Strolling through my neighborhood one evening last week, I stopped to admire a new, black metal fence that ran along the sidewalk near my home. The fence was sturdy, with a blunt, pleasantly utilitarian air about it. It conveyed a clear message – this is the boundary. Everything enclosed by this fence belongs together. Everything beyond this fence does not. Beyond this boundary, you may not trespass.
The fence encloses two rows of townhouses, which face each other across a private road. Newer cars parked in double driveways. Newish homes. Kids riding bikes. The usual family-oriented, affluent urban community.
For several years, this townhouse community’s boundary was defined by a wooden panel fence. Periodically, and regularly, I’d walk past it only to see the fence kicked in, its wood panels smashed to the ground, the posts buckled, half-wrenched out of their concrete footings.
The next day, the strata would have their maintenance crew out there, repairing the fence, putting the panels back up – and a day or two later, the whole thing would be smashed to pieces again.
There was a pedestrian gate built into the fence, so wrecking it wasn’t a means to an end — a way of forcing a shortcut through the townhouse complex. Whoever was doing this seemed to be in it for the adrenalized joy of destruction. Did the fence represent authority? Outsider-ness? Was kicking it in revenge for perceived insults or inequities? An act of defiance? An assertion of power?
With each repair, the panels grew more splintered, the posts visibly weaker, barely able to stand upright, let alone support the panels that dangled from them by a single nail, or not at all.
An atmosphere of vulnerability and violence hung over the little community — an energetic battle of wills that the fence-smashing bullies were clearly winning. The bullied seemed to have given up.
I floated a blessing over the place each time I walked by, a wish for this community to find its spine, to refuse to be bullied, to act on behalf of its own sovereignty.
So, walking by last week, I was delighted to see that lovely, sturdy fence gleaming in the sun. Clearly, the folks who lived there had finally rallied their collective will and resources and expressed a clear, uncompromising NO, in the shape of this fence.
It’s made of metal. It cannot be kicked in. It doesn’t splinter. It is a statement of unequivocal sovereignty.
It got me thinking about the ways in which we allow the bullies in our lives to plough through our own boundaries time and time again. Repeatedly, we mend our fences, which grow weaker and less effective each time, until — finally – we access the place within us that stands up and says, “Enough! NO!”
So, what does it take to get there? And what keeps us from standing up for ourselves, our desires, and our values in the first place? What keeps us from asserting our sovereignty?
The answers to those questions are as individual as you are, but there are certain themes that are common to us all — variables that shape our behaviour and our often ambivalent relationship to boundaries and sovereignty. Let’s explore a couple of them here today.
To assert your boundaries, you must first recognize that you have a right to them. That you have a right to your individuality and personhood.
You have the right to decide how you want to live. You have the right to choose whom you allow into your world, how long you wish them to stay, the standards of discourse and behaviour you expect from them while they are visiting your kingdom, and the entrances and exits you want them to use when they are invited into your world.
Most of us aren’t raised to take ourselves and our personhood seriously.
In a culture that fetishizes childhood – or at least, a romanticized, Disney version of childhood – we are seldom given the breathing room to want what we want, to choose our own desires, make our own mistakes, to trust ourselves, to explore and experience the world unfettered by well-meaning but intrusive adult agendas, or to learn and grow at our own pace.
The pressure to conform begins early, is relentless, and leaves no room for growing our capacity to embody our natural sovereignty.
This is just one of the reasons why some of us have difficulty defining and asserting our boundaries. We don’t believe we have the right to, or it hasn’t occurred to us that we can, or we never learned how.
Or, we’ve been raised with the unspoken message that if we work hard, become the right kind of people, do the right kinds of things, then the world will reward us with…something…that nebulous mirror ball of success, fortune, fame, accolades, la dolce vita.
Which brings us, then, to the inexorable link between rights and responsibilities.
Since rights don’t mean anything unless someone takes responsibility for delivering them, to be sovereign requires that you take responsibility for defining, shaping and asserting your own boundaries as the container within which your life and your world can flourish.
We are the champions of our world.
You cannot sit back and hope that people will magically behave as you wish, give you the space you desire, or refrain from kicking down your half-assed, half-heartedly constructed fences and colonizing your life.
If you don’t believe you have the right to boundaries, you will always be ambivalent about asserting them. And your ambivalence will act as a magnet for every vengeful bully or passive-aggressive bozo who wants to destroy, barrel through, or otherwise disregard the sovereignty of anyone they perceive as being a potential target – weaker, less decisive, and therefore prey.
You can’t control anyone else’s behaviour, but you can revise your own. When you are clear about what you will and will not accept, you’ll find far less unacceptable behaviour plaguing your kingdom.
Another reason for wobbly boundaries – one that I see a lot of among kind, lovely people who strive to be “spiritual” — arises out of a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of reality, and of our place in it. It’s a profound misunderstanding about what it means to be divinely human.
To assert your boundaries, you must be willing to be boundaried.
If you believe that being spiritual means that we are all one, all the time, that love means holding hands in a circle, singing kumbaya or merging hearts or whatever your flavour of oneness happens to be, then you will have a hard time owning or asserting your right – and your responsibility – to be fully and unapologetically yourself.
You’ll hide your cutting edges, your gorgeous, complex, “unevolved”, fully human self, under a veneer of universal love, insistent light, suffocating togetherness and harmony at any cost. You’ll also cut yourself off from the gifts of your soul, which are embodied in your humanity — your quirks, your uniqueness, your particular way of being in the world. And the world will be poorer for it.
Since you can only offer what you are, when you truncate your wholeness in this way, you’ll also have a hard time honouring the right of others to be fully themselves. You may rush unity to the front of the line, where differentiation belongs. Conflict will most likely make you feel anxious, so you’ll seek concord at the expense of truth, justice, equity or any of the values you espouse but are unwilling to stand up for.
I want to be clear. There are situations where confronting a bully can jeopardize your safety, where asserting your boundaries can mean the loss of your life. I am not advocating boundary assertion as martyrdom, or as an invitation to homicide. The boundary setting we’re talking about here is the kind that calls on our everyday courage in situations where the stakes are not your life or your livelihood.
If you aren’t willing to be boundaried, you’re fighting reality, which is defined by boundaries and limits. We human beings – like all forms of life – are both boundless and boundaried in our nature. Incarnation is an act of entering willingly into the container of the boundaried world.
Our job, once we’re here, is to choose our boundaries wisely so we can create the world of our soul’s vision and heart’s desires within the safety and holding they provide.
In other words, to assert our boundaries we must be willing to stand inside them, to focus our creative energies on building the life that’s ours to live, inside that big, beautiful fence. This means we must first learn to be sovereign in relationship to our own disruptive habits — like the habit of leaning over the fence to meddle in whatever our neighbour’s doing in her yard.
If boundaries pose a challenge for you, and you’ve subscribed to my newsletter. watch your inbox next week for an invitation to download a free guide and meditation I’ve created to help you reclaim your sovereignty.
Wishing you a peaceful, joyful, sovereign week!