Friday, June 26, 2015

Good fences make good neighbours

Over the last couple of months, ever since someone tromped all over one of my personal boundaries, I've been doing a lot of thinking about boundaries or personal limits, what they are, why they're important, how to recognize them if and when they exist, and how to respect them. I've even thought a little about when it is okay to cross those boundaries, and when it is NEVER okay to do so. 

Until I was in my forties, I didn't even know that personal boundaries existed, because when I was growing up, they didn't. When I started realizing that I had a right to take up space, that others had boundaries that I was not allowed to cross and that the same applied to me, I started realizing how many times throughout my life that people had barged onto my private property, even in the name of "caring," and proceeded to wrestle my rights to the ground. 

For example, I kept a diary when I was a teen. In it, I poured out my hopes, wishes and dreams, ideas I had, no matter how outlandish. I explored the depth of the feelings I was feeling, confided my deepest thoughts, and I found that in doing so, there was an outlet, a way for me to work through a very confusing and intense period in my life. 

One day, my mother found it. 
She read it.
She was horrified by the subject matter and the intensity.

She made me burn it. Not just it, but all of them that had gone before.

I sat in front of the furnace and wept in grief and intense anger and hatred as I burned - page after page - was forced to destroy what to me represented my soul: literally months and years of a journey I could have looked back on in my twenties and thirties ... and laughed about. 

That was a boundary that should never have been crossed. 
My mom thought she was being a good mom, protecting me, raising me "right." But she violated my privacy, judged me, and her punishment was way over the top.

It took me decades to forgive her. And yes, that was something that needed to be forgiven because IT WAS WRONG, and it hurt me terribly, even though she never apologized. 

Photo "White Fence" courtesy of scottchan at

When I had children of my own, I made mistakes with them too. I remember freaking out when I saw some things that one or the other of the kids was doing ... and then I remembered my old diary. And it made me stop and rethink. And yes, when I'd jumped over a fence onto their territory, I apologized ... eventually.

I remember that while they were still small and there were going to be people coming over to the house for a visit, people with children their age or thereabouts ... I would tell them to go through their things in advance and set aside those "special" toys that they didn't want to share, and we'd put them in a separate room that was off-limits until the guests went home. That way, they didn't have to feel forced to share ALL of their toys. It modeled for them that there are boundaries, that boundaries are a good thing to have, and that they had a right to their own privacy. That was HUGE. 

And it was one thing (among many) which helped me to build their trust over the years so that later, when I discovered something that I thought was horrible, I was able to listen and find out the "why" instead of freaking out and shutting forever conduits of communication that I wanted to stay open. I don't need to share exactly what those things were, because that's their stuff, not mine. But that communication stayed open, and at the end of the day, I'd rather that than secrets and lies.

So here's what I've learned about fences and about being a good neighbour.
  • People have the right to have their own opinions. It is not my job to put them down for their beliefs and lifestyles.
  • "Talking down" to someone is never okay. That includes both tone and body position. If someone is seated, sit. If they are shorter than you are, position yourself to be on the same level as they are, at the same eye level. 
  • Nobody is any better than anyone else, regardless of age, gender, economical status, social standing, race, or belief. We are all in this together.
  • Nobody has the right to tell anyone else what to do. Not even if asked. Giving advice is never a good idea. And downright giving orders (for whatever reason, even "caring,") makes people want to do the exact opposite of what you tell them. And they will never trust anyone who manipulates and controls them.
  • People have the right to feel what they feel. Feelings are not wrong and need never be treated as such, regardless of age or gender. Babies to seniors, male to female and everything in between, feelings are feelings and they are valid and real to whoever feels them. 
  • Kindness and acceptance go a lot further than condemnation and self-righteousness.
Good boundaries really do make good neighbours, good parents, good friends, and good spouses. The virtue of respect is one that - if cultivated in one's own heart and mind - can make this world a much better place. And, like all virtues, it is developed and nourished from the inside out.

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