I talk a lot about boundaries – setting them, enforcing them, adjusting them. Unfortunately when people hear the word boundaries they often imagine a thick impenetrable wall surrounding them. In response, therapists say that boundaries should be flexible. I struggle with that imagery because it makes me think of big rubber walls that others can push and bend however they like.
I like to use a different image when thinking about boundaries. I think of boundaries as being like a castle…and not the flexible, bouncy ones you see at kids parties! Sure, castles are made up of thick, impenetrable walls, but they are also much more.
Think of it like this. A castle isn’t just one big wall. It starts with a moat. Then there is a courtyard. Then a great hall. Then the throne room. Until finally you get to the King or Queen’s private quarters – in the center, the most protected area. Between each of these areas there are walls. But there is something else. There are doors. Doors that can allow some people to move between the areas and can also stop others.
Imagine you live in that castle. The majority of the world may pass by and never want to cross the moat. But others will want to. Here is where flexibility comes in. You get to decide who may cross the moat. If you need to, you can temporarily raise the drawbridge and not let anyone it. But when it is safe, you can lower it again and let the people you choose cross the bridge.
Now that they are in your courtyard, you get to decide who can come inside the castle itself. Not everyone gets to, only those that you decided are worthy. Again, you can close the door to prevent some people in, but open it for others. You get the idea. There are strong walls that can keep people out, but doors that allow select people to get closer and closer to the areas of your life that are increasingly more private.
So how do you decide who gets to enter which areas? Trust. Testing. Experience. Those are the factors you use to decide who gets to go where. You figure out if you can trust a person. A little at a time. You don’t just throw open all of the doors and say, “come into my personal living area, stranger!” Instead, you let them in the courtyard. You see how they behave. If they do well, you may let them into the great hall. Again, you watch and learn how they handle themselves.
As a person shows they can be trusted, you may choose to allow them deeper and deeper into your castle. But if they do something to break your trust, those doors that allowed them to enter can also be used to move them further away. You get to decide how big their transgression is and how they respond to it. You may tell them they can no longer can be in the great hall, they just get to be in the courtyard. If they make amends, you may eventually give them another chance and see if this time they can behave well in the great hall.
Or, the transgression may be so significant that you banish them from the kingdom. Not everyone deserves a second chance. You get to decide. If you banish everyone, you’ll be alone. If you allow everyone into your private quarters, then people who aren’t trustworthy are in a place where they can seriously harm you. It requires judgement.
Think about your castle. You can have strong walls and be flexible in your decisions about who gets to go where in your kingdom. Those doors exist for a reason. Keep out those you don’t trust. But when you let those you do trust into your inner sanctum, you’ve opened the door to real connection.