Boundaries: Whose House is This?
Updated: Jul 1, 2020
Boundaries: Whose House is This? (AKA: What if your loved one sells all your shoes on Ebay without your permission?)
A friend asked me how to create boundaries in a relationship while remaining open to that person. A metaphor that is helping me consider this is to think of myself as a house. My heart, soul, mind, and everything that makes me me is contained in my body. My body is my house. When thinking of boundaries, it helps me to ask myself: Who lives in my house? Who gets to decide what happens in this house? Who picks the wall color and artifacts that surround me? The obvious answer is me. I do. I am influenced by those around me. I am affected by my ancestry, upbringing, culture, and loved ones; but ultimately, I am the one who decides what happens in my house. It is up to me to take care of my body like a home, where my heart, mind, soul can thrive.
I can leave the door of my house wide open and let anyone and anything come in to paint my walls and decorate for me, with or without my consent. If everyone who comes in my house is working in my best interest, I might be ok, at least for awhile. However, no one knows my house as well as I do because no one else lives here. Everyone who comes in my house brings his or her own stuff, and it may not fit well in my structure. It is up to me to decide what stays and what doesn’t, what I need and what I don’t need. It is up to me to make my house a home in which I want to live. I am the only one who truly knows what I need to surround myself with to live my life to its fullest. I am the only one who can take the house given to me, my body, and make it a vibrant home to sustain my life.
Some people are really wonderful to have over to visit. These are people who respect that my house is my house. I am overjoyed to see them at my door and welcome them in with open arms. They help me choose the art I hang on my walls. They guide me to books I want to read and music I want to listen to and food I want to cook — just as I do when I enter their homes. These loved ones remember that they are guests in my home, just as I remember I am a guest in their homes.
However, what do we do about the people who are not good guests? Who damage our houses over and over. It is a necessary to ask this question because many problems occur when we don’t take care of our houses. If we continue to let people come in who don’t respect them, it hurts us and them. If our loved ones eat up all our food, throw their trash around, and sell all our shoes on EBay without asking, we will be affected. Deeply affected. If we ask someone to stop flooding our basement with the garden hose, and he/she refuses, then we have to decide how to proceed. Do we lock the door of our house to that person? Or do we limit access? How much? How little? These are not easy questions, and the answers will vary.
When trying to figure out how to deal with loved ones that are having trouble accepting that my heart, soul, mind, and body are my very own and belong only to me, I start with myself first. I need to spend time in my own home, my own body, to get to know all the nooks and crannies. How can I be clear with another person about what I need, if I don’t know my own structure? I can’t, of course. This has been a foundational aspect of my mindfulness practice: getting to know my own body — how it works, what it needs. I have become a little choosier over time about about who gets full access to me. I will always do my best to be warm and kind to those I am with, but I get to have some private closets and drawers. I don’t have to share the most vulnerable, tender, precious aspects of myself with everyone, especially someone who might not have developed the capacity to be gentle with me yet. Caring for myself is the only way I can cultivate the ability to be a nourishing force for those around me.
I want to remain open and hopeful about those who share their lives with me. But I am going to be a little hesitant about offering a house key to someone who spills ketchup on my pashminas every single time she visits or who decides to to hack a hole in my roof to create a rain garden in my attic. I will refuse to let someone continue to hang out at my house if he/she poisons my cat. Perhaps you think that’s obvious; well, if we wouldn’t let someone poison our cat, why would we let someone poison us? People who are struggling and making choices that hurt themselves and others need love and support, but that doesn’t mean they get to trash our houses as though we are all teenagers with absent parents having a raucous house party. We feel pain in our body from emotional stress, just as spilled wine will stain the carpet. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do is lock our door to someone who isn’t respecting us and say, “I can’t let you in until we figure out a way for you to stop hurting me with your own hurt, because it’s not good for either of us.”
The reverse is true too. We need to take care with the houses of others: respect that just as our house is our own, those around us have a house that is exclusively theirs. As a parent, I need to remember that my children are responsible for their own hearts, minds, souls, and bodies. I don’t get to decide how they decorate their inner domain. I can have influence. I carefully order the world around us so that my children have good materials to use when building their internal homes (or what my son might refer to as his teen lair). Ultimately though, my kids decide what they want to surround themselves with, and as they grow older, they have more considerations and responsibilities. I’ve been managing what’s in their closets and on their book shelves for a long time, but I have a waning influence. That is how it should be. Often parents don’t want to accept this. I know sometimes I don’t. But the reality is that just as my heart, soul, mind, and body are my own, the same is true for everyone else, including my children.
I think I have a similar relationship with God/Jesus/Holy Spirit. Some Christians like to talk about asking Jesus to live in their hearts. I am fond of this notion when thinking of my body as a house. Who better to ask what color to paint my walls? I find Jesus is a great guy to have around when making decisions. He leaves the ultimate decision up to me too, always. Jesus is one of the most respectful house guests I know. He cleans up after himself. He helps me fix stuff if I ask. He keeps his mouth shut if I don’t want help. He never says I told you so when I make bad choices. Instead when I am down, he’ll suggest trying a new recipe together with a crazy combo of ingredients I’ve never thought of, such as masala zucchini chocolate chip muffins. I usually feel much better before we’ve finished mixing up the batter. Jesus will always try out a new muffin recipe with me, but he’d never just go in my kitchen/heart/soul/body to bake without my consent. Jesus helps me to figure out what I need to do to take care of myself.
By caring for my own house, I am more likely to respect the ability of others to care for their own houses. I am more likely to be someone with a home others will want to visit. I am more likely to be someone who will be welcomed in the homes of others with open arms. It is not selfish to care for my home. It is necessary. It is not wrong to be choosey about who and what I allow in it. It is essential to my well-being and the well-being of those around me.