I left home and school at the age of eighteen and went off to work in the theatre, far away from home. I was rebelling against what I felt was a restrictive background. I was shy, not at all sure of myself, and not in control of myself.
I remember a friend I had when I was 14. I used to go round to his house regularly to play. I remember coming home one day in tears because he hit me. I do not remember why, just being upset and unable to hit back. I remember enormous frustration.
I also remember being out riding my bike one day, around this time, on my own. This was common, I spent lots of time on my own. I was pushed around by a group of boys who hung my bike up in a tree. Not really bad stuff, but it went inside, deep inside.
This became wrapped up in being the youngest of three boys and the son of a dominant father. I felt pushed down, unable to express myself or take control. I did not understand how to change this, how get people to listen to me or be interested in me.
I became obsessed with this, the need to take control, to be in control.
In my second job in the theatre, when I was nineteen, I was in charge of the technical running of the stage and in charge of the temporary stage crew. This was amazing for me, I was the boss — or so I thought.
The crew were all older than me and more experienced. I had not had any experience working with people, so I found I was out of my depth. They could see this and joked around, ignoring me. I felt, again, enormous frustration.
My instinct took over, what I had learned from the boys who pushed me around took over — I hit out. I hit one of the guys in the stomach, to my surprise and his. It had the immediate effect I desired, I got their attention, but I was diminished in their eyes, even though I made them listen to me.
I thought being in charge was about taking control. I was exerting control over others to force them to do what I wanted.
What took many years for me to discover was that I could only control myself, not others. To lead others I needed to be seen to be in control of myself. Learning to control myself, I realised, is about setting boundaries, something that is not as simple as it seems.
I love this image,
There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. … Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.
—Ursula Le Guin ‘The Dispossessed’
I can imagine the wall being built, crudely, before the builder had any skills. It was rough but it was confident. When it came to the road, the way that was open and used by many people, it lost its strength.
The idea was there, the imaginary line, but it had not been marked, either with wall or gate. The line did not really exist.
This is what boundaries were like for me. They were built early because of childhood events. They were built before I understood their significance. They fell apart as I interacted with other people. I lost confidence and I became upset.
What I forgot was what the wall meant to those on the outside. I knew the inside, I saw it all the time, but I forgot that it looked different on the outside.
What I found difficult was how to see my boundaries from the other side. I resorted to blaming others for what happened. I knew my side, I knew I was justified in what I was doing, I knew the world was against me.
The world I saw, the world out there, I discovered, was the world I created. I saw the world as against me because I only I saw things from my point of view. I only saw the inside of the wall.
Emptiness, the emptiness of non-attachment, is where a thing that exists has no meaning in itself, it is just a thing. Meaning is attached to it when you associate it with something in your mind.
I attached meaning to the world I experienced. I reacted to the world I saw and created an inside world of anger in relation to it. What I didn’t realise was that I created that meaning from inside myself, from where I was hurting.
I needed to take control of myself, of my thinking and of the meaning I gave to things. To take control of myself I needed to take responsibility for what I did and how I reacted, I needed to see the other side of the wall.
I create my world myself, it is not created by the actions of others. This is a crucial issue, one that is at the heart of boundary setting.
I decide what I will do, not others. If I am doing what others want it is because I have decided to do so. I cannot blame others for what happens to me, and I can not punish them for it.
To set our boundaries we must be aware of who we are and how we have become the person we are. We then need to know where we want to go, what we want to be.
We need to understand what we need on a personal level and what we want, and need, to give to others. This should be clear to ourselves and clear to others. Bridging the wall is achieved through communication.
When I find myself getting angry, which is rare today, I know the wall has started to crumble. I know the way is no longer clear. It is time to get out the mortar and re-build my wall, on both sides. I need to take responsibility for what is happening and clearly communicate that.
I talk, I listen, I explain, I hear and I re-create my boundaries and, as a result, I am now a happy man and others respect me and enjoy my company. I no longer need to control others because I no longer attach meaning to what they do and I no longer react to them.