The Defensive Nature of Being Offended (Part 4): Drawing Lines

In 1771 a group of Bostonians dressed up as native Americans, boarded some British cargo ships and threw all the tea overboard. Why? Boundaries. They had drawn the line at taxation with out representation.

In 1962 President Kennedy sent warships to blockade the route to Cuba. Why? Boundaries. The United States drew the line at arming communist Cuba with Russian missiles. (The crisis was also provoked by Fidel Castro feeling violated when the U.S. attempted to break his boundaries with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.)

About 10 minutes ago I watched a four year old boy clock his slightly older sister in the cheek. Why? You guessed it – boundaries. Apparently he had drawn the imaginary line and he was taking retribution for her being “on his side” of the booth where they sat waiting for their dad to return with happy meals. Dad was unaware of the developments and I imagined big sister quietly plotting her revenge (no wait, that wasn’t imagination, it was a flashback).

Keep looking though history, scriptures (of any faith), classroom rules, self help books, etc. and you will see that boundaries are everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except in the life of a people pleaser who had always prided herself in “never really being offended by anything.” Come to find out I was never offended by anything because there was never a line to cross. I knew what “sin” looked like, that is I knew when you or I were crossing lines that I believed God had drawn. I had boundaries for other people, I would go in guns ablaze when I thought someone else’s boundaries were being violated (see also The White Knight Symptom.)

So why would I draw the line at drawing lines for myself? Why have I held so tightly to the notion that there is something inherently bad in setting my own boundaries? I have come up with a list (queue the audible gasp of fake surprise from anyone who already read parts 1-3):

1) The prevailing cultural myth that boundaries are selfish
As a culture we have a twisted view of what is “selfish.” Let me see if I can sum it up: anything you do that is more about you than it is about me is selfish. In essence, I will define your selfishness by my own selfishness with the implicit understanding the yours is much, much worse than mine.

In the last year I’ve been learning the difference between being self-centered and self-caring. Self centered by default, means the I am focused inward on me at the exclusion of you (we can’t have two centers). Self-caring means that I will focus on you while maintaining healthy awareness of my own physical, emotional and spiritual needs. How can I do that? Boundaries.

2) The core belief that I don’t deserve boundaries
Very closely related to and perhaps perpetuated by the myth in the first point is the core-belief that I don’t deserve to draw any lines that will in some way give even the perception that I have placed by needs, wants or desires over someone else’s. I haven’t really ventured too deeply into the source of this belief. I’ve been toying with a bunch of notions including a fixation on my failures, symptoms of PTSD, and a lack of strong identity.

Regardless of the source, the only thing that I have found to counter the distortion that I deserve less than all others in my life: boundaries.

3) The illusion of servanthood
I say the “illusion” of servanthood because I’m trying to make a distinction between moments when my heart is in the right place and those when I am trying to live up to a perceived expectation. It’s really as simple as being honest with myself about why I do the things I do. Am I motivated by fear or friendship? Compassion or compulsion? Affection or addiction?

The best way I have learned to keep myself on track: boundaries.

4) The missing emotional vocabulary
Knowing what to say and when to say it is something at which I usually excel in business, teaching, or even casual social engagements. I do just fine as long as you don’t ask me to engage my feelings. When an emotion swells up – positive or negative, it doesn’t matter – spoken words often fail me. Maintaining boundaries requires us to be able to articulate those boundaries in both practical and emotional terms. Sometimes that is a simple as knowing when to say “no”, other times it means being prepared to explain why you hold to some of your core values and morals. Historically I would rather forego the boundary than take the leap and vocalize what that knot in my stomach is trying to say.

The best way I have found to expand my emotional vocabulary: Therapy, and healthy friendships (both maintained by: boundaries).

So there it is: what it meant that I found my would be accuser defensive. That whole encounter took less that 20 seconds, but sparked a wonderful opportunity to explore some things that had been bubbling in my brain. I come back to this McDonalds on a somewhat regular basis. I’ve yet to see my offended friend again, but when I do, I hope she has more time to talk. I think I’m ready now!

(I borrowed the picture from a great blog post by Jess Ainscough. It’s worth a read and it’s only a click away!)

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