Setting Boundaries

by Ross Bishop

This is one of the topics I am frequently asked about. The answer gets a little complicated. 

First, think about the concept of “boundary.” A boundary is to protect something from an intrusion. So the first thing we know is that the concept of boundary is somewhat antithetical to the concept of relationship. Not so much with friendship, because friendships have built in boundaries, but a real relationship requires more openness than that.

The issue of boundaries has to do with vulnerability. So if you are having problems setting boundaries, you need look into how vulnerable you are to being hurt. It is difficult to be open and loving if you are constantly afraid.

Many people create relationships with an unspoken agreement to not challenge the other’s boundaries regarding intimacy. Instead they settle for a non-threatening, shallow accommodation that doesn’t challenge either of them emotionally. It isn’t deeply satisfying, but it gives them the appearance of relationship and it offers them protection from the vagaries of the world. 

Then one day one of them realizes that what they have been doing isn’t working, and they blow things up. Unfortunately instead of looking at their part in the drama, they usually just blame their partner and move on to the next relationship (or stay solo). But that is the reason our divorce rate is so high.

Just to be clear, and some people are not going to like hearing this, but if your heart were truly open, “boundaries” would not be an issue. The reason for this is that as you begin to feel safe, your need for boundaries diminishes. If an intrusion comes along, you just dismiss it. After all, who needs armor if you cannot be hurt?

You can read the whole story of a powerful experience I had with God in my new book, Finding Inner Peace. It was an incredible experience for me, and the upshot is a lesson I want to share with you:


Let that sink in. It contravenes so much of what we are taught. In order to make more sense of God’s message, consider this Zen story:

A monk decides to meditate alone, away from his monastery. He takes a boat out to the middle of a nearby lake, closes his eyes and begins his meditation.

After a log time of undisturbed silence, he suddenly feels the sharp bump of another boat colliding with his. With his eyes still closed, he feels anger rising, and by the time he opens his eyes, he is ready to yell at the other boatman who dared disturb his meditation.

But when he opens his eyes, he sees that it’s an empty boat that had become untethered and blown to the middle of the lake. At that moment he comes to the realization that the anger is within him; it merely needs the bump of an external thing to provoke it out of him. From then on, whenever he comes across someone who irritates him or provokes him to anger, he reminds himself, “The other person is merely an empty boat. The anger is within me.”

We focus on the other, on the situation, without realizing that they are merely the trigger – the empty boat – for what lies inside us. Setting all of that aside for the moment, we still need to deal with “them.” The first thing you need to decide is how important this issue is to you, and why.

He wants to play golf with his buddies, you were hoping he’d go antiquing with you. How important is this to you and why? If he’s been golfing the last four Saturdays, perhaps it is time to put your foot down. Or, is he saying something about your relationship? Or, is he really not into antiquing and was just doing it to please you?

In talking to friends about this article, I learned something interesting. Several former bachelor friends, who had been single for a while, told me that they appreciated it when their partners questioned their established patterns because it snapped them out of their bachelor habits. So ladies, there is hope!

A while ago a couple came to me with a problem. He needed the bedroom to be cold and as a result she was freezing death. We had a Mexican stand-off and a deteriorating relationship. Separate rooms felt like a defeat, so we engaged in problem solving. Our mutual search opened the door to other (deeper) relationship issues. They ended up investing on one of those dual heater beds, but what was interesting was how the surface resentment dissolved and how much more intimacy they created in working through the issue. What was wonderful was to see them both grow emotionally through the process of going deeply into their feelings (and fears).

Gay Hendricks teaches people to say, “So what!” to life situations. I want to be careful here. This is not a “screw you” to the other person. Rather it is an attempt to untangle yourself from the situation and shift your focus to what is really important. Interestingly enough, when you do this, you can actually be more open to see and feel what is troubling the other person because you will not be so triggered.

So your partner is upset. So what! He gets to be mad if he needs to! You don’t have to like it, but don’t get all caught up in the fact that he is upset. Now, there may be something you need to look at in your behavior, if that’s what he’s troubled about, so always, always, see and feel the other’s pain. The “So what!” is to keep you from getting sucked into the drama!

Consider this: if you wanted to go to a hockey game, but I didn’t care for hockey, I would simply, lovingly, and firmly say, “I love you, but I don’t want to go.” Now you may get wrapped up in what others will think, or the “rules” of being in a relationship, but that’s just social crap and you don’t need to buy into that. And if my heart is really open, you will know that you are loved, and your ego won’t be offended by my decision. End of story. Notice, no need for boundaries. 

But if my heart is partly closed, I must protect the unexposed part of myself. My refusal will be couched in the fear of rejection. In turn, you will react to my refusal but even more so, to my unspoken fear. What is happening is that both of our insecurities will have been triggered. The situation will likely escalate into a test of relationship, i.e., “If you really loved me, you would do this.”

We see this frequently when people use relationship to buttress their insecurities. Let’s say, I use sex to shore up my unfulfilled masculinity, or perhaps to hide a deeply held insecurity, rather than an expression of love for you. That is a burden no relationship can carry. And the fact that you are with me speaks to a large unfulfilled need in you, too. But in any case, you will feel pressured. Resentments will build in both of us, and boundaries will go up all over the place. However the situation gets handled, neither of us is going to feel good about it. Conversely, if we both can approach the situation openly with love, then we enter into sexuality openly, freely and without resentment. Obviously, that is the way it was intended.

I want to digress for a moment and say that if you are having any of the difficulties I describe, recognize that The Universe has gone to a great deal of trouble to offer you the opportunity to look into the beliefs (especially about yourself) that you are attached to. That is the source of your feelings of vulnerability. Sadly, caught up in the situation and our emotions, we rarely stop to investigate what has happened. We tend to just move on to the next confrontation, having learned little from the experience.

You never want to fully disconnect from other people because it is through others that we learn! That’s why social isolation, although sometimes appealing, is not really helpful. It makes it more difficult to finish what you came here to do. When someone gets upset with me, I don’t like it, but there is always an important piece of learning there for me. We all need to stand back from our encounters and say:

What has this situation come to teach me?

That is when the payoff comes for all that spiritual work you have been doing.

Getting back to setting boundaries with other people, if aunt Martha, or a “friend,” or a neighbor is being nosy, you do need to nip that in the bud. I know that’s easy to say, it is not going to be pleasant, and no one likes doing it, but it is necessary. This is about you having the right to your privacy. Do you give yourself that right?

In the first place, if a true friend does it, they will do it with love and kindness so it won’t feel like so much of an intrusion. Regarding Aunt Martha, or some nosy “friend,” they won’t like it, but you still need to tell them to butt out. (You may want to hear what she has to say because perhaps there is something for you to learn from her observations, and she very likely has your best interest at heart.) But she also needs to know that the way she is going about it is an unwelcome intrusion. What to do with the neighbor depends on the situation. But always keep in mind that “The other person is merely an empty boat. The anger (or fear or shame) is within me.” You do not have to give them power over you.

Parents are not very good at encouraging children to have private space. It’s one of the ways parents maintain control over kids. This is especially true for girls. This is less true today, but even in subtle ways we still encourage girls to please, to not rock the boat, to not be assertive, or even to know what they want in the first place.

If boundaries are an issue for you, my recommendation is that you get in touch with your inner child. Find out what beliefs she is holding about the right to have space and her need to sacrifice herself to please others. This is where the trouble you are having originates. As a solution, you need to convince her that she has the right to her space or whatever else it is she wants. And she needs to know that you will be there to back her up when she stands up for herself. And be sure that you don’t fog things up with your own inhibitions!

Reaching out to your inner one is going to bring up the childhood wounding that is driving her beliefs about herself. No-one wants do this, and it isn’t easy. It brings up stuff you have been sitting on for years. It will take some time and effort to heal, but the results are life changing. The implications it holds for the rest of your life are simply profound. You need to decide what is your space – your territory – and lovingly, be willing to stand up for what you want! And remember:

“The other person is merely an empty boat.
The anger (or fear or shame) is within me.”

*(I am setting aside physical harm, because that operates under a different set of rules.)

copyright©Blue Lotus Press 2020

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