I rarely had to concern myself with boundaries when I lived in the United States. It was hard enough to get a smile back from a fellow shopper while strolling through the aisles of Whole Foods. Personal Space in the US is clearly demarcated, bright as a neon sign. Boundaries in Italy—my birth country, where I temporarily relocated to not long ago—are blurry concepts saved for quieter countries. The stereotypes are true: We’re a cozy lot. Often, too cozy.
By the time I left Milan in my 20s, I’d had more than enough of people touching me while speaking, shouting instead of talking, and foisting their food, moral judgments, gossip, and most intimate secrets upon me. I wanted room to breathe, space to think—and skin that hadn’t been touched by every stranger in a three-block vicinity.
The US, vast and grand, new and shiny, no doubt gave me that. It also gave me a feeling of coldness and separation I couldn’t quite shake. The very things that irked me in Italy—effusive greetings from shopkeepers, bear hugs from friends and strangers alike, saucy confessions in loud tones, fingers on my wrists and arms and face, the feeling that I couldn’t escape family no matter where I went because familia was something so loosely defined—were also the very things I missed most. I wanted someone to ask me how I was and mean it. I needed a hug, a sympathetic ear, a spontaneous diversion when working from home. And I couldn’t come to terms with people driving patiently behind someone going well below the speed limit. In Italy? We’d punch a horn, yell out something snarky, and pass them the moment we could. America was too refined, too restrained, too polite—all of which gave me the sneaky suspicion that some of my compatriots were insincere and repressed; utter bores.
There is no word for “boundary” in Italian—not in the clean and precise way it can be defined in English. Boundary means confine, but of the geographical kind. So when I mutter what can be slackly translated as “boundaries, boundaries!” in Italian—more often than not when an acquaintance is regaling a story in the center of the street, two inches away from my face—I’m greeted with a look that says my time in America has left me loony.
And it’s true: I have changed. In the quiet space I was given in the US, I learned a great deal about myself—what I do and don’t like, what’s appropriate and what’s a clear invasion of my privacy, what can be tolerated and what’s impermissible. Back in Italy, I’m often tense and on-guard because of the sheer number of people around me. I’m overwhelmed at times by loved ones and neighbors coming over uninvited, or getting cajoled into a gelato or a cappuccino when I have a list of to-dos, or finding myself in a spontaneous and unwelcome conversation in which divulging the most private details of my personal life is demanded of me. Certainly a happy medium must exist somewhere.
It does. It’s just a matter of understanding boundaries before one can implement them with grace and skill.
There are four primary forms of boundaries: Material, as in lending a favorite shirt to a friend or allowing someone to borrow your car; physical, or pertaining to your body and your personal space; mental, as in the trespasses one can make in terms of your intellectual or spiritual space, and emotional—that sacred area where, when crossed, other people’s dramas, penetrations, and aggressions directly influence how you feel. If any of these are encroached upon, you’re bound to feel angry, frustrated, spent, crushed—and wholly discouraged.
Research points to a distinct correlation between abusive or challenging childhoods and weak boundaries. It makes perfect sense: If one’s opinions, presence, space, and possessions aren’t valued by others, why should they place any significance on them? And yet, to not establish boundaries is to open yourself up wide open to potential hurt. But this begs the question: How do we maintain healthy boundaries if we never learned them in the first place?
The first step is educating yourself. Examining your past and present challenges will foster your ability to recognize when, why, and where your personal No Trespassing sign is quivering and unsteady in the wind. Are you being overly generous in the hope that it will earn you affection? Are you saying yes to outings and events out of fear of hurting someone else’s feelings? Are you bending your spiritual beliefs simply to concede someone else’s? Are you at risk of getting hurt because it might lead to another’s comfort? Are you unable to hear your inner voice because there are so many people yelling their opinions in your head? Being able to see where you start and others begin is key—after all, there’s nothing even remotely selfish about protecting yourself from potential harm. Constructing boundaries, and navigating others, first and foremost requires awareness. And with that comes tools of dignity and diplomacy to skirt certain situations, assert yourself, and live in peace.
Say you have a friend who shows up at your doorstep unexpected and uninvited, presuming that, due to the nature of your friendship, you are at his or her beck and call. Kindly, compassionately, but firmly explain that their surprise visits leave you feeling intruded upon and interrupt your daily routine. Instead, offer to set up a date with them to have coffee. Say a cousin of yours, who is in the throes of divorce, calls incessantly to announce the next heartache in her life. If she’s used to you answering her calls and texts without hesitation, start letting her to go to voicemail and send her a sweet but solid text explaining that you’re busy. If your dear neighbor has made a habit of borrowing supplies and items without returning them, gently tell her that you, too, are low on sugar. As for strangers who get right up in your face? Don’t hesitate to back away and stand your ground, even if it means lifting a hand to keep them from coming nearer. The intent of a stop sign, after all, is seldom lost in translation.
With time, your new actions—generous at times, but securely in your grasp—will garner notice. Shifts will occur, and oftentimes for the better: The time you spend with others will be relished, not tolerated; what you choose to disclose will have more meaning and depth precisely because they’re not coerced out of you; your thoughts and preferences will be heard, not overburdened by others’ desires and commands. And the less your boundaries are weakened, the stronger you’ll grow—leaving you emboldened, wiser, and in greater control of your own frontier.