Lessons on Boundaries

Growing up with parents who both lost their parents while they were still young had a few advantages and many disadvantages. Both parents admitted parental roles didn’t come naturally to them, though they wanted children. It’s no wonder they struggled; they hadn’t witnessed much parenting and what they did see varied wildly. On the other hand, their challenged youth brought wonderful additions to the household: aunties and uncles and cousins, some by blood and others by choice, many of whom had provided mom or dad respite, in addition to folks my father randomly encountered. He seemed to collect stray people, so the notion of boundaries didn’t dare step foot on the property my dad considered his own.

The father I knew really never knew his father. His dad abandoned him and his mom when dad was an infant and died when dad was three. My grandmother struggled to survive as a live-in housekeeper and cook, so dad bounced between friends’ and relatives’ homes as a child. He seemed to have spent a lot of time with older adults or by himself. A gifted storyteller, he truly relaxed in taverns and small local bars, considered anyone who drank with him a friend, and brought home fellow-drinkers from all walks of life, cultures, races, and educational levels. The door also remained open to all his family and family-ish folks, with never a need to call first.

My mother, on the other hand, lived in poverty, knew her violent dad, and lost both parents by age 9. From that age until she finished high school, she lived in orphanages with strict rules. She slept in congregate quarters with lots of other children. She craved privacy and found strict rules comforting. Had she been given the power, I suspect she would have constructed a moat to keep the house inaccessible and hired assassins to sit on the roof to make sure nobody but immediate family (and perhaps a few selected others) stepped on the grounds, let alone inside the house.

The lessons I learned about boundaries as a child, laced with the popular value Children are to be seen and not heard, included two contradictory rules. Rule #1: good people let everybody in all the time for any reason and live as if mi casa es su casa (my house is your house), holding no expectation of reciprocation. Rule #2: good people refuse to let anyone into their homes or lives unless they have been properly vetted and sworn to follow house rules (no using the bathroom, no snooping, no borrowing, and with one or two designated exceptions, no spontaneous visits).

Because mom ruled the house weekdays, not even school friends who lived nearby could stop by to play. Instead we would meet in the alley and entertain ourselves behind cover. Because dad ruled the house weekends, impromptu parties erupted with clusters of guests as varied as fund-raising priests from Northern Ireland, motorcycle club members, and professional wrestlers on tour (dad loved to share Haystack Calhoun and Pepper Gomez allegedly stepped foot in his house)(I slept through the visit so cannot corroborate).

No wonder I had such difficulty creating and holding boundaries in my life, flopping between social butterfly and wannabe-hermit. Taking in abandoned animals/strangers and then adopting creatures back out when neighbors or landlords complained. Feeling guilty for sandwiching 5-minute beach visits in the midst of back-to-back meetings on long work days as if time to breathe seemed frivolous.

Lessons arrive in many guises. Two memorable teachable moments pop into my mind.

The scene: shopping alone after work in a K-Mart store in rural Arizona, a single mom picking up items for somebody’s school project. Focused on a quick in-and-out, I didn’t give attention to anything but the task at hand. My cart pulled to the side, I surveyed a display of merchandise. In the middle of the aisle, a red-faced scruffy man in a not-so-white t-shirt and jeans that barely stayed up, bumped his cart head-on into mine, blocking my passage up the aisle with his cart and belligerence. He looked at me with disgust. Startled, I waited. About three feet behind him I saw a woman. She stopped, avoided eye contact, and didn’t speak. The man observed, quite loudly, “They shouldn’t allow fat women like you in this store. You take up too much room in the aisles!” I cannot remember the remainder of his rant, but he continued for a short while. I had not blocked the aisle in any way, hadn’t noticed him, never met him before. Eventually he shook his head, moved his cart, and stormed away.

As he left, I wished I had thought of something to say to him. My dad would have bought him a drink. My mom would have fled, quickly, leaving the cart behind, complaining to the manager on her way out the door. I finished my shopping. On my way home I thought about it, feeling hurt and then feeling angry. What made him think I wanted his opinion?! A quote from a Wayne Dyer book I’d read returned to me: What other people think of me is none of my business. I repeated, Your opinion of me is none of my business. It helped me calm myself and I realized the stranger’s behavior violated a few of my values related to judging people and to manners. I began to think about boundaries.

As a single parent working full-time, attending college classes at night, I kept a roof over our heads. We had vacations every year and did a lot of weekend family activities. Neither perfect nor wealthy, I handled things well enough. I used your opinion of me is none of my business often until random folks quit offering their opinions to me. I introduced the word “No” into my vocabulary to reduce my stress. My lesson: know my values and boundaries ahead of time.

The second lesson in boundaries arrived when a friend’s breast cancer returned. She wanted to talk about death and dying. Her spouse, she said, refused to listen, and even after her doctor offered a grim prognosis and suggested she get her affairs in order, the doctor also encouraged her to stay positive through treatment. She remembered one night, before her first diagnosis, when our families got together to play board games and eat. I had quoted something I read about death and dying by Dr Bernie S Siegel. I regretted my enthusiasm about the book and I really did not want to talk with this woman who was near my age about dying. But she needed to talk, and my friend-boundary said Listen.

You would think that hanging out with someone who felt death hovered nearby might feel sad. Instead, it freed us both in many ways. She said it gave her blessed relief. For me, once death was on the table, no topic was off the table. The change in her amazed me. Some days she’d call me, too tired and sick to move, and I’d go visit and read to her from Love, Medicine and Miracles (her choice, not mine). When her spouse found out, he told me to never return. Still, she called and informed me I would not abandon her. How could I? Normally restrained, she disappeared at a street fair we attended together. I found her dancing under a tree as a mariachi group played nearby. She shouted in my direction, “I LOVE mariachi music!” I laughed. I didn’t know that! At another event I lost track of her when she followed a small Mardi Gras parade, gathering strings of beads and hooting at the musicians. The last weekend she phoned and told me she needed time outdoors and asked me to pick her up right away. A storm dumped buckets of rain as far as we could see, but she hopped in the car and we headed for a memorial to a fallen war chief. She talked about her parents (her white mom as the formidable one, her Apache dad as the kind and quiet one). We commanded the rain to stop (it did) so we could search for the warrior’s hidden grave (didn’t find it, of course, but a rainbow convinced us we might be close). She shared obnoxious observations like “You take on too much and expect too little from other people in your life.” I did not even consider telling her that her opinion was none of my business.

At her funeral I had zero regrets. I’m crying right now, but I still celebrate that time together and our talks about life, magic, prayer, God, the human spirit, and death. I remain so thankful I didn’t let fear create a boundary.

That’s the thing about boundaries. They need to reflect our values and matter to us.

You have a right to set and hold boundaries around general expectations as well as some responsibility to be clear about them with others. By general expectations I mean things like requesting a significant other contact you if they’re running late, regarding raised voices (I grew up amid passionate arguments so I don’t mind raised voices, but some people find them very aggressive), sarcasm, personal insults, assisting with household or common-area work tasks (yes, please!), tipping (please don’t be cheap), violence (no, including threats), and any topic that matters to you.

Speaking of things that matter, a friend of mine has a 300-question guide he uses to size up potential relationships. While I laughed about it, I also applauded him for taking time to figure out if others’ values mesh with his. We all need to acknowledge our values, know what’s not flexible, and recognize changes as time passes. Lifelong learning is important to me. I love travel and learning other languages. My views of the “isms” (like Racism, Sexism, Ageism, Size-ism) aren’t very negotiable. Knowing what’s important to you should matter to others in your life. Politics. Money. Credit cards? Family. Social media time. Education? Reading. Religion and spirituality. Ambition? Fortune-tellers. Sports. Holidays?

My dad referred to New Year’s Eve as “amateur night for budding alcoholics,” so he always turned in early that evening. For me, it’s a time to reflect on one year and welcome the new with hope and joy.

Value and the associated boundaries may change over time. I worried about spoiling my children. My grandkids? So few worries. Growing up, my dad shut down certain discussions, including professional sports, during family gatherings because they resulted in insults and angry exchanges. In my world, Super Bowl Sunday exists for eating, laughing, and talking smack about opposing teams. Never witnessed food policing or a temper flare, even for a minute.

Some time ago I watched a video with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. He refrains from violence, of course, but he told a story. A pesky mosquito comes to visit us.  We wave it away. And wave it away. And wave it away. And without thinking, whack. An act of violence against the mosquito. He chuckled and made a comment about all of us doing our best and moving forward. Amen to that.

For tips on maintaining boundaries, check out this article.[i]

Will be back next week.  Until then, may you be healthy, happy, safe, and strong.

Last words: Please remember that neither my opinions, my experiences, nor resources I mention are meant as cures or treatment. If you’re in a moment in your life when most efforts feel huge, consider finding a mental health professional to support you.[ii]  If you’re considering ending your life or if you are in crisis, please reach out to emergency services (9-1-1) or a crisis hotline.[iii] You deserve support and to know someone has your back.

Copyright D.R. deLuis 2020


[i] https://psychcentral.com/blog/when-people-cross-your-boundaries/

[ii] Most areas in the U.S. offer a “2-1-1” service that can provide information about local resources. In addition, one website (there are many) with info about finding an affordable therapist is Open Counseling at www.opencounseling.com .

[iii] National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255; to reach the Crisis Text Line in the US and Canada text “HOME” to 741741; in the UK text 85258; in Ireland text 2050808.

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