There’s an expression, give’em enough rope to hang him/herself. It suggests if one gives someone enough freedom of action, they may destroy themselves by foolish actions.
Contrary to this, I was raising my kids within a philosophy of freedom. I chose a school (pre-k and elementary) for them that’s part of a free school movement. A movement that was started in the 60s, it was a pretty radical choice in the year 2001. For me it was made from a gut-level instinct. It was way out there. I certainly was not raised this way, and it required me to learn a whole new set of skills.
Here’s what freedom, according to this school of thought, is:
Freedom to choose. Freedom to play. Freedom of expression: There are no wrong feelings. (There are safe and unsafe ways to express those feelings). Freedom from doing it “right”. Freedom to be exactly who you are (and to learn who that is). Freedom to change your mind. Freedom from judgment.
Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand.
Here’s what freedom is not: kids get enough rope to hang themselves. Freedom comes with great responsibility. Freedom is given when it can be handled, responsibly. This I learned comes through clear boundaries. To be honest here, I had to go to my own school (called therapy) to learn how to have healthy boundaries. It could be debated that the freedom to make mistakes is the same thing as the freedom to “hang oneself.” In the premise of “you can’t do it wrong,” I agree. As a parenting style — that results in me being a crazy, frustrated, exhausted, screaming person — I’d suggest there is another way.
This free school philosophy went perfectly with my inability to set boundaries. To say what I needed from my kids — hell I didn’t even need to know what I needed. I simply followed what they needed. And when it didn’t match what I didn’t know I needed, I freaked out. Yelled, screamed, stormed about in rage, followed by crippling guilt. Essentially, I put all the responsibility on them, at 4, 5, 6, 7 years old to make the decisions. I thought that’s what freedom of choice meant.
Yep, I’d give them enough rope to hang themselves, and then be royally pissed off when they did. You wanna play video games all day? Fine. Go ahead. I’m tired of fighting. Let’s just see how it makes you feel. Five hours later, faced with grumpy, unreasonable children and feelings of failure that accompanied my giving into something that feels yucky to me, I freaked out.
Around the time he was 10 years old, one of my sons said, “Mom, just say no if you don’t want me to do something, but don’t say yes and get mad at me for it.”
Brilliant. Yes. Thank you. I’m working on it.
Here is what I learned in therapy.
My boundaries were hardly ever about me They were about others. What others need. What others want. What others are doing wrong. And this was not just about my relationship with my children — it was about ALL of my relationships. My therapist explained that these were pushing away boundaries. If you make a circle with your arms in front of you, fingertips touching, hands pointed out, you can feel this kind of boundary. The hands say, “STOP, you can’t come in.” So while I desperately longed for closer connection, my words and actions were actually pushing it away.
Now turn that around. Make a circle with your arms out in front of you, fingertips touching, hands facing you. This is an inclusive boundary. You can come in, when I invite you. It’s welcoming, it embraces, it feels very different.
Having boundaries takes exploration. For me, I needed to find out who I was. Love myself, exactly as I am. The starting point was seeing the judgment that came with not knowing who I was. Not loving myself (or only loving the “good” parts). The good parts being the ones deemed acceptable by the standards of latest social fads. Not only was good unachievable; it was always changing. Smart, confident women know who they are. Smart, confident women love themselves. I was fucked. The good news, I had nowhere to go but up.
What happened next is exactly what my therapist told me would happen. I was dubious, but desperate.
I thought having boundaries felt cold and impersonal. I thought intimacy was about letting my children and my partner get all up in my space. I thought I was wrong to feel irritated about it. I wanted to be one of those laid-back, easygoing types (I’m not one of those type A, uptight, controlling types). And I was laid-back (and passionate). Yes, some folks might label that passive-aggressive. Whatever.
What my therapist told me was nothing short of miraculous. Having boundaries can actually lead to a more relaxing, laid-back, freeing relationship.
Having boundaries was not about the other at all It was about me. What I want, What I need. What’s happening, in me. Having boundaries is in fact a gateway to warm, cozy, intimate feelings.
It was. And it is, a great act of self-love and self-care. It takes practice. Patience. Self-reflection. Kindness. And more kindness. Especially when you’ve given someone enough rope to hang themselves (including you).
I could write a whole chapter, maybe even a whole book about this. What I offer here is simply a taste. I invite you to share, keep the conversation flowing. What is your experience with boundaries? What comes up for you when think about your own boundaries? Next week I’ll share your stories and we can dive deeper into this experience of being human.
P.S. I forgot to be funny. Maybe this will do.