Fences, hedges, and boundaries, oh my!

At my last dwelling, I lived by some interesting people. I’m not sure how else to describe them while still being at least somewhat respectful of their own life journey. It was a small house with three (!!) separate suites, and it was hard to keep track of who lived there and who was just passing through. There was an endless rotation of people, and my roommates and I started giving them nicknames. They didn’t party on the weekends like us 9-5 folk, so often my room would be rumbling on a Tuesday night with the vibrations of their music (which often sounded like Sweet Home Alabama on repeat. All night).

There were often police, ambulance, and firetrucks next door. Arguments erupted out onto the lawn. It was never a dull moment with those ones!

We had a fence dividing our backyard from their backyard, but there was no fence blocking our yard from the sidewalk and street on the other side. At some point, we realized that these people were cutting across our backyard, walking right under my window, and pushing our fence down to get to their house. My window is high enough from the ground that there’s no way that they could see into my room, but it was still a little uncomfortable for me. Sometimes I could hear what I was sure were feet crunching through the snow.

I kept my curtains (with cats on them, because of course) closed a lot of the time.

A crucial part of my job involves talking to students about boundaries. I’ve been trying to think back to my own high school days, and I don’t think anyone talked about this with me. Ever. I like that I get the opportunity to tell the students things I wished someone would have told me.

I remember starting university and starting to hear about this boundaries stuff and mostly feeling totally lost. Boundaries? What? Then sometimes people referred to them as hedges and I was even more confused.

One boyfriend tried to talk about boundaries (what is comfortable, what is not) and I actually cried through the whole conversation because I was so uncomfortable. I had never spent time thinking about what was good for me.

Aren’t boundaries selfish? I thought to myself. Why am I trying to keep people out?

Someone called me a soup kitchen once – I cannot make this stuff up. He called me a soup kitchen because I would give and give and give and expect other people to give me back just as much, but of course they don’t because I am a soup kitchen. I had no boundaries, no limits to what I would do for someone else. That’s not a bad thing, but it was exhausting, and I just ended up frustrated that no one gave me quite as much back.

Figuring out boundaries has been an interesting process for me. Sometimes I think I’m getting really good at it and then other times I get discouraged, like I’ve made no progress at all. I had to change my thinking. It’s not always about keeping people out (though sometimes it is). To me, it’s about letting people in but in the right ways and right time – for you.

I started explaining boundaries to my students like a fence. You have a fence around your yard and that’s a way of saying: this is my yard and I have control over what comes into my yard. If your neighbour frequently climbs over your fence and starts using your barbecue or digging in your sandbox, that’s inappropriate because there’s a fence there. A boundary.

With my neighbours, there wasn’t a physical boundary, but the fact that this was someone else’s yard was implied. It made us uncomfortable knowing they were crossing that boundary with no regard for the fact it was not their yard.

Most fences will also have a gate. The gate is so we can invite people into the boundary. When we want to. When we are ready. When we have the time or capacity. When they are someone we trust. We can allow certain things (yes, bring ice cream) and keep other things out (balloons are a no go).

I have talked with other people (not students but the adult-type people) who struggle with setting boundaries. They say things like:

  • I don’t know if I’m overreacting.
  • I don’t want to upset this person.
  • They’re not going to listen anyway.
  • I set the boundary and they didn’t listen.

When it comes to your boundaries and your yard, however you feel is fine and appropriate.

My youngest brother, Liam, knows I talk about him a lot in class and I asked his permission to write about him in this post (his response: I don’t care). When he was younger, he called me Tay Tay and he was not shy at all about hugging me or being close to me. If he saw me at school, he’d run to me. If I picked him up from the bus, he’d run off the bus and throw himself into my arms.

The day he turned eight, he decided he was too old to call me Tay Tay and was also too cool for hugs. This was, honestly, a difficult transition for me. I think we still have a very special relationship, but I had to adjust how I interacted with him. His boundaries changed, and it was my responsibility to respect those. It was not his responsibility to change his boundaries to make me happy and will forever continue not to be his responsibility.

So often when I visit home, I’ll ask him if I can have a hug. Most times he says no. I show my love for him by accepting his answer, not forcing him to hug me, not pouting or fussing, and either carrying on with my day or sitting with him while he plays video games.

I had to realize that my baby brother is growing up, whether I like it or not, and he has the right to choose how he shows affection for his favourite big sister. He shows he loves me in different ways, but I won’t embarrass him by giving examples.

This boundary stuff is important, and we don’t talk about it enough. You can teach an old dog new tricks, so it’s never too late to start thinking about your boundaries. The difficulty is that if you are like me when I started university and never set boundaries, people are going to react (probably negatively) when you start. Hold firm. Don’t be cruel, but don’t take the gate down and just let people in your yard all willy-nilly.

“I can’t come today.” “That doesn’t work for me.” “I don’t like being tickled.”

The thing is, you can move a gate. You can set a boundary and decide it is not effective, and you can change it. You can make it a gate that is easier to open or a gate that is stronger and thicker. You can have some sort of shape-shifting gate that changes depending on who is knocking.

One of my very firm, immovable boundaries is don’t yell at me. I’ve developed this boundary through experiences with roommates, boyfriends, and others, and I hold firm to this. I don’t have to enact this boundary often, but when I do, it’s a calm “don’t yell at me” and seeing if they will be able to speak in a way that makes me feel respected and safe.

I’ll write another post another day about how to know what someone else’s boundaries are. I’ve got some great stories for that!

I have other boundaries I have developed, at times clumsily, over time. Sometimes it is hard to maintain them. Sometimes I have to remind people what they are. It’s often not a big fight. It’s just a clearly stated answer to a question they are asking me. But I find I have so much more energy and love for the people around me when I have those boundaries. When I look after myself, I am better at caring for them.

I open that gate, invite them in, and say, “Hey there, great to see you.”

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