By Terry Garchinski, B.A., R.S.W.
Terry is the Owner and Therapeutic Counsellor for Life Works Counselling and Training Services Inc. in Millarville, Alberta.
Understanding boundaries is one of the most useful concepts for people who want to make positive changes in their own lives and to have healthy relationships with others.
A few years ago, when I was hitchhiking alone down a country highway just outside of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, two German Shepherds and a Doberman Pincher helped me to understand boundaries. I was walking backwards on the side of the highway with my thumb out watching vehicles go by. When no more vehicles were coming, I turned around and to my shock the three dogs were sitting at the edge of their master’s driveway no more than 50 metres away from me. The dogs seemed to be licking their lips as they smiled at me.
My immediate reaction was to cover my throat and crotch with my hands. I rationalized that I would give the dogs two bites each before I tried fighting back or running away. Already being so close to the dogs, I thought that if I turned and walked back in the direction from which I came, they would know how terrified I really was and they would attack. My only option was to cross to the other side of the highway and walk by them no more than 8 metres away. I did not look at the dogs directly. With my head down, I occasionally glanced at them from the corner of my eye.
They were well trained dogs: they practiced boundary maintenance behaviour. They operated on the premise, “If you threaten our space or cross our boundary uninvited we will defend our territory. But if you respect our boundaries we will let you go on your way.”
By me respecting their boundary, they allowed me to freely walk past them. When I was a certain distance away, they walked back to the farmhouse. I no longer was a concern to them.
In the same way, individuals, couples, families and even workplaces need to practice respectful boundary maintenance behaviour if they want to continue on their healthy life’s journey.
In healthy workplaces, employees are guided by job descriptions, written policies and procedures, defined goals and expectations, defined roles and responsibilities and contractual agreements. Each of these help to define the boundaries.
Individuals must ask themselves the following questions to clearly define their own boundaries: What is my stuff and what is not my stuff? What is in my authority, power and control, what is not? What am I responsible and accountable for and what am I not? The answers to these questions define the boundaries.
In healthy relationships, boundaries also need to be clearly defined and negotiated in agreements because there is overlap. For example, a married couple both have roles and responsibilities for chores around the house, for childcare and for contributing to the sexual and financial well being of the relationship. The exact division of responsibility and authority depends on the couple’s agreements. These agreements need to be revisited from time to time as people or their situation change. The terms of the agreement need to be communicated and explicitly defined or else assumptions are made, boundaries are unintentionally crossed and people feel hurt.