Boundaries, Borders, and Boudoirs

03 Apr

I began writing this blog with no clear idea how to use the ‘boudoir’ part of the title. Today I’m meandering, but bear with me and let’s see where we can go together. Along the lines of ‘favorite words’, I segued into considering a blog topic I’ve been itching to hit for months now:  boundaries.

Often, I begin academic papers by reviewing one or two concepts and their accepted (and usually inaccurate) definitions. This often leads me to a nice little procrastination where, paper forgotten, I lose track of time flipping to one page or another tracing etymology and the nuanced differences in meaning between presumably similar concepts. Only another writer would understand this compulsion (whether or not you share it).

I read dictionaries.

And let’s not neglect my new favorite, The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, 2nd Ed.   ‘Oxy’ (and yes, I’ve named my car, laptop, and brown cowboy boots ~ if you love it, name it) is 4lbs of well-thumbed, literary goodness ‘bound’ with duct tape and covered with unknown food and beverage stains.

Oxy, my steadfast companion, tells us of several words clustered around the noun, ‘boundary’.

Euphemisms include:

division . . . cutoff point . . . limits . . .periphery . . .perimeter . . . partitions . . . margins . . . edges . . . fringes . . . perimeter . . . limits . . .parameters . . .confines,  . . . ambit . . . compass

A counselor once shared the notion of healthy and unhealthy ‘boundaries’ with me when I confided how guilty I felt in disappointing others by not anticipating their needs (and yes, as I type, I’m reminded of this irrationality.


Everyone does this to some extent because we all struggle with setting ‘invisible barriers between self and others, limits beyond which will we will not go and beyond which others are not welcome. A good sense of where our feelings/opinions start and stop and where another person’s feelings/opinions begin and end comes with experience and wisdom’ (so, I think you have to be 39 or maybe 43 ~ am not sure who explained this, maybe my mother).

The handouts my one-time counselor, now good friend, provided didn’t have the originating author to whom I can attribute the previous definition or the following concepts, but I would happily do so. This material did not originate with me or my research. I do, however, use it to remind myself about boundaries (inviolate, even sacred) and borders (possibly crossed by invitation). I’ve found myself considering this material in looking at my characters, especially as a way to demonstrate internal conflict.

Letting go of responsibility for the uncontrollable demands a boundary, something absolute over which you can stand guard. Thus, dividing line, cutoff point, limits, periphery, perimeter, or confine capture the definitive nature of this critical life skill.

From the aforementioned handouts, I’ve culled a few of the 20 responses to the rallying cry for the boundary-less, ‘it is never my responsibility to’:

  • drain my strength for others in doing more than I have time to do (so weird we need a reminder of self-care when we nag friends on this point, but . . .)
  •  be anyone but exactly who I am or apologize for being myself (especially when doing so harms no one)
  • endure my own negative thoughts (perhaps self-flagellation was fashionable at one time, but give it up, sweetheart, it’s a crappy way to live)
  • meekly let life pass me by (think Dylan Thomas . . . ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light)
  • sacrifice my integrity to anyone (it’s all about choice, isn’t it?)

Why should we consider these boundaries? Perhaps if only to be clear on how they might, for each of us, differ from borders in terms of frequency, severity, or saturation.

Borders warrant more flexibility, even negotiation and a decision rule or two. Partitions, margins, edges, fringes, perimeter, limits, parameters, confines, ambit, and compass might mean less absolute than important touchstones to retaining our sense of self. Consider borders as useful reminders, especially when well-kept and patrolled regularly.

Signs of unhealthy boundaries range from talking intimately to a stranger, to letting others define you, or accepting food, gifts, touch, sex, favors you don’t want.

What can writers learn? Aside from continuing to protect your writing time and creative energy, we can demonstrate these tensions in our characters when they ‘have negative thoughts’, ‘apologize for self-expression’, or ‘act as people-pleasers’. Our readers will get this on an intuitive level just as they understand the self-destructive behaviors and scenarios attendant to unhealthy boundaries.

So, what would you add to the ‘it is never my responsibility to’ list?  Have you used these concepts to demonstrate a character arc in your work? And, most importantly, do you read the dictionary too?

 PS: And yes, because I honed a boundary or two, I painted my boudoir purple. Hah! You didn’t think I remembered.


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14 responses to “Boundaries, Borders, and Boudoirs

  1. ramblingsfromtheleft

    April 3, 2012 at 6:34 AM

    Yes Liz, I am also crazy and have spent copious hours reading dictionaries. It started in seventh grade and it continues. Ah, the love of the word. In and Out of the Garbage Pail by Frederick Pearls (who I adored in college because he was such a refreshing break from the Freudians) comes to mind.

    He talked about explaining as a word that we use to apologize, rationalize and give excuses to others (mostly to ourselves) for our neurotic habits. He called it boring. Like the step in Twelve Steps that warns not to apoligize if doing so would only hurt that person again … why bother?

    I am so over trying to explain who I am and no longer have any responsibility for your perceptions of me or my world. Perception is reality and you can have total responsibility for your reality. The other is a paraphrase I used yesterday by Nitzche: Memory and pride had an argument and pride won. I can’t be responsible for what you think I said or did or how that gives you the right to explain who I am 🙂

  2. Liz Fredericks

    April 3, 2012 at 6:46 AM

    I KNEW you were a dictionary-reader!! I’m going to look up ‘in and out of the garbage pail’ – so far your recommendations have never steered me wrongly – besides I love the title.

    As usual, you said it well – and used Friedrich — oooh oooh how about this one:

    “Never yield to remorse, but at once tell yourself: remorse would simply mean adding to the first act of stupidity a second.

  3. Janis McCurry

    April 3, 2012 at 7:17 AM

    It’s not my responsibility to:
    …change people.

    I might want to, but it’s not my call. If I’m asked my opinion, I’ll give it, but it’s their choice. I can only stay true to what I believe.

    I don’t regularly read dictionaries, but I love words. I’ll look up words for accuracy, but that’s about it.

  4. Liz Fredericks

    April 3, 2012 at 8:04 AM

    You’re right, Janis. ‘Not changing people’ is a fundamental one. Leads me to considering how responsibility differs from obligation . . . hmmm feel a dictionary run coming on.

  5. Peggy Staggs

    April 3, 2012 at 8:28 AM

    Love words. One of the websites that’s always open on my computer.

    Boundaries are so important, you’re happier and so is your family if you set clear and consistent lines.

    Still, I sometimes feel guilty that I didn’t do something I think I should have known someone wanted me to do. I’m still my own worst critic. I beat the H#%% out of myself all the time. At least I know I’m doing it. I guess that’s a step in some direction or other.

    You’ve got to love a woman who has a purple boudoir!

    • Liz Fredericks

      April 3, 2012 at 9:55 AM

      You’re right about the clear lines, but also consistency is important. Nothing makes people more anxious than feeling like they’re aiming for a moving target.

      • Peggy Staggs

        April 4, 2012 at 8:12 AM

        And consistency is the hardest thing to do. If we all had a consistant mood, day and mental health it would be easy, but we don’t. All we can do is try.

  6. Meredith Allen Conner

    April 3, 2012 at 8:38 AM

    Dictionaries, Thesauruses, Encyclopedias . . . ahh. I sink right in. This was a perfect blog for me today. I have been guilty of crossing my own boundaries within myself. Thank you for this.

  7. Liz Fredericks

    April 3, 2012 at 9:56 AM

    Boundaries with self? Now that’s something to explore. You’re most welcome, Meredith. I know I’m looking forward to your blog tomorrow. It’s amazing, as Johanna mentioned last week, how often we’re all in sync with each other.

  8. stephanieberget

    April 3, 2012 at 10:00 AM

    It took me years to learn to set boundaries, and I still feel guilty at times. Thanks for reminding me that its not only okay but necessary. Love the purple!

  9. johannaharness

    April 4, 2012 at 10:43 AM

    I agree with you completely about boundaries, have said similar words myself—and yet I need the reminder as much as anyone. Thank you for this.

  10. Mary Vine

    April 4, 2012 at 6:51 PM

    I love synonyms and thankfully I get to teach them at school. The last two days, I’ve focused on associations, synonyms and antonyms. Thanks!

  11. marsharwest

    April 5, 2012 at 4:13 PM

    I love your blogs, Liz. I always feel like I’m germinating new dendrites up in my brain. (Sometimes that hurts. LOL)

    I’m not so much a dictionary girl, but I love an old Thesaurus my mother gave me aeons (sp?) ago. I didn’t understand how important it was until I got into this writing thing and needed to come up with a replacement word. I know it’s there on the computer, but for this, I’m old school and thumb through my book. I love the way “they” have organized the thing.

    As to the concept of boundaries/borders: I’m a Mom/grandma with all the guilt that implies. Very tough to tell my daughters no I don’t have time to sit today or not bail them out when something comes up and their regular child care plans fall through. Besdies, they’re my darling, prescious grands!

    Let me give you another example of my lack of B/B. When I was an elementary school principal, I almost never closed my door. I figurered the teachers needed to see me when they had a planning period. Not like they could walk out of their classroom. As a result I worked way too many hours, pretty much burning myself out. So, yeah, boundaries are important to have, but you have to be bold enough to enforce them. I’ve preached this to countless others. Not sure why I have trouble hearing: Take care of yourself first so you can take care of others. Makes sense.


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