by Lillian Csernica on January 20, 2015
My adventures in mental health care have taught me the importance of having boundaries and maintaining them. Some people have a hard time establishing their own boundaries for themselves, the limits they place on their own behavior toward other people. Some people know what their own boundaries are and where they lie. The trouble they have comes in maintaining those boundaries in the face of behavior from people who can’t recognize and/or do not respect those boundaries. A tall redwood fence standing on the property line establishes a very definite boundary. When it comes to the more intangible or figurative boundaries of etiquette, personal space, trigger subjects, and more serious issues, it can be much more difficult to make that fence line clear. Some boundary issues fall under the heading of “unwritten rules.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve been trying to find a copy of The Book of Unwritten Rules ever since I started kindergarten.
Uchi means inside. Uchi means Us. Our family, our house, our team, our business, our class, our club, our circle of friends.
Soto means outside. Soto means Them. Anybody and everybody who is not part of uchi is by definition soto. Outside. Outsiders. Not us. This does not mean such people are enemies. It just means they are not part of the intimate grouping of relationships that make up the family, team, class, etc.
Uchi People are treated with a degree of familiarity and intimacy shown to no one else. In Japan, everyone in the same household refers to each other by the form of address used by the youngest member of the household. Mom is called “Okaa-san” by everybody, even Dad. Dad is referred to as “Oto-san,” even by Grandma. The culture of Japan is very good as an example of why boundaries are so essential. Even among Uchi People, in fact especially among Uchi People, there are important limits. For centuries the houses in Japan have been built of wood and paper. When Oto-san and Okaa-san are sleeping the room right next to the room where their eldest son and his wife sleep, people get very good at not hearing what they’re not supposed to hear.
Soto People can ignore each other on the crowded train, for example, and remain isolated in their individual walls of privacy. Common courtesy does come into play, because the Japanese are nothing if not polite.
Boundaries give rise to expectations about other people’s behavior. Little kids are taught the basic rule of polite social interaction: Keep Your Hands To Yourself. At least one hopes they’re taught that by responsible parents who want to pass on their own good manners. We all know children and indeed adults who can’t seem to get the hang of keeping their hands to themselves. They have to be reminded again and again. In the case of some adults, if those reminders don’t work, it’s time to call the law enforcement officials.
Another basic lesson is Clean Up After Yourself. I have a bad habit of putting my hand wash in to soak and then forgetting it’s there. I use a plastic wash tub that I set in the bath tub. There have been times when my sister has wanted to take a shower and my wash is still sitting there. That’s just thoughtless on my part, so I try harder to make myself use a timer. The idea of taking care of one’s own mess may begin with something as simple as the dinner dishes, but it can extend to something as complicated as one’s own emotional problems. A friend of mine has gotten herself roped into being used as a cheap therapist by someone we both know. Me, I think that someone just wants to be a Drama Queen and needs an audience. Maybe I’m wrong. My friend is a grown-up, so if she chooses to put up with this, that’s her privilege. If she doesn’t want to go on putting up with it, she’s going to have a hard time establishing the boundary and making the Drama Queen respect it. The bottom line here is simple: don’t expect other people to clean up your mess. You made it, you deal with it. (When it comes to people who do need professional medical or therapeutic assistance with their psychological difficulties, I fully support that. I should. I’m one of them.)
Boundaries are tricky because they can be flexible depending on the person and the circumstance. I hate being interrupted while I’m writing. The adults in the house know this. At the same time, if Michael or John needs me for any reason, I will stop what I’m doing and go see what’s needed. I’m not at all interested in hearing some personal saga from a sales clerk, but I will put up with listening to my mother tell me the ongoing plot of her favorite TV show. Context is everything. Personal context, social context, family context. Age, gender, race, educational, and financial contexts. They are all part of the warp and weft of the social fabric. We make intuitive choices moment by moment, adjusting up and down the scale of intimacy and formality.
The expression “mending fences” means to repair a friendship. To me this indicates the fences were broken somehow. The boundaries were crossed. By re-establishing those boundaries and rebuilding those fences, the relationship is put back on course in a healthy, clear, and respectful direction. Sounds like a good policy to me!