Thoughts on boundaries, engulfment, feeling left out, and how to win at Marco Polo.
What are Boundaries?
At a core level, humans are beings meant for belonging, love, community, and connection. However, no matter how closely bonded the group, team, or family, each person is still a separate entity with a unique soul and personality. Through the establishment of boundaries, we draw invisible property lines, to ensure physical, emotional or intellectual individuality amidst a group. Healthy boundaries are like selectively permeable cell membranes determining who and what will hold influence in our lives. Boundaries play a crucial role in our well-being and self-esteem but they are rarely innate instincts.
In spending the first two decades of my life with underdeveloped boundaries—and talking to people who admitted the same—I collected a few observations. A lack of boundaries can leave a person subject to two paradoxical fears. Each fear feeds the other in a cycle that prevents the development of the very intimate connections that they crave.
The first is the fear of being engulfed or controlled by other people. The second fear—ironically often caused in response to the first—is the fear of being left out.
Marco Polo and the Fish out of Water
Since the summer Olympics are in full swing, and the California thermometers push triple digits, I chose a “pool game” metaphor to better illustrate the fear situation. A person lacking boundaries is much like a terribly unskilled and novice Marco Polo player. With marginal swimming capabilities, the fear of drowning drives them to timidly teeter around the edge of the pool deck, with a just a single toe in the water. They collect astute observations and even offer profound insight to those in the pool, but they remain content to stay on the outside looking in. The novice’s close friends holler at them to jump in already, join the fun, say something, act like themselves, or take a risk. Yet, even though the novice may feel left out, they can’t quite gather the courage to take the plunge.
Marco Polo and Drowning
And this makes sense. The novice holds little to no understanding of the properties of water, or the game boundaries. Rendering themselves like a powerless sponge, they absorb values, beliefs, rules, moods, and emotions osmotically and without discretion. Thus to them, the pool does not look like a fun festival of water sports and games. It looks a lot more like the potential for shipwreck, suffocation, or loss of control. But the novice hates to say “no,” and the stealthy disengagement in skirting along the edge of the pool seems like a great survival option.
And it’s true, the pool deck is “safer.” But based on my experiences in playing on both ends of the Marco polo pendulum, the success in the “fish barely out of water” strategy, is short lived. It’s nearly impossible to build close connections or contribute to the world in a meaningful way, without actually engaging in it.
Closing Tips for Marco Polo (and life)
1) Skincare 2) Swim practice
Anyone choosing to play the victim in life, by default, chooses to play Marco Polo as a sponge: either saturated with toxicity or wrung out with obligations. But powerful people, on the other hand, take ownership and responsibility to properly steward of the largest organ of their body; they pay attention to skin care. See, humans were created with a water resistant epidermis skin coat. Tightly woven and oil slick, our skin creates a boundary of separation that allows us to swim in water, but not absorb every chlorine molecule and plastic particle floating in the proximity. We are never meant to live in isolation, but ironically, it is in this intentional degree of “separation” that allows people to confidently engage and interact with the rest world.
So take care of your skin, dive in, and remember there’s a time for everything. The pool of life offers a time to breathe, a time to go to work on lap repetitions, a time to plug your nose, a time to play and splash, a time to resist, a time to tread water, and a time to float and let others carry you.