Boundaries in an Overconnected World
Setting Limits to Preserve Your Focus, Privacy, Relationships, and Sanity
By Anne Katherine
New World Library Copyright © 2013 Anne Katherine
All rights reserved.
BOUNDARIES IN A BOUNDARYLESS WORLD
We now travel through an expanded universe, moving at startling speeds and negotiating vast magnitudes of miniature bits of information. We are connected not only with nearly every other computer on the planet but also with millions of minds holding a wide range of values, perspectives, needs, and goals.
The sheer number of potential connections is so great — both for information coming in and information going out — that we let our minds pretend that an email sent to twenty of our closest friends will stop in those twenty computers. But if even one recipient finds something worth passing on to Hateful Hattie — and if Hattie takes snippets of your missive out of context and sends it to her list so that her cousin Callous, a stranger to you, posts your words on a wall or in a chat room — your comments could offend someone in Singapore within minutes. You could then be Googled, found, sworn at, criticized, and targeted with offers of hemorrhoid cream and weird sexual devices.
Now that the entire electronic universe hovers within our phones, tablets (e.g., iPads), and computers, a world full of interruptions and intrusions is pinging toward us. We have a whole new set of obligations: people to (be)friend, emails to manage, texts to answer. It's easy to feel as if you'll never catch up.
If ever boundaries were needed, they are needed now, in this universe without boundaries.
This book will show you how to put virtual fences into the virtual world so that you can get your time back, and so that you can focus on what matters to you most. You will see how to free your energy for your own creative pursuits, for your beloved people, for fun and hobbies, and for sheer peace of mind.
What Is a Boundary?
A boundary is a limit that protects the integrity, autonomy, or wholeness of an entity. If your life feels out of control, unmanageable, or chaotic in any way, the right boundary will improve it.
You, an individual, are an entity. You and your best friend are also an entity — a friendship. Your family is an entity, too, and so is your unit or department at work.
It's obvious that your skin creates a physical boundary, inside of which is you and outside of which is not-you. Without that boundary you would die, too exposed to the dangers of the world and without a container for the structures that require insulation and protection.
Your best friendship also needs a boundary in regard to what comes in and what goes out. If you reveal your friend's private information (letting too much out) or keep yourself too closed off to your friend (holding too much in), the friendship's integrity will be threatened. Without a healthy boundary, a friendship can also die.
A Boundary Is a Regulator
A boundary regulates the flow of energy and information coming in and going out. Imagine that the following circle represents you.
You send energy and information into the world. And you receive energy and information from outside yourself.
Have you ever met someone who is totally closed off? A pry bar can't get anything out of Blocked Bart. He gives minimal answers to questions. His face is shut. He contributes nothing to an interaction. No matter what you say, it appears to bounce off his surface.
Which of the following circles represents Blocked Bart's boundary?
It's obvious, isn't it? Boundary C is thick and solid. Energy and information are trapped inside. Fresh information and the energy that can come from human interaction are bounced off the surface; they can't get in.
Imagine you were telling Bart about the joyful moment when you fell in love. How far would you get before your own energy petered out? Imagine having a discussion about a new candidate for president — a truly honest, brilliant, brave, capable person with a good chance at rescuing our sad country from its dilemmas. Do you think you'd have much influence on Bart?
Contrast Bart with Leaky Lucy, a neighbor you meet occasionally at the grocery. Lucy tells you everything. You know her entire family tree, that her husband has a hiccup at the end of his snore, that she once stole a piece of toast from a hospitalized man's breakfast tray (she was very hungry). She tried to tell you about the funny shape of her child's turd, but you walked away as fast as you could, forgetting that you meant to buy a pumpkin.
Which following circle represents Leaky Lucy's boundary?
Clearly boundary A has holes in it.
Lucy doesn't filter outgoing information, and her energy isn't contained. She doesn't discriminate between what's appropriate to the relationship and what isn't. And everything she's exposed to enters her conversation with others.
What would happen if you emailed Lucy a secret? If you told Lucy not to forward the email or tell anyone what it said, could you trust her to respect your request? (If she isn't able to keep her family's private information to herself, do you think she'll be able to protect yours?)
Consider your own family members. Which ones resemble Leaky Lucy? When you forward emails to your family, do your Leaky Lucys get copies?
Do you have any leaky friends? Are they among the recipients of your email about your lovely day with your friend who is in the witness protection program?
It's worth thinking about, isn't it? Give a day to thinking about the boundary permeability of the people you text, email, Friend, and visit in chat rooms.
The New Reality
The cyberworld is infinite. A message or tweet can live there forever. At one push of a button, your thought can rocket around the world in seconds.
Many of us start our days on our home computers, leave home carrying our smartphones and a tablet or e-book reader, get back on a computer at work or school, then go into our evenings with at least a smartphone. We are always connected.
There can be some comfort in this. You can always call for help. If plans change, you can be notified. You can settle a debate about who played right field in the 1960 Series, or whether the first film of The Great Gatsby, with Warner Baxter, Lois Wilson, and William Powell, won an Oscar.
You can also be interrupted on a frequent basis. Your phone can't discriminate between an emergency message and a boring friend who wants to chat about her hangnail. Your live experience with the flesh-and-blood friend sitting across from you can be punctuated with texts, calls, and instant messages (IMs), which will affect the boundary of your friendship.
You can feel wired in this wireless world. You are always available to everyone.
This constant connectivity has created a boundaryless world. Yet we are not its prisoners. Each of us can calm this chaos for ourselves.
Can you think of a circumstance in which it would be appropriate cto toughen up your boundary so that it resembles Blocked Bart's boundaries? In which of the following situations would that make sense?
Texting your daughter about your husband's great golf game
Texting your daughter about your ex-husband's (her father's) adoration of his newly born son with his second wife
It's a foregone conclusion. The golf game gets a green light. However, spreading information about your ex's focus on a child in his new family could hurt your daughter, especially if he is a slapdash father to her.
What about texting that message to your sister, a mild Leaky Lucy? Can you trust that she won't someday mention this to your daughter?
Clearly, your boundary has to be different for each of these two subjects. You can sing like a birdie to anyone about the golf game. That message isn't personal or confidential. It won't harm you, your husband, or any recipients of the information.
Your ex-husband becoming an involved father after years of neglect toward his first-born child — that's a different story. It has the power to hurt your daughter, to create an issue between her and her half-brother, and to fan a flame in her relationship with her dad.
But I'll bet you've known people who have done that very thing — who have been indiscriminate about what they revealed that could hurt the recipient or harm an important relationship. Or perhaps they passed on potentially hurtful information deliberately, to vent their own anger or frustration.
So emotions, like information, can be boundaried or unboundaried. And a text or email or post on a wall is an easy, quick way to splash out an emotion that is spilling over. You might feel better or you might not, but once information is in cyberspace, it is beyond your control. You can't get it back. There is no Undo button once you've pressed Send.
When you tell someone something — on a phone or in person — it goes into that person's brain. It might be remembered, forgotten, buried under other incoming news, or passed on in summary form. Your long story about getting stuck in a snowbank on a deserted country road and digging towels out of the trunk to protect yourself from freezing, forced to eat the leftovers in your doggie bag and waiting till morning to walk to town for help, might be passed to a mutual friend as, "Ester is always forgetting her phone. She spent the night at the old Simpson place."
But when you text or email something, it's so easy for someone to pass it on verbatim, in all its glorious (or inglorious) detail. With a touch of a button, your embarrassing story about leaving your panties in the Walmart changing room can land in your minister's office, your nephew's dorm room, and his fiancée's purse.
Each time you email or post your information, you are trusting the boundaries, common sense, and discrimination of every person that information might reach. And it can reach nearly anyone on the planet.
You are trusting that Vengeful Val won't receive it from Leaky Lucy and forward it to your ex-husband, and that he won't send it to your ex-sister-in-law, who has never forgiven you for putting her pickle casserole at the back of the table at your wedding reception potluck thirty years ago, and that she won't send it to her cousin, who is interviewing you for a high-powered job — tomorrow.
Your boundaries are layered, and each layer can have its own degree of permeability. For example, you may have sensible limits around the information you share with others but Blocked Bart– type boundaries around your feelings, shutting them completely off from yourself and others.
You may have healthy boundaries around your food choices, but leaky boundaries around the clothes you pick, wearing clothing that is too revealing in your workplace. You may have thick boundaries with a malicious coworker, being quite smart about giving her nothing to use against you, but see-through boundaries with your daughter, taking on too many of the troubles she brings onto herself with the choices she makes. You may push yourself too hard and toil for too many hours, not putting boundaries around your work efforts, but have too thick a boundary around receiving help from others.
Your boundaries establish the highway of your life. They fence out certain options and let others in. They create U-turns, detours, accident sites, limited access passages, and speed lanes.
And you are the architect. You create the characteristics of your boundaries via the choices you make.
We each got where we are by making choices. The good news is that you can get yourself to a wonderful new place, and regain authority over your life, by building healthy boundaries.
Boundary building can work from outside in or inside out. You can build boundaries with conscious effort and this will change you on the inside — or you can change your insides, and boundaries will automatically form. You can set deliberate limits to protect what you care about — or they will spring up by themselves when you focus your whole self on what matters to you most.
We'll work on this from both ends. You'll practice setting deliberate boundaries, and you'll also practice managing your focus so that you automatically improve your boundaries.
Boundaries are influential. As you become more appropriately boundaried, people will automatically treat you differently. The more effective you become, the more effective people in your sphere will become in relation to you.
Boundaries are isomorphic. When you hold a boundary in relation to your family, your family as a whole will come to hold a similar boundary in relation to you.
(The term isomorphy, as used here, comes from the cutting edge of psychological theory. In a hierarchical system, there are similarities in how the boundaries function. A family is a hierarchy. A child — an individual — is a member of the sibling subgroup, which is contained in the nuclear family, which is contained in the extended family. In an undemonstrative family, there may be an unstated, but understood, boundary against hugging. The sibling subgroup, exposed to a school culture in which hugging is commonplace, will bring the more permeable boundary back to the family. As they begin hugging parents and grandparents, the altered boundary will enter the family's culture, and the family boundary will shift.)
Boundaries can be visible, like a fence. They can be verbal, as with a very firm "no." They can be demonstrated by what you do or don't do. They can be created by focusing energy. And they can be communicated by what you stop another person from doing.
Hester stands next to me at a community chorus rehearsal. From my first moments of being in the chorus, Hester has treated me as if I were new to music, leaning over to inform me that the pound sign indicates a sharp or that piano means soft. I play three instruments and have studied music since I was a tyke, but she assumes that I need basic instruction.
This is typical of countless small interactions that occur daily with people on our periphery who, like all of us, wear their selfimage on their sleeve. Without knowing it, we communicate how we want others to view us. Meanwhile, we might be trampling on how the other person wants to be viewed.
In many of her interactions, Hester broadcasts her belief that she knows better. At first, I tolerated her interruptions, but soon I noticed that her behavior was starting to influence me. Her interruptions were distracting me and arousing my competitive nature, so I focused less on the music and made some mistakes. I wonder if others start to slip in their own performance around her.
Since I only saw Hester once a week for a couple of hours, it was tempting to let the whole thing go. But I decided to act before I got irritated — a likely eventuality that could give me more to deal with and even taint chorus for me.
I realized that I'd have to set a boundary. This would protect a pleasurable pastime and give me more energy (and less distraction) for singing.
I had some choices:
I could mirror Hester and feed her behavior back to her, explaining to her that the dot with the eyebrow is a fermata.
I could compete with her by being more alert, more accurate, and more responsive to the director. This choice had the potential of escalating the situation, of putting pressure on both of us that could cause mistakes.
I could reveal more of myself, letting Hester know I'm a musician, which might indirectly set a boundary by correcting her misconception about me.
I could seat myself very firmly in my own energy so that she'd be diverted to some other poor soul in the choir.
I could say something to her directly.
I decided to try a three-tiered approach. I'd start with a droplet of information about my musical experience and then be very solid in my own energy. If these didn't work, I'd say something.
The first two didn't work, so I said softly that I appreciated her experience, but that I found myself being distracted by her comments. If I wasn't sure of something, I'd ask her, but otherwise I'd rather stay focused on the music and the director.
She drew back. She looked startled.
Fear of such a reaction is one of the reasons many nice people hesitate to set boundaries. They don't want to hurt the other person, so they endure being hurt themselves or they let something precious to them be tarnished. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Boundaries in an Overconnected World by Anne Katherine. Copyright © 2013 Anne Katherine. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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