This post will discuss personal boundaries, self-worth and the importance of honesty in both areas.
The great martial artist and martial philosopher Bruce Lee was fond of saying that martial arts are all about “expressing yourself honestly”, and also “not lying to oneself”. And he was right on the money. The discipline of being honest with oneself and honest to others is key in the proper application of martial arts in all potential settings.On a very basic level, honesty to others and most especially to oneself is important in training and in selecting a location to train at, selecting training partners, and selecting instructors to train under. One must be honest to oneself about what is possible in the martial arts (Here’s a hint: Magic Chi Powers aren’t.) and what is realistic for you as a trainee.
This extends from the mundane and practical level (e.g: There’s no point forking out thousands of pounds on membership at a ridiculously well-equipped gym if you’re only going to go and train there once or twice a month.) to the more specific level of what you’re actually training FOR. Whether it’s sport training you need, self-defence training or whether you honestly just enjoy doing something rarified like Aikido or Kendo for its own sake (Hint: “For its own sake” is the only valid reason to do Aikido).
Then we have honesty with one’s training partners about how hard you want to “go” in training. And that’s where personal boundaries start to come into the mix.
One’s personal boundaries are important. They’re important for life, they’re important for sports, self-defence training and they’re important for maintaining your sense of self-worth. Only someone who is clearly aware of his or her personal boundaries will have self-respect, because they are the only people who will be able to tell if those boundaries are being infringed.
And how does one accurately define one’s personal boundaries? Only through ruthless honesty. First, honestly with oneself. If something will cause you pain, you must be honest with yourself about this being a line that you will permit no-one to cross without consequence. Then you must honestly decide what consequence will result from such line-crossing.
And then one must be honest with others. People cannot be expected to respect your boundaries if you’re not honestly and openly telling them exactly what your boundaries are, and specifically where they begin and end.
A situation people find themselves in very often is one in which people at work, school or in their personal life are crossing their personal boundaries- perhaps in a minor, merely slightly annoying way- and the poor individual who is having his or her lines in the sand trampled doesn’t speak up the first time. Or even the fifth time. Often, people let such minor transgressions build up over time until they explode in a completely disproportionate manner. We’ve all seen it: Someone pops in and steals a tea-bag from a mild-mannered office worker’s jar for the umpteenth time, and the office worker snaps and stabs the thief fifty-four times in the head with a novelty letter-opener.
Obviously I jest. But the point stands. Letting infractions- no matter how minor- build up without objection inevitably leads to a pattern of boundary-crossing, sometimes followed by a disproportionate outburst of anger and/or violence. Much better to make boundaries clear from the outset, and apply consequence to unacceptable behaviour from the outset.
This principle holds true when it comes to extreme violence as well. Battered wives occasionally (but not often enough in my view) snap and kill their abusive husbands… but this comes only after months, perhaps years of protracted abuse. If the woman in question had left her husband after the FIRST beating, it would be a case of clearly delineated boundaries being crossed, and the end of the relationship being the consequence. But due to fear, low self-esteem, denial, love for the abusive spouse and a host of other factors, the woman in question has developed highly porous personal boundaries. Porous personal boundaries make it harder to act in response to infractions, and make it harder to moderate the severity of that response.
However, though early intervention may be ideal, (If you slap the hand that reaches for the cookie jar the FIRST time it reaches, it’s less likely to reach again) remember that you can assert your personal boundaries at ANY time in any interaction or relationship. And your boundaries can change over time, if you so choose. They’re your boundaries.
But unless you’re honest with yourself about what you’re willing to tolerate from others and what you’re unwilling to tolerate, you won’t really know when your space, trust or person is being abused, and you certainly won’t be able to communicate that fact to others.
In terms of self-defence, physical boundaries and personal space are paramount. In many settings (for example out on the street, or in a deserted parking lot, or in a railway station) people will not commonly approach you. If someone does approach you in these settings, alarm bells should ring and you should start to expect a problem. If someone then starts to infringe on your personal space, be fully prepared to defend yourself.
If people heeded the advice in the previous paragraph, there would be a hell of a lot less assaults and muggings in the world. But people don’t want to believe that bad things might happen to them. They’re like the battered wives mentioned above: They have a healthy slice of denial perpetually working its way through their mental intestine and clogging up the pipes.
The next question (and despite the difficulty people have with it, it’s the simpler of the two questions to answer) is how to communicate the fact that someone’s crossed your boundaries in the most constructive, skillful way possible.
The short answer is: calmly, and ruthlessly.
An example might be: If your partner gets drunk and slaps you during an argument, and you tell them that if they ever do it again you’re going to leave them… Tell them calmly… and follow through on your claim ruthlessly.
From a more traditional self-defence scenario point of view: If someone approaches you on the street and you don’t want them to, tell them calmly (loudly doesn’t have to be agitated) and loudly that they should stay back. And if they don’t pay attention to your command, be prepared to act ruthlessly to allow yourself to escape. (Through them, if need be.)
But be careful of saying things you can’t or won’t back up. It’s sometimes more damaging to make false claims about the consequences of people’s actions than it is to say nothing, and bluffs rarely help. People can often see through bluffs. Only bluff as a last resort, when you have literally no other cards to play. Because if someone calls your bluff and you can’t or won’t follow through on your claims… you’ll be a victim inside and out.
To sum up: Be honest with yourself, and be honest with others. Evaluate and re-evaluate your own boundaries ruthlessly, and protect your boundaries ruthlessly. Decide on the conseqences of your boundaries being infringed upon, and if such infringement takes place, make those consequences happen. No excuses, no second, third or fourth chances. Make them happen regardless of whether you lose friends, lose your job, or even- if the stakes are high enough- lose your life as a result.
The difference between a hero and a villain can be as little as standing up for what you know is right when others are telling you something else. Nazi concentration camp guards were people like you and me… but they either weren’t honest with themselves or they lacked the courage to defend their moral boundaries. (Or they were evil sociopaths… but not all of them were evil sociopaths. It’s not statistically probable.)
In other words: When someone steals your teabag in the office and you say nothing, you’re a victim, and you’re also a bit like a Nazi. In a very small, microcosmic way of course. Because they were victims too in a way: Victims of pressure from their superiors and peers, and victims of their own fears and prejudices.
It takes courage to introspect honestly. It takes courage to stand up to others. It takes courage to keep your word despite potentially negative consequences. This is why personal boundaries are so difficult to maintain sometimes… and it’s why maintaining them is so important to sustain our sense of self-worth. And our very identity.
Don’t be a Nazi; Protect your teabags. Personal boundaries for the win.
NB: This all presumes you care whether your teabags are stolen or not. If not, then simply take it like the human doorstop that you are.