Physical Boundaries; Or Where You End and I Begin

On the road where I live there once was a big wooden climbing set with swings and a colorful stripped canopy. It sat between two houses and was surrounded by lawn chairs, a hammock and a sand box. The families in the houses shared this “playground”. They both had small children, and liked each other enough to share a common space. When one of the families moved however, the scene changed. The entire playground was removed and replaced by a long line of Mesquite trees with Oleander bushes in between.

This is a good example of the differences in Physical Boundaries. The family with the children was content to have loosely defined property lines, while the new owner wanted the border clearly delineated. So let’s talk for a minute about Physical Boundaries.

As it turns out, our skin is probably the most intimate boundary we possess. It literally determines where we end and the rest of the world begins. Everything inside my skin is “me” and everything outside is “not me”. In addition, the personal space around the skin is also a part of our physical boundary. These boundaries allow us to determine how close others may come. They help us realize by whom we want to be touched, as well as how, when and where.

The properties we inhabit, our homes and the surrounding land, also represent our physical boundaries, and I think it’s interesting to observe the connection. Some of us hug everything that passes by; others have a hard time just shaking hands. Some of us invite horseback riders to cross our land, others put up fences. Some of us keep our doors open (not to mention unlocked) others like the curtains drawn. No strategy is more correct than the other; it is merely a representation of our degree of personal comfort and privacy.

Sometimes however, people find themselves with physical boundaries that are more limiting than comforting. This is typically a reaction to some sort of boundary violation, and interestingly, physical boundaries can be violated in two ways. The most well know is violation through inappropriate or unwanted touch. Paradoxically, the second type of violation is the absence of touch. In her book, Touching: The Human Significance of Skin, Ashley Montagu writes; “I believe that the deprivation of body touch, contact and movement are the basic causes of a number of disturbances which include depressive behaviors, sexual aberration, drug abuse, violence and aggression.” That sounds serious. I could end up a depressed, drug abuser just because I didn’t get enough touch.

Whether I have been exposed to unwanted touch or not enough touch, I may respond by creating rigid boundaries, perhaps fences. Or I may have boundaries that are so unstable I may not know that I have the right to say “no”. In this case I end up sharing the playground with my neighbor when I really want to keep it for myself.

Boundaries are essential for healthy human development, yet few of us actually realize how they affect our lives. As a first step toward understanding your physical boundaries ask yourself the following questions. Where are my borders? Who can cross them? Have I been invaded or physically ignored? By whom? Whom do I trust? Who are my enemies? Do I live in a hostile or benevolent universe? Would I be more likely to put a playground on my property line or a fence made of trees?

But keep in mind this quote by Robert Frost;

“Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.”