Pardon Me, But You’re Stepping on My Boundaries

The first thing I noticed about the gleaming new Porsche was the way it was parked–strategically straddling a disabled space and the one next to it — my parking space. But, instead of throwing a hissy fit, I calmly took out my car keys and gouged a continuous line along the entire side of the car. That is, after I surgically removed both windshield wipers and liberated the air from all four tires. So much for social and personal boundaries.

I suppose to some my reaction might have been a tad over the top for something as innocuous as stealing a parking space. But, it’s my space. It’s the one possession I brag about to all of my friends when they come over for holiday parties, funerals, and wakes.

In the Beginning, There Were Football Fields

Last estimates of the world population put 7.6 billion people duking it out over the 140 million inhabitable square kilometers left on the earth’s surface. That’s not including those who have already seen the future and opted to live in swamps or on the ocean floor. If you do the math, each and every man, woman and child gets 43,000 square feet–the equivalent of two American football fields–to do with whatever they please. But, there’s a problem.

Our two football fields aren’t necessarily static. Portions of them move around with us throughout the day. Whenever I fly on commercial airlines, I trade in 18 inches of the football fields I left at home for a crowded seat and a bag of stale pretzels–not including the fold-down tray and 14 inches of my overhead bin. The few times a year I go to the gym, I lay claim to 29 inches of a Stairmaster as my own–even if it’s just for 20 minutes. On my commute home, I hold dozens of lanes hostage with little regard for the blue-haired octogenarian I saluted with both my middle fingers.

Before We Had Space

Long before the first caveman ventured out of his lair, psychologists and sociologists argued about boundaries and guidelines for acceptable behavior. Over the next century, they conjured limits to what man should or shouldn’t accept as affronts to his physical, emotional and mental space, protecting him from being manipulated by others.

Fast forward to the Industrial Revolution. Early townies learned if they didn’t mind exchanging the joy of living on their beloved farms for miniscule hovels in dirty, noisy metropoles, they too, could be rewarded with horrendous working conditions and a supervisor who verbally assaulted them for failing to embrace a 14-hour work day.

Many urbanites learned how little patience they had for rules, laws and boundaries. Long before the days of law and order, if someone didn’t share your sentiments for their boundaries, they just shot you. End of discussion.

Venturing Out of Our Caves

Physical boundaries are everywhere. Some are natural and some are man-made. Like my parking space, they’re the hardest to acknowledge and the easiest to ignore.

Long before Grog the caveman ventured out of his hollow, the Pacific Ocean, Rocky Mountains and Sahara Desert kept him squirreled away safely in his allotted living space. Then he discovered if he stole one of his neighbor’s horses, he could transcend his boundaries, invading others’. But, when he arrived, he was flummoxed again. Owners of private properties built permanent structures with locked doors, segregated men’s and women’s restrooms, and fitting rooms at Macy’s. All designed to let transgressors know when they’ve trespassed into someone else’s space. So, how do you know where your space ends and another’s begins?

Excuse me, But You’re in My Personal Space

People all over the world move about within their own bubbles appropriately called their personal boundaries. It defines how, who, where and when other people are allowed to engage you. The easiest way to study the fluidity of personal space is to walk down a crowded Manhattan street during lunch hour. Tuned out, texting and jabbering on their cell phone, each person methodically slithers through the busy crowds, safely enveloped in their personal space, completely unaware of anyone else on the planet.

One summer while living in Munich, I was eating lunch in a booth by myself when a couple sat down across from me. They just sat down and continued talking to each other as if they were close friends of mine just back from a visit to the restroom. I would have reamed them out for violating my personal space, but I learned shared seating with strangers is done all the time in parts of western Europe. Besides, I didn’t know enough German to chastise them for sitting in my booth. The closest I could have come was “I would like to pole vault over your wife’s noodle at bedtime.,” which somehow didn’t seem appropriate at the time. It wasn’t until years later that it occurred to me that sharing space with others could actually be a good thing–the opportunity to so something nice for someone, while making new friends.

After lunch, I decided to hop a busy crosstown bus to the Deutsches Museum. Wedged in like sardines, we struggled to cling to our personal space by cruising Facebook, or listening to the latest Necrophagist CD. The only redeemable part worth surrendering my personal space was the gorgeous German model pressed up against my thighs–until she smiled and jammed her hirsute armpit into my face. I leaped off at Hohenzollernstraße.

Am I Getting Up Close and Too Personal?

A study published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology examined why different cultures have such unique feelings about personal space. Citizens of Hungary, Romania, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Uganda value their space above all else, requiring others to stand more than four feet away at all times. People from Peru, Argentina, Austria, Bulgaria and Ukraine are slightly more forgiving at three feet. Americans are about the same.

Personal space also depends on social status; or the lack thereof. It’s the reason why first-class seats on airlines are so much wider than coach. It dictates appropriate behavior at each socioeconomic level. I’d be pleased as punch if Jack Nicholson walked up to me and threw his arm around my shoulder. But I doubt if it would work the same way in reverse.

Whose Emotions Are These, Anyway?

Next to personal barriers, emotional boundaries are the most sensitive, enduring boundaries to preserve. They’re what dictates healthy, intimate relationships without surrendering our own character to others; especially our partners. Having healthy emotional boundaries demands that we maintain a firm sense of who we are and our self-worth, without being manipulated by others.

Developed between 3 and 4 years old, our emotional boundaries are but one element that sets us apart from others, defining our uniqueness–who we are as individuals.

Maintaining healthy emotional boundaries allows us to explore intimacy with all people, abstaining from giving advice, blaming others for what’s wrong with our lives or feeling guilty because of someone else’s shortcomings. It’s what fortifies you in the middle of the night when you scream, “Ezekiel. Wake up! You’re snoring again.”

Emotional boundaries speak for our thoughts and feelings to the exclusion of others. More important, having healthy emotional boundaries allows us to know where our feelings end and another’s begins. They are the foundation for maintaining self-confidence, worthiness and self-preservation.

I’m Too Sexy for My Own Good

The recent me too movement has been the result of powerful people in the entertainment and business world taking advantage of other’s sexual boundaries. While some might argue that sexual boundaries are dubious at best, others say transgressions are crystal clear: activities occurring in inappropriate situations, at the wrong time, with the wrong person without their permission. In short, doing the opposite of what our mothers taught us.

Honoring people’s sexual boundaries has to do with accepting mores that are normal for society, and includes standards for touch, activity and language, as it applies to the what, where, when and with whom of both parties. While it may be cute for young children to explore their sexuality by playing, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” it never is with older boys and girls, on up to adulthood. In other words, everyone, all the time.

My first confrontation with sexual boundaries began as I struggled with raging hormones during my senior year of high school. All the other guys had done it with their girlfriends. I wanted to do it with mine — even if I didn’t know what doing it meant.

Magda Biederman and I had been fogging up the windows of my mother’s Plymouth for over six months. I was determined to put a notch on my belt before I left for boot camp, but I was no match for her. She countered all of my subtle moves by pinning me down with a Flying Forearm Smash and a Testicular Claw. The only thing that might have worked was a proposal of marriage. But, that was out of the question. I had already enlisted in the Navy and was saving my cherry for a hooker on Hotel Street. By the time I made it back home on my first leave, she had already found “Mr. Right” and was happily married with a little bun in the oven.

Sexual boundaries are the second cousin to personal and physical boundaries. While they may seem different from person to person, in a way, they’re always the same. One person’s smooch can be another’s all-out assault. The key to understanding sexual boundaries is good taste, maturity, open communication and respect for other people. Rubbing your secretary’s shoulders on the way up the elevator might seem appropriate if you’ve been married to her for 25 years. But, it’ll get you 25 to life if it’s a 16-year-old summer intern pressing charges for aggravated sexual assault.

Social Boundaries Crash into Social Media

I learned about the intricacies of social boundaries from my parents who learned them from their parents, who learned them from their parents, and so on and so on. Which is largely why I endured courting my first crush by flirting with her from across her living room, chaperoned by her parents, grandparents, seven aunts and uncles, all the neighbors and their cats. It wasn’t until the Summer of Love that baby boomers began demolishing traditional social boundaries, while cloaked in a swath of recreational drugs, marijuana and truckloads of alcohol. Enough mind-altering substances can make anything possible.

In 2003, people experimented with social boundaries by carving out their space using a desktop app called MySpace. It was an innocuous way to get close with them, without actually having to get close to them. MySpace was ultimately hijacked by Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Voila! Social media was born.

Before social media, it was easy to tell if you were invading someone’s social boundaries just by reading and interpreting their body language. My first attempt at stealing a kiss from Opal Rosenberg in the third-grade cloakroom was met with curiosity followed by disgust: she turned her head to the side and threw up on my leg.

In the days before social media, I might fawn over a young lady, then endure months of embarrassment while committing every faux pas in the book. If I got to second base, I’d likely grope my way through the relationship until it either died or I was lucky enough to slide into home.

How Did Online Dating Sites Get in Here?

Online dating sites have changed everything by blurring our interpretation of social and sexual boundaries. Thanks to the wonders of, I no longer have to endure the indignities of the “first date,” anticipating a kiss or wondering how I was going to drive home with the bulge inside the front of my trousers. Through the wonders of online dating sites, I can bypass all of my angst, stretched out in the comfort of my Barcalounger, pretending to be dozens of exciting, successful people — anyone except myself.

I still struggle with understanding women’s social boundaries and how they feel about me, so occasionally I’ll test the waters by asking them innocuous questions like, “You look good. Have you gained weight?” or “Is thatwhat you’re going to wear tonight?”

Assuming I make it to the second date, my friends recommend exploring her boundaries by strategically touching her until she starts giving me subtle signals that I’m intruding on her space. Signals like a figure-four leg drop or a pile driver to my genitals.

After you’ve been married for 30 years, if your wife has managed to stick it out with you, she’ll start expanding her bedroom boundaries the same way Genghis Khan conquered Afghanistan–by slowly stealing the covers, laying claim to your side of the bed, until you’re relegated to sleeping on the back porch with the cat.

You’re Stepping on My Consonants

A more candid way to encroach another’s space is by assaulting their verbal boundaries. Verbal boundaries are everywhere — at home, at the office and in romantic relationships — imagined or otherwise.

Once upon a time, it was considered good manners for a man to compliment a female co-worker by saying, “Good morning Cheryl. My, you look lovely today. I especially like your dress. Is it new?” These days, you’re better off (if not safer) keeping your comments to yourself, or toning them down consistent with corporate standards: “Salutations, employee unit 406117. Your appearance today has exceeded the guidelines set forth in section § 401.1.2 of the employee handbook. I validate your choice in female business vestments. At what time did you procure your garment?”

Most women are quick to let you know you’ve encroached on their verbal boundary by reacting to subliminal, off-the-cuff remarks like, “You look fantastic. Have you had work done?” or “You look really cute for a plus-sized woman.” You may not have meant to hurt their feelings, but you did.

Assaults can also take the form of non-verbal boundaries and can be as simple as rolling your eyes, or slamming the door–with and without their fingers in the jamb. People often do irreparable harm to people they love by blaming them for something they never even said. But, maybe they should have.

The best way to counter someone assaulting your verbal space is to confront them face to face. If they respond with shallow insults, be prepared to protect your turf by coming back at them with well-tempered remarks like, “Yeah, and your mother wears army boots.” If that doesn’t work, leave the room and hide in the closet.

Audaciously Audible

Second cousins to verbal boundaries are audible boundaries. Like the spoken word, audible boundaries are associated with an onslaught of objectionable sounds, noises and music–anything that invades your quiet space, like a chainsaw on Sunday morning, fingernails running down a blackboard or your dog licking his balls.

Before the invention of Sony Walkmans and iPods that allow you to hopelessly cling to your own personal space, loud music was a popular way to violate someone’s audible space. If you ticked off your next door neighbor for not returning your lawn mower, you could count on being deluged by the entire ABBA catalogue.

Audible boundaries can also be violated by a lack of sound — periods when you expect noise but hear only silence. Often called the silent treatment, these respites from clamor are meant to provoke responses and wound the victim during heated exchanges after all other attempts have failed. The silent treatment is particularly effective when combined with threats to withhold sexual favors by reversing sexual boundaries.

Closely related to violations of audible boundaries is passive aggressive behavior. It’s commonly used in marriages or other long-term relationships when one partner wants to stick to the other, without going to the lengths of inflicting physical pain: “Go ahead. Run over the dog with my car. See if I care!”

Money Talks

You don’t have to go far to see examples of economic boundaries. In the hours before the RMS Titanic went down, passengers were relegated to specific decks, according to their socioeconomic status. The 389 first class passengers lavished in fresh air on the spacious Promenade deck that boasted Turkish baths, a swimming pool, squash courts, colonic irrigation lounge and a variety of dining rooms. Everyone else lived below the water line, next to the cargo compartment and fire-belching boilers.

Today, middle-class air travelers experience economic boundaries first hand when they’re banished to coach seats after walking through the first-class cabin, watching passengers enjoy miso-marinated fillet of salmon, Bresse duckling breast and risotto primavera. When they get to their seats, they can look forward to a bag of stale peanuts and a mini-can of flat 7-Up left over from the last flight.

George Lorimer once said, “It’s good to have money and the things that money can buy, but it’s good, too, to check up once in a while and make sure that you haven’t lost the things that money can’t buy.” Nothing can drive you further from yourself than the almighty dollar.

I Was Always on My Mind

A few years ago, I was enjoying myself at a party when I spied a voluptuous woman from across the room.

“Who’s that?” I asked my friend.

“Oh, that’s Fernanda. She’s from Rio de Janiero. Would you like to meet her?”

“Heck yeah,” I blurted. So, he motioned her over to our table.

On her way over I started thinking to myself, “Rio de Janiero, huh? That’s a long way away. I wonder how we’ll be able to carry on a long-distance relationship from there?” The closer she got, the more insane the discussion became in my mind. “What if she doesn’t want a long-distance relationship with me? Would she be amenable to moving here? What if she won’t move at all? I’m certainly not going to pack up and move to Brasil.”

By the time she arrived, holding out her hand, I blurted out,

“Well, I’ve thought it over, Fernanda, and there’s just no way I can move with you to Rio de Janiero.”

That was the first and last time I shook hands with Fernanda.

Mental thoughts and more importantly, mental boundaries are the hardest to wrap your arms around. What might seem realistic and well-founded in our minds might seem appalling to others. Our mental boundaries are not only shaped by our childhood and life-experiences, they take on a life of their own through our vivid imaginations.

Mental boundaries represent our thoughts, values and opinions — the things that make us unique. The rub comes when we either try to draw people into our reality or encroach upon theirs.

All of us are unique in body, mind and soul. It’s what makes us… us. By setting up sound mental values, we can find serenity in who we are and accept others for who they are.

Soft, Spongy, Rigid and Flexible

As if understanding boundaries wasn’t enough, we also have to learn about how their nature contributes to an individual’s personality: soft, spongy, rigid or flexible.

Soft boundaries represent the likelihood of voluntarily merging our boundaries with others’. You frequently find it with younger brothers and sisters, struggling to emulate their older siblings. The younger sister irons her frizzy hair to emulate her older sister’s bouffant. The younger brother humiliates himself on the discus squad because his older brother is a popular track star.

If you approach soft boundaries with a positive attitude, they can help you grow and expand your horizons. Yielding to them under pressure can have negative effects, making you feel unworthy and less than others.

Any new sixth-grader who’s suffered the harsh indignity of a nun’s ruler during Sunday School has likely come under the spell of someone with rigid boundaries. Applied in an organized and effective manner, they help society mold the rules, laws and guidelines that govern our society. They can also suck the imagination, creativity and life out of the human soul. When abused, rigid boundaries are frequently the basis of psychological, physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

Spongy boundaries result when soft and rigid boundaries meld into one. The result is someone who’s unsure of themselves; what and who to let through their boundaries and who to keep out. It’s akin to playing in the Super Bowl when the referees keep moving the goal posts.

With all of these boundaries, it’s a wonder we manage to function at all; like a child learning how to ride a bicycle for the first time without their training wheels. Overcompensating to the left to correct for a fall to the right. Fortunately, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

Having healthy boundaries means “knowing and understanding what your limits are,” says Dana Gionta, Ph.D., who offers workshops specifically addressing social boundaries. The keys to successfully managing them include:

  • Speak up and ask for what you want. Don’t be offended if you don’t get what you asked for.
  • Be open for negotiation. It could lead to even better results than you imagined.
  • Be clear and specific in your requests. Nobody can fault you when you’ve made yourself clear.
  • Always have a plan B if they say no. Who knows? It may be better than your plan A.
  • Don’t reach out to others unless you are calm enough to handle an unexpected response.
  • Try not to respond negatively to no. It’s not about you. It’s the other person defining their boundaries.

Without knowing it, the cretin who stole my parking space violated a number of my boundaries. In this particular case, the feeble-minded hack decided that he needed more than his two football fields for his ride. He needed some of mine too. But, in the end I managed to survive. Somehow, we always do.

Respecting others’ boundaries is the key to understanding how to live a happy, healthy life full of expectations and surprises. While not always easy, it can help you get in touch with yourself, while making new friends, and personal and professional relationships.

Allen Smith is an award-winning writer living in Oceanside, California and has published thousands of articles for print, the web and social media.