THE BLOG

When Boundaries Are Healthy

09/19/2014 05:57 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 00:59 EDT
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CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 28: Students walk along a designated Safe Passage route to Laura Ward Elementary School on the Westside on August 28, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. The Safe Passage program was started because parents were worried about their childrens safety while they walked to school across gang boundaries after the city closed 49 elementary schools and moved the students to nearby schools. Police, city workers and Chicago Public Schools personnel are posted along the route to provide 'safe passage' for the students. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

When I was 12, I taped passages of poems and prose to my bedroom walls. I wanted to be surrounded by my favourite words on earth. To this day, I remember transcribing a line by Leo Tolstoy that made me weak in the knees. Waxing poetic on Alexey Vronsky's love for Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote: "He felt now that he was not simply close to her, but that he did not know where he ended and she began." I still swoon a little when I read these words. Tolstoy's paradigm of romantic love shaped the way I idealized intimacy.

As a teenager, I could think of no higher ontological plane than a man not knowing where he ended and I began. Then I grew up. Today, I have a more nuanced notion of love. I don't want my husband and I to have the kind of love that dissolves the distinction between us. While I am still a diehard romantic, I've learned that intimacy is not about the dissolution of the self with the other. To create true intimacy, we need boundaries.

I am not alone in my theory. In Mating in Captivity: UnLocking Erotic Intelligence, Esther Perel argues for cultivating separateness or autonomy in romantic unions. Becoming "one," according to Perel, is not romantic -- it's tantamount to entrapment.

This article is an ode to boundaries. I know, in the internet age, many people think boundaries are passé. This is clear to me when I contemplate people's selfies on social media and their transgressions on Twitter. But I want to reframe the discussion to show that boundaries can be healthy. So let's explore some of the benefits.

At Home: When couples have been together for many years, boundaries begin to erode. Things you swore you would never do (I solemnly swear I will never go to the bathroom in front of my spouse), start to slip, whether it's because of comfort, complacency or time constraints. But here's the thing: boundaries are critical in our intimate relationships because, as Perel argues, upholding them keeps the spark alive and promotes curiosity and passion.

At Work: For many people, work is like a second home. No matter how comfortable you are, don't make the mistake of being too familiar with colleagues (unless you're in a family business). Do not ask anyone at work, ever, if they are having marital problems, if they are pregnant, sick or experiencing fertility issues. Trust me, if your colleagues want you to know about these personal details, they will tell you. Furthermore, your boss, colleagues or clients never have the right to humiliate or criticize you in front of your peers; make off colour jokes or invade your space.

Online: Cyberspace is by definition a place without boundaries. It is thus not surprising that people cross boundaries online all the time. I may part company with you here, but I believe people are entitled to their opinions, even if we vehemently disagree with them; as long as they are not inciting hatred. The point is that we need to learn to express ourselves respectfully. I will therefore not "de-friend" you if you have a different position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor will I throw you to the social media wolves if I disagree with your stance on vaccinations.

At the Doctor, Therapist, Hairdresser, Etc. You are entitled to your personal space. You should never feel like a professional is compromising your physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual boundaries. It is always your right to feel safe and secure.

Your Personal Property: Despite passwords and high tech alarms, most of us have been violated in this area. Has anyone ever read your text messages without your permission? How did this make you feel? Violated? Outraged? Paranoid? Before you snoop, put the shoe on the other foot. You might reconsider your undercover espionage.

Okay, so I think I made my point: boundaries are good. Now let's shift gears and explore the necessity to stretch them. When is it beneficial to cross boundaries?

The beauty of boundaries is that they are fluid, not static. You can test or stretch them at any time. Case in point: I recently tried Contact Improvisation. Contact is a postmodern form of dance in which you always have at least one part of your body in physical contact with your partner. Check it out. I have been meaning to try this form of dance for a while. But I was scared. I did it anyway. Here's what happened: I danced alone. Then I danced with my friend Jana. Then I danced with a beautiful soul named Tanya. Then I talked to a guy named Real (yes, that was really his name) about how I took a giant leap in the class because, well, I guard my personal space like a hawk.

You, as an autonomous adult, define your boundaries. (We must, as a caveat, remind ourselves that not everyone has this luxury). So do you want to try Tantra? Acting? Mindfulness Meditation? Singing? Stand up? Or painting? Doing things which push our personal boundaries can make us feel self-conscious, fragile, unhinged and foolish. It takes effort, fortitude, courage and will to step outside of our comfort zone. But it opens you to growth in ways you may never have imagined possible.

Do you think the Buddha was fearless when he crossed the boundary of the palace gate to embark on a journey of self-discovery? Do you think the Jewish people felt cool and collected when they crossed the Red Sea? Why do you think Jesus washed his disciples feet? And why did Gandhi rail against the belief that cleaning latrines was the work of untouchables? In a moment, boundaries can dissolve, allowing power structures to melt away, and brotherly (and sisterly) love to flourish. Crossing boundaries can empower us to expand spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, politically or intellectually.

You need to set your own limits. While it seems like we live in a time when there are no boundaries, or when people idolize those without any, we also live in an era of extreme judgementalism. Part of the reason I think people like watching reality TV is so they can judge the "stupidity" of the people on screen and thereby feel a sense of superiority. When we experiment with crossing our own boundaries, we become more attune to the perils of judgement and the imperative of empathy. Crossing boundaries makes you vulnerable. This cultivates humility. When you push yourself, you see that "limits" are structures we create that often restrict us.

But as poet Jessica McFarland reminds us, "Only because we set clear and meaningful boundaries can we ultimately transcend them. That is the work of love -- not dissolution into formlessness, but slowly taking down brick by precious brick the walls that unnecessarily divide us. We can't do that without first fortifying ourselves and our tenderness."