she had done something like this to me, she has been warned by her parents as well other family members. She was clearly in the wrong, but she is still a relative. A relative with mental health issues. Would it be unkind, uncompassionate to block her from Facebook, indeed from my life? Neither her words showed care for me nor her subsequent actions.

What compounded my dilemma was that I am raised to believe that defining strong boundaries was a symptom of selfishness. That it was an assertion of egotism. Enlightened persons have unconditional empathy, it is why they are compassionate. In my naivety I imagined good people are supposed to tolerate abusive behavior with good humor. I believed if I were to cut my niece out of my life, I’d be giving in to my weakness, strengthening stubbornness.

After some deep reflection, I decided that there was an important difference between making walls and setting boundaries. Walls are insurmountable, they are all or nothing. There is no communication possible with walls up. A man who sets up walls (as I once used to) is indeed defining his ego (and his ignorance). Walls are for the ego, it is indeed cutting oneself off from humanity. But boundaries define relationships, not egos. My niece has been warned before not to force her beliefs upon other family members. Yet she persists. There has to be consequences for breaching boundaries, otherwise they are meaningless. If someone is unable or unwilling to respect me, I have a right to make a choice about the extent of our relationship. I do not have to condemn him or her or be unkind. This is not unspiritual. In fact it is a sign of a healthy self-worth.

The very process of renegotiating relationships requires self-awareness, empathy, subtle consideration. And from the way the other party responds one can learn a lot about that person. Allow me illustrate from the past week what else I discovered. The person I live with made a rather disrespectful remark to me in front of company. Later, when I pointed out to him how unacceptable and inappropriate his words had been, he was dismissive of my feelings. Which made me feel worse, even more inconsequential. But then, in the following days, he demonstrated through his actions, gestures, small acts of consideration that he was sorry, though he was unable to ever say those words. I know from his subsequent behavior that he did not mean to disrespect. He is human and sometimes errs (just like I do). While his words did not show caring, his subsequent actions did. 

And it is only through action that a person’s true intent is revealed. For the past six months I have been guest blogging on another website. My hope was to get more  traffic for this blog (never happened). The web hosts on that other site have always been polite and professional in their communication with me, yet I was uncomfortable. I never received feedback of the type I get from WordPress. Here people leave me comments, likes, follows. I have of sense of communication with readers. I also am in control of grammatical and typographical errors. My articles on that other website always had obvious mistakes. No one proofread.  I was expected to churn out an article every two weeks, more often if possible. Reminders would be sent to me if were late in submitting. It all felt, well, exploitive, like they did not care about me, only what they could get out of me. Perhaps they did not intend to be so, perhaps they were just unaware? So I asked them for feedback, less pressure to keep producing articles every fortnight. They replied, very politely, that it was time to end our relationship. Their unwillingness to adjust, or even discuss the reasons why they could not accommodate any of my requests, proved I was being used. While their words were caring, their subsequent actions were not.

I no longer feel guilty when required to define boundaries. Boundaries require openness and listening, and they need to be in constant review. I think boundaries (unlike walls) are necessary for continued growth because help separate those in our lives who care about us and those who only pay lip-service.

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