Hedgehog-Burrito Boundaries

I’m taking a four-week course on boundaries. When our instructor tells us that despite not minding even hour-long video calls, she caps her calls at 30 minutes, I feel some resistance. She explains that she intentionally leaves a 30-minute buffer so that she won’t end up resentful if the conversation goes a little over her stated boundary.

In general:

  • my limit = it starts hurting (physically or emotionally) when you do that
  • my boundary = don’t do that
  • my buffer = the space between my limit and my boundary.

So we’re instructed to have a buffer. I’m still uncomfortable with this idea. Isn’t it selfish? Isn’t it deceptive? I imagine myself as a hedgehog, who translates:

  • My limit = I don’t want you to do that
  • My boundary = where I pretend my limit is
  • My buffer = a layer of fake quills, like so:

The next morning, life proves me so very, very wrong.

I want to meditate in our bedroom. The problem: Ben is sitting, sockless, on the living-room couch. And so I remind him, just like I have every morning for the past month, to take his socks out of the closet before I block his way. He needs a moment. My morning routine slips through my fingers; I twiddle my thumbs indignantly.

Thankfully, I remember that I’m taking a course on boundaries.

“From now on, can you get your socks from the bedroom without reminders?” I proudly request.

“Okay,” he says. I didn’t expect him to sound this taken aback.

As I turn towards the bedroom, a bolt from the blue: “Thank you?”

He wants me to apologize? Hadn’t I just spent a month tending to the warmth of his feet, putting an extra todo in my morning routine and getting only grumbles in return? He knows that I meditate every morning — why would it be such a big deal to just take the socks out the as soon as we get up?

This is all news to Ben. “If reminding me was so hard, why did you keep doing it?”

“For you! What did you think?”

“That you really hate being interrupted while you meditate!”

“No, I just I imagined that you wouldn’t want to interrupt me, and so you’d sit huddled on the couch with your poor cold feet!”

We start giggling as soon as the words come out of my mouth. The only person in this household who gets cold feet (in both senses) is, of course, me. Projection, projection, projection. Ben’s socklessness would have caused him no grief — and if it had, he would have just stridden into the bedroom without a second thought.

I did the “selfless” thing — then both of us got hurt.

Then it sinks in: the buffer isn’t a false set of spikes. It’s a fluffy blanket around my hedgehog. It’s there for both of us.

A lot of other experiences click into place once I realize that. The time I take my guests on sightseeing trip after sightseeing trip… until I’m so exhausted that I basically kick them out of the house to organize their own damned excursion. The times when I agree to dinner delays in 15-minute increments, none of which are a big deal until I’m drowning in a pool of hangry tears and someone has to make me a sandwich, NOW.

Every time I fail to have a buffer, I end up like that proverbial frog: boiled degree by degree, until it’s too late to escape. Too late for both of us: what is boiling is my own blood, scalding everyone in the room.

As homework for the first week of the course, I’m supposed to say “no” to a request every day.

“No one ever asks me for anything,” I complain to Ben.

30 seconds later, he commands: “Could you help me install the AC?”

Of course I say “yes.”

My final realization: confusing requests with demands and boundaries with limits are two sides of the same coin.

When I fail to create a buffer, when my boundaries are limits — then my requests are actually demands. (A request-maker would be happy to say “thank you!”) What I present as a harmless blanket is actually a layer of sharp quills.

And since almost all my requests are like this, I assume others’ are too. When Ben asks me to help with the AC, I presume that he’d been sitting in the corner, hemming and hawing until he was sure that he couldn’t do it alone.

Projection, projection, projection.

All illustrations made by me. Originally published at http://evebigaj.com on July 21, 2020.

I have a philosophy PhD from Harvard. Want to video chat about one of my articles? Pick a slot at calendly.com/evebigaj

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