g a t h e r i n g s

You Asked For It! Better Boundaries

The question is about boundaries – about the difference between healthy and unhealthy ones, about what they are meant to protect us from.

My simple answer: there are boundaries that protect freedom and boundaries that imprison us. But in action the distinction is sometimes elusive since we learn to negotiate boundaries in the field of our family, and as we get older we so often inadvertently project that original field onto the larger world.

Perhaps, for example, we grew up with a father who had a hard time showing affection. When we reached out for him, he withdrew his hand, his energy, seemingly his love. Although the truth was that his reserve had everything to do with his own background and nothing to do with us, we are profoundly affected, taking the lesson deep into our body and mind. Over time we may develop boundaries to protect us from rejection, especially by men. We may not trust the extended hand, energy, or love and so our boundaries come up as a reflex as soon as others enter our sphere. They are well oiled and quick. Once they are erected, these boundaries begin to transmit information that may or may not be true: you are in danger, you cannot trust this situation, that hand will be withdrawn as soon as you reach back. In this case, we may also do the opposite, forever chasing ghosts.

Or perhaps we grew up with a mother who was hypercritical. When we asked for support, she was unable to provide it, instead shaming us and equating asking for help with weakness or failure. Although she was actually afraid for us, and felt ill equipped to stand behind us, we didn’t know that (how could we?) and we were deeply imprinted by her repeated rejection. As adults we may find that we have no natural boundaries, particularly with women. It doesn’t even occur to us, for example, to create a boundary with the emotionally demanding boss whom we are convinced we cannot live without. Intellectually we understand everything - why we should leave, complain, whatever - but in our body and spirit it feels as though we will disappear without her. Thus, the message may be not to threaten our belonging, not to cause trouble, not to question how we are treated. Again, in this case the opposite might be our instinct: feeling any guidance as assault and protecting ourselves from our own inner images.

Or perhaps we were born to a system that suffered the wounds of war or poverty or dislocation or some other broad assault on the human spirit. We must run. We must hide. We must attack. We must value success above all else. We must be suspicious or seek the shelter of those who are powerful or cling or repel. When this is our way in the world, we may wonder if we are in present time.

These are the boundaries that imprison us. They arise - or don’t - according to an old template, an ingrained memory that has veto power over present knowledge. These boundaries go up as a reflex and then start providing data to support their existence. They are preemptive and rigid.

Boundaries that protect freedom are never reflexive; they are attuned to shifts in internal and external structures, to the present unfolding, to gathering insight and noticing. These boundaries allow mobility and mutual respect and are also predicated on them. Often this begins as a practice, just as any attempt to shift deep-seated behaviors.

One might begin with a refreshed vision spoken to the self: I know that these feelings in my chest, this heaviness or this quickened heart, are memories. They belong to another time. I know that I am blocked from seeing what is really going on now as long as I am in that other time. I know that speaking these words aloud helps me move out of the past into the present. I will find my breath and listen to it as it fills my chest, lightens and calms my heart, and then moves out into the open air. Perhaps I will make a sound as I draw in from the open air and another as I allow the breath’s escape. I will do this as many times as I want, for minutes or more. It is my private reclamation and I will determine its pace. Now I will look directly at you – love, child, friend, boss, employee, stranger – allowing the past to recede and the present to come into clear focus. I’ll allow boundaries to emerge that are appropriate, first in my imagination. I’ll let my words be heard by me, let them be meaningful. I can maintain integrity in your presence and together we can move toward more life. I am at ease here. Alternatively, I will move away from your sphere because it is not a good fit. Perhaps it was, but it is no longer. Perhaps it never was. My boundaries are alive in the present, in accord with life, aligned with freedom and leading to more.