Years ago I learned why we call some things objects. A wise person I know placed a chair between me and him, pointed to it and asked, “Is this an object?” I said, “Yes, of course it is.” He then said, “Walk toward me and see what happens.” I replied, “I can’t do that. The chair is in the way.” “Okay, suppose you tried to walk toward me and somehow you were able to move right through the chair and reach me. Would you still call it an object?” I thought a minute and said, “I guess not.” “What would you call it then? “I don’t know. I guess I’d call it a hologram or an illusion or some hallucination on my part.” “I see,” he said. “Now do you understand why we call some things objects?” I still didn’t fully grasp his meaning.
“We call things objects because when you try to move through them, they object! They take up space and insist that you respect their boundaries.” Anyone who has ever clunked his or her shin on the edge of a bed frame at night knows this. That bed frame objects to your trying to move through it as if it wasn’t there and you would do well to respect its boundaries the next time you need to walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Human beings have boundaries, too—physical and emotional ones. When we don’t object to boundary violations, we aren’t treated with respect. People cross our boundaries without considering us and pretty soon we feel hurt, offended and/or taken advantage of. This happens in marriages every day.
It is for this reason that I have a general rule of thumb. “Don’t be surprised if people abuse you to the extent that you let them.” This is not an indictment of my fellow human beings as uncaring, selfish or cruel. Many times people abuse you because they don’t register what they are doing to you as abuse—especially if you don’t object. Without realizing that they have crossed a boundary with you, they may have no way of knowing that their behavior is unwelcome or inappropriate.
I once had a client who I saw weekly at 10 AM. I knew this person didn’t start work until 2 PM so sometimes when I needed to do a two hour session with a different client, I would ask my 10 o’clock person if she would mind switching to 11 or 9 AM that week. Each time, she said, “Sure. No problem.” I thanked her for accommodating my request. I remember admiring her and thinking. “What a nice person she is, so flexible and easy going when others are so up-tight about their schedule. She has really helped me out by being willing to switch times for me on short notice.”
One day as our session was about to begin she said, “You know, just because I don’t start my job until 2 PM doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to do all morning! Do you ask other people to re-arrange their schedules or do you just ask me?” I was shocked at her statement and her tone. Up until that moment, I had no idea that she felt taken advantage of by my requests. After getting over my embarrassment, I was very grateful for this feedback and told her so. I never asked to switch times again and I remember feeling more respect for her because she had let me know where her boundaries were and that she objected to my crossing them.
Even though it is uncomfortable to object when something bothers us, it is vital that we do this so that we give people a chance to know who we are and where we stand. By learning about each other’s boundaries, we come to know ourselves and our acquaintances better. We demonstrate our respect for others when we learn to navigate their coastline correctly. There is no intimacy without boundaries.
Let me know if you’ve ever let a boundary violation go unchallenged and what happened to that relationship as a result. I’d be interested in hearing your comments about this or any of my previous blog posts.