The Boundary Series, Part 2: physical boundaries
Updated: Sep 15
Long before the required social distancing of the COVID-19 era, Seinfeld was well attuned to the discomfort that occurs when people get in our space. The close talker episode is one of the most famous and for good reason—most of us can relate to being in a similar situation. Jerry Seinfeld’s monologue at the end of that episode discusses respectable space needed at ATM’s and urinals, stating, “…I guess whenever someone's taking something valuable out of their pants you want to give them as much room as possible.”
As discussed in the boundary series, part 1, strong boundaries are essential for our mental and emotional wellbeing and they provide us a with a sense of safety, privacy, and differentiation from others. Although there are various types of boundaries and each are essential, physical boundary violations are likely to make us feel the most uncomfortable, unsettled, or unsafe. While it can be difficult to assess if someone has violated an emotional boundary, we tend to know quickly and viscerally if someone has violated a physical boundary.
What are physical boundaries?
A physical boundary is essentially a barrier between others and our body, our space, and our belongings. Examples of physical boundary violations might include someone walking in on you in the bathroom or a colleague rifling through your wallet. More extreme examples might be unwanted sexual touching or someone breaking into your home. People who have been through incidents like these often report saying they feel violated, which is of course exactly what has happened.
Although the extreme violations are devastating, they also tend to be clear cut—we know exactly how we feel about it, and we know it is wrong. What can be more difficult are the more subtle boundary violations—the things that maybe are not totally wrong, but they do not feel right for us. Like the close talker. Or the friend who borrows things without asking. Or the co-worker pokes you and slaps your back when they tell a joke.
Navigating physical boundaries
Like any type of boundary, physical boundaries need to be strong, but also flexible in some situations. Physical boundary needs are highly individualized and must take context into consideration. Naturally, our physical boundaries will look drastically different between a stranger, a friend, and a romantic partner…and if they do not your boundaries are likely either too rigid or too flexible.
Our work and our hobbies influence this too. The amount of physical closeness needed in ju jitsu is much more than say a kickboxing class. Ideally, you select activities that align with your comfort level.
A firefighter, a massage therapist and a teacher will all have vastly different roles which will influence what types of physical boundaries are maintained. However, we also must consider physical boundaries as it relates to age. A preschool teacher will have to navigate physical boundaries with their students quite differently than a high school teacher might.
Culture and upbringing are considerations as well. There are wide variations in expectations of touching from culture to culture and household to household. While a kiss on the cheek is how one person might follow up an introduction, a bow, hug, nod, or handshake might be more common for others. And of course, during the times of corona, we now simply apologize from 6 feet for not being able to kiss/handshake/hug, etc. “Nice to meet you, ordinarily I would shake your hand, but due to the apocalypse…”
Physical boundaries are your right
No matter your age, gender, size, or culture, you have the right to set boundaries regarding your personal space (medical emergencies and undignified doctor appointments being notable, and unfortunate exceptions). You have the right to feel safe, secure, and respected, period.
We sometimes tolerate (seemingly) innocent gestures that make us uncomfortable because we do not want to seem rude. The friend that always wants to touch your hair, or the co-worker who never knocks before barging into your office…and we let them do it. But we will probably resent them for it. We might start to avoid them. We blame them. But we also did not give them a chance. We expected them to know our limit, to read our mind. To protect ourselves and to show respect to others, we must be clear about our needs and give people an opportunity to respect them.
How to set physical boundaries
It might be awkward. It might get weird. Do it anyway. You deserve to feel safe and respected. Let’s use an example.
Think of that friend of a friend who you barely know, but who always wants a long, intense, hug—the type of hug usually reserved for members of the armed forces returning home from active duty. You can try avoiding them, but you know you will see them socially. You could attend gatherings holding a large watermelon rendering hugs impossible, but that is trading one set of annoyance for another.
Better to be clear about your needs.
1. Identify for yourself what physical boundaries you need to feel comfortable. Think about people/circumstances in which they have been violated. (Intense hug from distant acquaintance)
2. Define to others what is okay and not okay. (For example, “it’s nice to see you as well, but you know I’m just not a hugger”)
3. If someone violates your boundary after you have made it clear, firmly, and politely ask them to stop. (For example, take a step back and state, “As I said, I am not a hugger. It makes me uncomfortable, please let go of me.”)
4. Identify ways to preemptively protect your boundaries in certain situations. (For example, when you spot the hugger you might wave and smile from a distance, then keep going).
5. Show gratitude when people respect your boundary (when the excessive hugger goes in for a high-five or handshake rather than the hug, thank them for “getting it”).
6. Seek to understand others’ boundaries as well.
7. If your boundaries are being blatantly violated and/or you feel unsafe, simply say “STOP”, and walk away or get help/make a report if needed.
Whoops, I violated someone’s boundary
Maybe you read a text that came in on someone’s phone and they saw you. You misread a signal and went for a kiss that was not reciprocated. You intercepted a hug from a stranger that was meant for someone else (yes, that one happened to me and it still makes me cringe a little). We are imperfect humans trying to navigate a labyrinth of social norms and expectations and we will all get it wrong from time to time.
Acknowledge it. Apologize for it. “Yes, it was super weird I just hugged you and I don’t know you. It was my mistake and I am sorry.” Or, “It was wrong of me to look at your phone. I am sorry. I know I violated your privacy and it won’t happen again.” Then, forgive yourself and move on.
Getting support establishing your boundaries
Substance use, guilt, shame, and depression can sometimes lead people to feel like they do not deserve to have good boundaries. For others, lack of assertiveness may make establishing boundaries uncomfortable. The truth is, we all deserve to feel safe, secure, and respected.
If you need help establishing boundaries, Substance Use Therapy is here for you. While the road to establishing them can be difficult, it tends to be well worth it. Boundaries are a process.
Looking for more information on boundaries? Keep reading the series.
The Boundary Series, Part 1: the overview
The Boundary Series, Part 3: emotional boundaries
The Boundary Series, Part 4: time boundaries
About the Author:
Kimberly May, LPC-S, LMFT is a therapist at Substance Use Therapy in Austin, TX. Kimberly works with individuals, couples, and families whose lives have been affected by substance use. By utilizing a harm reduction framework, Kimberly works effectively with people in any stage of use. In addition to substance use, she works with other issues such as anger, burn-out, anxiety and grief. Contact today to schedule a no-charge, 30 minute, in-person consultation. *Note: telephone and telehealth sessions are currently available.