Confession: I spent the first half of my life without any discernible personal boundaries. I have spent the last twenty years or so believing that boundaries are the holy grail of healthy relationships. And in the last few weeks, I am really beginning to question whether or not that is really true.

            Before you quit reading (or finish formulating your comeback comments in your head), hear me out. Because I’m not saying we shouldn’t have boundaries in relationship. I’m saying, what if we saw them as a tool instead of a permanent fixture (in most cases)? What if we could use boundaries as a way to press pause on harmful relationship dynamics while we go do some work in a protected way, with the hope that the barriers can be removed at some point to allow us to re-engage in that relationship with an eye toward deepening it and enriching it for the future?
            To be certain, boundaries are often necessary to keep us safe. Continuing to be in relationship with someone who harms us physically or abuses us emotionally, tries to control us or is a source of active pain, is unhealthy. But there are a myriad of ways in which we use boundaries to keep relationships stagnant, to effectively block people who challenge us and spur us to growth that can lead to more awareness.
 
            I recently had a disagreement with a friend I’ve known for nearly a decade. We have a lot in common and have had some really engaging conversations over the years as well as light-hearted, enjoyable times. This particular disagreement came about during the volatile time of COVID sequestering and the burgeoning protests in mid-May, and I think it took both of us by surprise, but it shook me and made me question what our friendship could possibly look like going forward.
            A week or so ago, I had another significant, painful exchange with a family member I’ve struggled to create and maintain healthy boundaries with for decades. Neither of these people are folks I want to cut out of my life entirely, but if I didn’t find a way to respond, I anticipated getting triggered over and over again in ways that felt painful and not productive, or at the very least, holding on to some resentment, because it wasn’t possible to dive in and resolve the issue in a timely way.
            In both cases, I pulled back and stopped engaging immediately, and I began to think about how to create new boundaries in response. It occurred to me at some point that often, we create boundaries in a punitive way – “you hurt me and as a result, I am going to stop sharing certain things with you” – and we generally think about those new boundaries as permanent. I’ve heard from lots of people who say that they’ve decided certain topics are off limits with individual family members, or that they will continue to be friends with someone on social media, but they will no longer follow them, meaning that their posts won’t show up in their regular feed. This is self-protective, but it also means that the relationship is stuck in a place where it won’t be able to grow. It occurred to me that relationships aren’t healthy unless they are dynamic, if both people aren’t allowed to grow together. And so I began to think about the possibility of using the new boundaries I was creating as temporary.
What if, during this time, I work to become more mindful of my own triggers, and really process where they come from, how I react, and what it would mean to move forward with this person in my life? In the past, I’ve created new walls and distanced myself from people and been content to interact with them from that place rather than seeing opportunities for each of us to work on our own stuff and then find a way to come back together and have a deeper, more accountable, more enlightened relationship.
            What if doing the work on my own stuff while I am safe within my temporary boundaries enables me to have a greater sense of compassion for the other person and enlarge my own container so that I can hold that compassion and the opposing ideas with more grace? What if I am able to strengthen my own sense of self, my ideas around what I value and how I move through the world, and then come back to the relationship clearer and more ready to engage on a different level? How would that create growth in myself and the relationship?
            This is, of course, predicated on the fact that the other person is doing work as well, that they are contemplating the nature of the disagreement and their own role in it. And it is my hope that if we are each doing this on our own, rather than continuing to trigger each other by trying to work through it together, we can eventually come to a place where we want to reconnect and deepen the relationship.
            All too often in my own life, I’ve used boundaries as a protective mechanism – a way to wall myself off from folks who trigger me in one way or another – and then I rest in my safe space and don’t do the work to understand how to learn and grow from the painful interaction. Sometimes, boundaries become my own personal ‘cancel culture’ and I write people off entirely. Sometimes, boundaries are a way to convince myself that I am “right” and the other person is at fault, and I don’t need them in my life at all, or that I get to define exactly how they exist in my life. But if I am a person who believes in community care and self-awareness and understands the importance of relationship for all human beings, and if I believe in the ability of each one of us to grow and evolve, and in the power of relationship to help us all grow and evolve, then permanent boundaries have no place in my relationships.
            I fully expect and understand the immediate, gut-level reactions of folks who will call to mind people who abuse others, who refuse to do the work, who don’t want the relationship to evolve because it serves them that it stays the same. I am not advocating for folks to toss all their rules about how they demand to be treated out the window in favor of compassion. I am not saying that it will be possible for every relationship to evolve in this way. I am saying that I hope that every person in my life knows, going forward, that I am working to deepen my capacity for compassion, for building accountability in relationship, and that I will attempt to keep myself available as I can. That doesn’t mean that you are free to treat me poorly without consequence. It means that I won’t use boundaries as a crutch to avoid doing my own work and keep myself small and safe and stagnant. It means that in order for me to be a vital, functioning part of a healthy community, I know that I can’t only surround myself with people who will always agree with me and make me feel good about myself.
1 reply
  1. Diane Stringam Tolley
    Diane Stringam Tolley says:

    This was truly an eye-opener, Kari!
    I have always put up a boundary when someone has hurt me. And your are absolutely right. This is entirely counter-productive. Instead of working and growing from the encounter, I've huddled behind my walls, blaming them and refusing to see any ways I could have improved.
    Thank you for this jolt today! I needed it!

    Reply

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