I saw a great cartoon in The New Yorker not too long ago. It was a single panel with a businessman sitting behind a desk. Another businessman sat on his lap saying …
… “I have boundary issues.”
Boundaries. They’re critical part of existence. We put them in place to define our space – physical and emotional. They help structure our sense of self and our relation to the world around us. They enable us to establish a place in society – whether at work or at play – defining who we are and how we are in the world.
How better to understand yourself than by relating to the things and people around you? Putting things in perspective and giving you a litmus test against which to test the acidic and basic nature of life experience – this relativity is, indeed, crucial in life.
But as with so many aspects of existence the very things that we use to define and support our lives can turn into something dangerous or at least a serious pain in the ass.
If you’re not careful the boundaries you’ve put into place as a safeguard for your spirit, soul and sanity can – and often do – turn into walls. It’s true that sometimes these walls are necessary. Perhaps we’ve been hurt or otherwise wounded by one life experience or another. In these cases, marking your boundary with something more defined serves to shelter and protect while you heal.
The problem arises when we forget that these walls are only supposed to be temporary. I’ve been noticing lately that many people – myself included – extend the purpose and density of these barriers, until they become more than something to protect. Instead they become a convenient excuse to deflect; a way to avoid any entanglement that could potentially lead to an old wound being torn open.
A friend of mine recently referred to these barriers as an emotional Maginot Line – an analogy with which I don’t fully agree, at least not in the way she was using it which was to say that these defenses are wholly useless. Because even though the term is generally used “as a metaphor for something that is confidently relied upon despite being ineffectual” (At least according to the definition found at Wikipedia.org.); the truth is that the Maginot Line fulfilled its purpose. It sealed off part of France, and in the spots where forts sat along the line, the German troops were forced to go around.
These personal safeguards to, after all, have a very relevant purpose. They’re just not supposed to be permanent. I tend to think of these personal safeguards as temporary shelter. It is critical to take the time in these protected places to make decisions about the things we want to do in life, the people with whom we want to interact on both a personal and professional level, and the kind of person who we want to be.
But just like a shelter where one might retreat from a storm, at some point you need to emerge. Just as it’s important to have the clarity and self-preservation to know when you should go within; it is just as critical to be clear on when it is time to step outside these walls and engage fully with the world at large.
So when is it time to step outside? At what point do you know that it’s safe to move beyond the protection and back into the line of fire from other potential emotional slings and arrows.
It would be nice if there were an emotional “all clear” siren or some sort of sentry who could wave the white flag signaling it was safe. Unfortunately it’s not that easy.
So what’s the answer? Damned if I know. But I can tell you this. I would rather return to the outside world a bit too soon and take a direct hit on a still healing psychological bruise than stay for too long within the walls of an emotional prison of my own making.