• James Marston

Boundaries are the thing that separates me from you.

There's a boundary between my experiences, my thoughts, my body, and your experiences, thoughts, and body. The space between them is both objective and subjective.


Inarguably, our bodies are separate. My flesh is grown by my body, with my DNA. Your flesh is yours. We can touch each other, or affect the physical space we live in, but our bodies are separate. I control my body, you control yours. We only gain influence over each others’ body by consent or coercion.


Objectively, my thoughts are the result of my brain's operation, influenced by my body. Your thoughts are yours.


Through communication, our thoughts and words can affect each other. The things we say and do affect each other’s bodies and brains, and can affect each other’s thoughts. Boundaries protect us from that influence. Soft boundaries let us understand someone else’s perspective and experience. Strengthening that boundary lets us listen without being emotionally affected.


Objectively, we can experience the same things. We can both watch a TV show, take a walk, experience a moment of time and space. Subjectively, we experience those moments differently, based on our perspectives. We can draw independent conclusions, based on the parts we remember or our individual experiences.


Through communication and shared experience, that boundary becomes flexible. I can control how much of your experience affects mine. I can strengthen that boundary to gain perspective and control. I can weaken that boundary and gain connection and insight.


As a society and as individuals, we create values and rules around these flexible boundaries. We see strengthening some of these boundaries as being strong or tough, or as being stubborn and single-minded. We see softening some of these boundaries as being weak and dramatic, or as being compassionate and open-minded.


Values and rules are boundaries themselves, separating what we think is okay from what we think is not. We strengthen them to gain confidence or safety. We soften them to gain freedom and a broader perspective on our experiences.


Being able to strengthen and soften boundaries is important to me as a therapist. I need to be able to soften some of the boundaries between me and my clients–to understand, to empathize, to connect–but also be able to strengthen boundaries in order to stay separate, controlled, and thoughtful. I need to be in the moment with them, but also separate from it.


I need to feel their tears and trauma, and still be able to challenge and comfort. I need to be me, but understand them. I need to be able to be with them in an emotionally intimate and vulnerable way and still be logical and controlled.


And then, at the end of the session, I need to let it go. At the end of the day, I need to go home and just be me.


I think this is true for all of us in our daily lives. We need to be able to soften our boundaries to connect with our neighbors, our friends, and family. We need to soften our boundaries to see others’ points of view and understand their humanity. We need to strengthen our boundaries to stay strong in the face of pressure, and to maintain a sense of safety when things are scary.


Sometimes, though, boundaries get beat up. We hear something, and it disrupts us–the things we hear from other people feel like it's happening to us. We react instead of responding. We become scared and angry and take things personally that don’t have to affect us.


When that happens to me, I breathe. I start with my body. This is me. This is my breath. These are my thoughts. These are my experiences. This is my reaction. This is my anger. This is my pain.


Then I look at the situation: Where are the boundaries? This is me, that is them. This is not happening to me. This moment belongs to them. I need to let it go.


With as much patience and love as I can muster, I back out of that moment. I strengthen my boundaries, focus on my values, and breathe.


And we move on.