Once upon a time, long, long ago back before there were cell phones, computers, and televisions, people sat on the front porch and actually talked to each other. In those days, people felt less lonely, more connected, and had better boundaries. Why? Because even if you learn all the rules about boundaries, they change. Boundaries shift based upon environment, relationship, and the current moment. This can make learning healthy boundaries problematic if you don’t have the experience and skill of relating to people face to face. What skills?
Most people, most of the time, are not aware of the current moment. They think about what they’re going to say next rather than listening. They worry about all the possibilities of what could happen rather than see what is happening. Awareness allows you to be right here, right now. This keeps you from playing out your past stories. When you’re present, your perceptions and actions tend to be more Effective. So, the next time you are talking with someone, stop what you are doing. Turn and face them. Do nothing but be present and alive in that moment. See how it changes things for you.
Today people don’t live in their bodies. We live in our heads. Our minds lie. They calculate information based on past experience and past programming. They are heavily influenced by emotions like fear. Our thoughts are also limited by what we know. This makes our minds highly unreliable.
Our bodies are much more intuitive. They can tell us when someone is unsafe while our rational mind talks us out of that. Yet if we are not in our bodies, we don’t pick up those cues.
So often we escape into our minds to help us deal with uncertain to terrifying events. Somehow many of us never make it back. Your body is an important part of the human experience. Your five senses become alive through your body. If you’re not there, you’re not living fully. If thinking your thoughts has you in a perpetual state of anxiety, escaping to your head isn’t working anymore. It’s time to try something else. Maybe it’s time to be embodied.
Accurately Reading Body Language
We don’t understand or rely on body language anymore because we no longer understand it. Our faces focus on computer screens. We communicate through words and emoticons. So when we misread people and situations, we can feel deflated and mistrustful. This makes us retreat further behind impersonal communication methods or rules. This is how we come up with these black and white boundary rules of like “Always ask before touching, kissing, addressing someone by a nickname, etc.”
Asking for permission is always a great idea! Don’t get me wrong. But do you remember being a child and your mom asking you if she could kiss you? She just kissed you, right? And what about your partner giving you a kiss. Most of the time, there were no power plays or violations involved. It was appropriate and loving. Why? Because we have the relationship and intimacy where we know it’s okay. We can read each other’s body language so we know when it’s appropriate to approach or not. If you aren’t mindful, can’t accurately read body language, or live in your head instead of your body, boundary violations are much more likely.
Respect for Sovereignty
We live in a hierarchical society where some have power over others. Some get things they did not create, produce, or earn while others are taken from. The pervasiveness of these practices lead some to believe that we live in a dog eat dog world, and that’s just the way things are done. It’s all about looking out for number one. These attitudes creep into other areas of our lives and can reinforce the idea that we have the right to know what they are thinking, feeling or doing. It’s okay to tell them what is right for them or maybe make them do what we think is right. This is a lack of respect for other’s sovereignty.
Sometimes we don’t step into our own sovereignty. We give responsibility for our well being to others. We blame others for our state of affairs. This is also a disrespect for sovereignty – your own.
Putting It All Together
Let’s bring all this back into the real world. Guy says to Sheila “Sweetie, can you get me a cup of coffee?” Is that appropriate or inappropriate?
- If Guy and Sheila are romantic partners, it’s probably appropriate if they have a level of intimacy in that moment that makes it okay.
- If Guy and Sheila are romantic partners and he’s using it in a condescending way to make her subservient, it reflects a lack of respect for sovereignty. This is not healthy.
- If Guy and Sheila are co-workers it’s iffy. It’s probably unprofessional, but some work places are more relaxed. If the culture is open, warm, and joking, this could be okay.
- If Guy is Sheila’s father, it’s probably a term of endearment. It’s appropriate and healthy.
- If Guy is Sheila’s boss, it’s probably inappropriate. The power difference could create tension. Again, workplaces are different. In some businesses – especially small ones – the boss works closely and on the same level as the employees. In some areas of the country, among some people, things like this are really common and don’t mean anything. It really depends on the circumstances.
- If Guy is Sheila’s neighbor and he’s trying to let connect with her, it’s iffy. If he perceives no body language from her that she wants this, and is getting physical cues in his own body that she doesn’t, it’s definitely inappropriate. The best thing to do when there is uncertainty is to respect her sovereignty and ask if it’s okay to call her Sweetie before doing so. This is especially true because Guy has an agenda. It’s okay for Guy to like Sheila. It’s not okay for him to force his attention upon her. If he doesn’t know if that attention is welcome, he needs to find out.
Seeing this in black and white will give you black and white outcomes. We don’t live in black and white worlds. The world is full of color. What is the voice inflection? Where are the two people standing in relationship to each other? What is their past relationship? What are the personalities like? Is this typical for the culture they both came from? How do these people feel about each other? What were they doing just before this? All of this colors the situation.
Hard and fast rules would say that we don’t ever use terms of endearment without permission. Since situations are always in flux, that would make things really awkward. Can you imagine saying, “Can I call you Sweetie?” every time you wanted to say it to your partner? Can you imagine never saying it to your partner? The world would be really sterile and boring.
My advice is to go with the black and white rules in most situations with most people. This will keep you safe. In the meantime, develop face to face skills of relating to people. Be mindful. Be embodied. Check out what you think the other person’s body language is saying before acting on it to learn. Be prepared for surprises. What we perceive is not always accurate – even once we become good at this. For example, someone may be upset, but not upset with you. Finally, respect sovereignty – yours and others. When you are able to do these things well, you will be able to relax the rules and be more spontaneous.