Everyone knows someone who is a doormat, unable to refuse any imposition on their good nature. And everyone knows someone who is so tightly defended that they hold themselves aloof and disengaged from the general flow of things. Most people fit somewhere between these two extremes, but we often do so by shutting ourselves down.
It is a fact that there will be times in our lives when holding our boundaries - or holding on to the principles by which we define ourselves - is very difficult. It can be especially difficult with people that we like, and those who possess a high degree of natural charm. It can seem impossible in the working environment, where we may have learned to see ourselves constrained within an organisational hierarchy.
The way we generally learn to keep ourselves safe in the world is by fitting in, and this generally means discounting some of our more private feelings, thoughts and aspirations. This doesn't mean we don't have these attributes, but we make them disappear. We set up barriers behind which we hide our true selves in order to feel safe. However the boundaries we create through setting up barriers like this serve to keep us in as much as they keep others out. They stifle our expression and produce frustration, which we then blame on that which prevails in the environment we inhabit.
As we spend most of our waking weekday hours in the workplace, this most often equates to the workplace culture. It is not uncommon for the unconscious effects of this to be the main motivation for seeking another job: a job where we feel the oppression less; a job where feel appreciated; a job where the people aren't so aggressive, prejudiced, stuck-up, ignorant, inconsiderate or demanding. So wouldn't it be great if we could find a better way of doing this boundary stuff?
Most of us have had the experience of meeting someone with healthy boundaries. This person will have felt good to be around. Also, even in areas of strong disagreement, it will have felt safe to engage in discussion with this person. We will have been able to retain a respect for their point of view, whilst expressing ours. We will also have felt heard and supported. So what is their secret? How can we ensure that we manage ourselves in such a way?
1. The first step to creating good personal boundaries is to understand that in absolute terms there is nothing wrong with you. You are you; and you have nothing to apologise for in being yourself, even though there will be many people to tell you otherwise. For the most part they will be attempting to strengthen their sense of themselves - their personal boundaries - by weakening yours. This is the way most of the world operates, so you need to learn to recognize it when you see it.
Whenever you feel imposed upon, downtrodden, exploited, taken for granted, bullied, frustrated, ignored, undermined, or simply exhausted by a particular personal interaction you can be sure that your boundaries have been breached in some way. And the chances are you've conspired in this process. You may not consciously recognize this, but the feeling of being drained is the surest sign.
The traditional way to interpret this kind of situation is to blame the other party and seek to undermine them subversively. This is often called passive aggressive behaviour; it is understandable, but not very productive. It quickly descends into bitching, and this perpetuates an unhealthy situation. What's more it's actually self-destructive because it engenders a sense of the enemy, which means you set up a trigger in yourself. Every time the antagonist turns up feelings of resentment and anger are likely to ensue.
A more productive way to look at things is to see the other person(s) involved in the interaction as potentially your teachers showing you your patterns of resentment. They are showing you what you react to. It may be that the situation is decidedly wrong and needs some correction; nevertheless if you attempt to act from your reaction you will ultimately fail. So whenever your buttons are pushed, or your strings pulled, your first duty (to yourself) is to clear yourself of the reaction.
2. A second step is to recognize that your point of view is unlikely to be exactly the same as anyone else's. Even though you may find broad agreement in many areas, there will be aspects of your viewpoint that are unique to you. But they will also simply be your opinion. Given an equivalent level of competence in any situation your opinion is of no more value than anyone else's.
We are nevertheless often very attached to our own opinions. We incorporate them into our identity. This is largely because we have learned the importance of being right. All our lives we will have been given approval when we got something right, and the opposite when we got something wrong. You can understand the psychological importance of this when you realise that in the dominant paradigm of western culture approval is equated with love.
So it's vital to realise that it is ok to change your mind. Just because you thought something was right one day, and embraced it as part of your truth, doesn't mean that with experience you can't change your opinion. It is not essential to be right. It is ok for someone else to have good ideas, and to show loyalty to their ideas. This is called integrity. Recognize it, and respect it. Strangely enough this will develop self-respect in you, and engender respect in others. It actually takes more courage to open up and be vulnerable, than it does to be aggressive or defensive; and we all know this intuitively which is why we admire those who can do it.
3. Thirdly, you can be pretty sure that when someone goes past your boundaries in some way, their action comes from a sense of fear, inadequacy or lack of self-esteem. This may seem to be the opposite of your experience, but consider what makes you aggressive and defensive and you'll begin to see the truth in this. Your tormentor/teacher is likely to be another human being who, just like you, is looking for recognition, love, acceptance and approval. In short the person that assaults your boundaries is in pain.
If you can take a breath before you react, and see their difficulty, this will often be sufficient to stop you being drawn into their drama. This will give you time to respond rather than react, which will leave them with their tension rather than triggering yours.
If you can begin to think kindly of those who seem to aggravate you, you will become less bothered by their antics. And it is likely that if they don't change in their own behaviour they will find someone else to bother.
Every relationship has boundaries. Some relationships permit looser boundaries than others, but boundaries are vital to how we establish ourselves and operate in the world. Whether we like it or not, the workplace is an intricate matrix of cross-pollinating human relationships where personal reactions and feelings may take second place. An awareness of your own prejudices and destructive behaviour patterns, and a commitment to resolve them, will expand your capacity to interact with the world around you. It will also develop a sense of security in yourself such that your boundaries are always strong and clear.