Parents know all about limits and boundaries. We make them because our children need them. Children need to know where the edge of their behavioural world is. They need to know what they can and cannot do for their own safety and for the tolerability of their behaviour for those around them.
Some parents define loose boundaries. The child might be allowed to watch youtube endlessly from a young age, eat whatever they want, and define their own bedtime.
Other children are watched closely by their carers, disciplined for tiny infringements, and have a small world defined for them by religious belief or plain bloody-mindedness.
Most kids are somewhere in the middle. Regardless of the type or size of boundary, if the boundary is enforced, the child feels a sense of safety.
Fast forward to adulthood and we are still living within these childhood limits. We have deep, hard lines in our minds and souls that tell us where we can and cannot tread.
We know those boundaries easily. As adults we spend most of our lives in our comfort zone, behaving in ways that make us feel comfortable and safe. It’s when we do or say something that makes us uneasy, anxious or guilty that we know we are dallying close to the heavily guarded prison wall that is our boundary.
In my mid-twenties I was living with my girlfriend (now my wife) and I was a well-trained pet. I didn’t leave our bed until she was awake and indicated it was ok. I didn’t leave the house except to go to work, sometimes the gym. I rarely saw my friends unless it was sanctioned by her. She was not particularly overbearing or controlling, but I didn’t want to upset her. She never asked me to do those things, but by doing them I felt I could maintain a life of quiet security.
In the internal world of my childhood memories, an upset family member meant danger, insecurity. My history told me that if my mum or dad were mad or sad or upset it meant potential physical harm to me, or emotional damage. It leant a wobbliness to my world. If anyone was upset around me I felt a deep background hum of guilt and anxiety. And so, not because of my partner but because of myself, I continued to remain in this comfortable but limited place.
You might know someone like this. I know many men, even in their middle age who are tied to their wives (and the reverse of course is true). It’s easy to comment in this example that the wife is a bitch (and maybe they are) or overbearing (could be) or controlling (likely). But consider the needs of the man. He has strong boundaries that he still holds to feel safe. Having someone tell him what to do and when to do it fulfils a deep need for him. Even though his existence looks like a miserable excuse, he is living the caged life of his choice in a form of relative comfort.
Living a good life, a life of choices, dreams and happiness means crossing those boundaries. That is a terrifying thought for those trapped in the example above. It took me years of slow and disciplined progress to move past those invisible walls. I had to play a long game, one that stretched my own sense of comfort around the uncomfortable, while ensuring that my new and unusual behaviours were expanding my wife’s boundaries.
My wife wasn’t the issue. It was my own internal dialogue, which had the high-pitched voice of my upset parents. Imagine having your parents screaming at you into your twenties and thirties to “do the right thing”! So many of us have this without realising it. Some of us have it all our lives, into our fifties, seventies, nineties!
Maybe you are living this life. As we get older, we can fall into patterns of long term safety that are so habitual they are very difficult to remove. Imagine the old (and not-so-old) couple who have the same routine each day. The same greeting, the same breakfast, the same cup of tea, read the paper, lunch at the same time etc etc. It looks boring. It IS boring. But it makes them feel safe.
Some people refuse to try new foods, try new clothes, go to new places on holiday. Instead of judging them, ask yourself, why? They may sound stubborn or obstinate, but what is the underlying reason for their fear? Could it be that their boundaries are so terrifying they decided on a safe and pleasant psychological picnic table to sit at for life?
In the next part, we’ll look at ways to gradually break down the limits of your life.