Boundaries

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I was in a communication seminar last year in which we were asked to do an exercise with a partner that the moderator called “Fists of Fury.” My partner and I stood facing each other, holding our hands out in front of us in loose fists, our knuckles lightly touching. We agreed that I would go first, and when the moderator gave the word, I started to push my fists against my partner’s. As I steadily pushed forward, she yielded soundlessly, until our hands were on either side of her head and I had literally pushed her backward several steps. Her eyes were wide with alarm. “Are we supposed to push back?” she nervously inquired of the moderator as she tried to stay on her feet.

At this point, we returned to our starting position and the moderator gave the word to do it again with the role of pusher and pushed reversed. My partner gave me a nervous glance and hesitantly pushed her fists against mine. I did not move either forward or back. She pushed a little harder, and still I did not move. Finally she smiled at me and we both dropped our hands.

We didn’t go into this exercise knowing what we would be doing, but I am certain that if I had been the one to be pushed first rather than being the pusher, I would have responded the same way: by not moving either toward or away from my partner, and not allowing my partner to push me off center. I would have stood my ground and maintained my balance. I have found again and again with my friends, family and significant others that I am a strong person who will push others as far as they will allow themselves to be pushed—right off their feet, in fact—if they allow it. But if they gently but steadily resist my pushing, I, too, will smile and drop my hands.

I feel really comfortable around people who maintain clear boundaries in a gentle, non-confrontational manner, and who do not allow me to trample across their feelings or mores without giving me ample warning when I approach the line and immediate, equitable consequences when I cross it. But with people who allow me to push them off their feet (without my even realizing it) and then blame me for being “aggressive” or “intimidating” or “scary”? With those people, I have a bad time.

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