You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, right?
It’s an adage that many of us learned. I suppose I believed it until I no longer considered myself “young,” and fearing I might now be “old,” I sought reassurance that I could still master a few new tricks.
After all, I could still learn, question, go after dreams, and dare the unconventional path. Sure, I had my aches and pains, not to mention the responsibilities of providing for my family. But I needed – I wanted – to push boundaries.
In a way, to rebel.
What was I really after?
A sort of awakening.
I thought of it as rebellion with reason, and to some extent, within reason. I also wanted whatever I considered within reason to be movable, continuously expandable.
But would I, could I, should I have to jump through hoops to push my boundaries? And which boundaries did I want to push?
Personal boundaries: physical space
We all know that boundaries are learned in childhood – the result of parental behavior and teachings, culture, and often, religious beliefs.
The nature of touch and our feelings about the proximity of others are two lessons absorbed early. We know we need human contact; it feels good. And contact comes in many flavors: affection, consolation, sexuality, intimacy.
But the wrong sort of touch at the wrong time? We’re threatened, and legitimately so. A few inches of space between bodies – or no space at all – is not the stuff of routine exchange.
We have a kind of invisible fence around ourselves. Ever notice that when your personal space is breached, you immediately take steps back, or assert yourself in some way to reestablish your comfort zone?
Personal boundaries: safety for the self
We’re all aware of what happens when a child’s personal space is violated – through sexual abuse or violence. Adults can also harm a child with words that confuse or denigrate.
The young self is forming and malleable. Disregarding boundaries (physical, psychological, sexual) can cause far reaching, damaging ripple effects that may take years to come to terms with.
Is it any wonder that all our early experiences – in some way – teach us about limits?
It’s a matter of ensuring self-protection. We use the lessons learned (positive and negative) throughout our lifetimes; discerning who to approach, the context, or who we allow to approach us.
From the time we’re tots, we absorb the rules of our many communities, our sense of right and wrong, and the consequences (usually presented as dire) if we step over the line. Learning no and to say no as protection, as well as to say yes when we feel safe, are part of understanding necessary limits.
In our daily lives, we deal with all kinds of personal boundaries, often reevaluating them as we grow up and grow older. Whether we are talking about what we eat and drink, or say and don’t say, we recognize how we embolden and “allow” for new experiences or hold ourselves back.
And, we find what suits us.
We also reassess what may happen if we overstep, or cross the line.
As an example – I was raised to tell the truth. Any lie was unacceptable and severely punished. So I didn’t lie. Ever. As an adult, I’ve learned the art of the white lie in order to protect someone’s feelings. The moral consequences I felt when I was younger don’t come into play. For me, it’s not crossing the line of a moral “absolute.”
It’s moving the line, appropriately.
Moral relativism? Perhaps.
We have parent-child boundaries, relationship boundaries, and boundaries we may unconsciously set that we ought to discard – those that keep us “smaller” than we are.
For instance, there are self-limiting roles in jobs and marriages that eventually cease to serve us in any productive way.
Perhaps we live with emotional distance because it feels safer, or we adhere to a belief that we can’t learn another language, become a photographer, take up painting, or write poetry.
Because we were once told we weren’t good enough. Or… we’re “too old.”
These esteem-oriented limitations strangle our dreams. Who says we can’t learn Japanese at 60, or debut our sculpture at 70? We change, we grow. We also grow bored. And when we’re bored, we want to cross the line, or move it! We gravitate to greater challenge, and we long for more excitement.
Exposure, information, desire, experience
Having recently perused hundreds of images in art history and contemporary portraiture, curious about why nudes and nudity causes such a stir in American culture, here are some observations. I found images that were erotic (a judgment call), and some I consider pornographic (another judgment call). This process of “assessing” had me pondering limits and exercising them.
In other words, I considered the limits of propriety (choices and behaviors reflecting a social context), the potential sensibilities of readers, and the explicit or implied rules of conduct in this online environment. What I realized – my exposure, knowledge, and experience of have changed in the past few years. Dramatically. Images I would’ve found shocking seven or eight years ago simply strike me as human.
Exposure to new sights and sounds, information that we absorb, the desire to know more (and see for ourselves), and the actual experience of trying something new all add up to redefining personal boundaries – certainly perceptual and “judgmental,” and possibly experiential.
We may enjoy the new perception or experience and say yes, I like this, I want more. And in pursuing more, we’re moving the line. Or, we have a less than favorable experience, and decide not to cross that line again.
Personal boundaries: sexuality
The realm of sexual behavior is undeniably one in which tastes change as we’re exposed to broader lifestyles, more cultures, and new partners. Or, a long-time partner may decide it’s time for more variety, encouraging us to share the ride. By the time we approach middle age, it seems to me that many of us have forgotten that sexuality can be fun!
Most of us begin experimenting (and rebelling) when we’re teenagers, and continue to experiment into our twenties. The dynamic of marriage, family obligations, work, fatigue and other factors contributes to an eventual routine that we seem to accept.
But why do we accept it? Are there alternatives to monotony other than infidelity?
I certainly hope so!
Now, we may genuinely be content with things as they are. Or, we may have grown more conservative as we age. For some of us, experimentation in younger years was plentiful and sufficient.
And then there are those who did little experimenting, like myself. I was the stereotypical “good girl” – I studied, traveled, and worked. Relationships were few. Then came marriage, children, illness, divorce, and events-a-plenty reminding me that life is short, and that I had lived a gradual shut-down of interests and experiences throughout my marriage. I am certainly not alone in this process or its realizations.
I knew I wanted to raise my sons in an environment of love, respect, acceptance, and learning. I knew I wanted to write – and write well. I also wanted to experience a relationships that was tender, exciting, and intellectually challenging, a relationships in which I could stand up for myself when confronted – not something I did much of in my marriage. I wanted to move personal boundaries – expectations of myself – that seemed too confining.
The role of trust in sex
A few years back I was researching an article and reading about sexual games, role playing, and a variety of lifestyles about which I held a number of misconceptions. What I learned was not what I anticipated.
Respect and communication are fundamental to the rules of certain practices, as well as the mutual pleasure and intimacy that result. It’s logical; all relationships are about bonding and limits. Sexual relationships are no different, yet we’re often reticent to articulate boundaries or desires.
In domination and submission for example, communication is critical. Partners seek to push their sexual limits in ways that are not for everyone, but they do so within a framework of clear agreement and respect, with limits defined upfront and followed. A safe word or action is used to signal “stop” if anything makes the submissive partner uncomfortable. It’s a matter of trust – trust that limits will be respected. Otherwise, the relationship disintegrates.
Also inherent in any intimate relationship – whatever the inspiration for enjoyment – trust in the privacy and discretion shared between partners, whether about the most vanilla of sexual standards, frequency of activity, or what gives mutual pleasure. Sadly, the “discretion and privacy” boundary is increasily transgressed in a society that has forgotten the value in these concepts and trust as the fundamental building block of a good relationship.
Moving sexual boundaries
As for sexuality, who can honestly say that their sexual taste hasn’t evolved over the years? Our sexual boundaries are always in some sort of flux; the libido can be a roller coaster and suitable partners – those who attract us, those we love – may not always be available. So sexuality may constrict at times, and expand at others.
Pushing boundaries is a choice; exploring what feels acceptable, exciting, emotionally satisfying, and fun is always within our grasp. It may be as simple as speaking up, indicating a positional preference. It may be as simple as asking the person you cherish what he or she prefers in making love.
It’s worth noting that many women feel freer as they age, able to shed restrictions imposed by conservative childhoods, tacit rules in marriage, the fatigue (and interruptions) of raising children, not to mention worries over pregnancy.
Curiosity and experimentation are human qualities with distinct advantages, and while they are anticipated (and tolerated) in adolescents, too often we squelch these wonderful attributes in ourselves as adults. It’s ironic, considering we’re better suited to assessing the boundaries to move for our own pleasure, and likewise, a partner’s.
Jump through hoops?
Yes, to some extent that’s what it takes. Reinvention as an ongoing and affirmative process.
Have I found my limit to pushing my limits? Not yet, though clearly I am wedded still to a certain “traditional” upbringing, to a set of personal and cultural values, and dreams play second fiddle to the needs of providing for my family.
As for jumping through hoops, well… I could probably hula hoop…
Enjoy games with a loving and committed sexual partner, ensuring physical, emotional, and psychological safety?
Constantly striving for new achievements professionally and creatively?
Pushing boundaries – safely – is, to me, synonymous with growth.