Emilie Hoffman, mind/body guide
When I read anything about interpersonal relationships or self-love, it seems like boundaries are the new black.
And I agree that the identification, execution, and maintenance of boundaries is a very important skillset if you hope to be thriving, fulfilled, authentic, and resilient.
But there is a misconception floating around that boundaries are supposed to be and need to be big, impenetrable walls. Truthfully, boundaries done that way can accidentally be a seed for unnecessary shame to grow. When we tell ourselves something shouldn't ever come into our reality and then we end up faced with it, we find ourselves ashamed of being or being associated with that which we've labeled off-limits, bad, or wrong.
I have found the most effective approach to boundaries is when boundaries are really thresholds. They are transparent. They have context. They need protection. It's okay to make them flexible if you want to (but ONLY if YOU want to). And some threshold-style boundaries may be inflexible, but you can still see through to the person or situation on the other side. You can offer compassion and curiosity on your own terms without sacrificing parts of yourself.
The best kinds are made out of mutual understanding (or if understanding cannot be achieved on both sides, at least clear communication about personal needs), historical and situational context, and a flexible code of conduct for the people who might engage the boundary in pursuit of the greater good.
My client Claire, special requested an entire post on boundaries because the whole boundary game can seem a bit mysterious.
A phrase I hear a lot is: "I grew up without boundaries." And I want to offer a clarification to that common phrase: "I grew up without fully honored and expressed boundaries."
What I mean is, even if your family felt that certain behaviors were okay, you didn't. And every time you got tangled up in family behavior in such a way that felt bad to you, you didn't know how to speak up for yourself or weren't respected when you asserted your own experience and ask that your family engage in a different way.
Just like me and you, Claire probably always knew what felt okay and not okay to her. Her body probably told her by way of her nervous system and emotional reactions. She probably did have boundaries. But, because boundaries are transparent thresholds that need acknowledgement and protection, those boundaries weren't respected in part because she didn't effectively communicate and execute them. Chances are, she didn't think she was allowed or never got a direct education in how to do such a thing gracefully yet powerfully.
Most of us don't effectively communicate and execute our boundaries because we believe there is some obligation or reward in feeling not okay. And, most of us who do assert a boundary but experience egregious crossing by others are in a situation where we don't have anyone close to us who respects our whole person and can help us in a way that is needed at the time.
I've always been a fairly empathic person. I was a smart kid who liked hanging out with adults and I got a lot of positive reinforcement when I made things easier for other people at the expense of my own needs and desires. I ended up taking that pattern to extremes as a teenager and young adult and ended up in terrible relationships during that time. But, I didn't know how else to be, nor did I realize I was allowed to be a different way.
Most of this stuff gets laid down in childhood when our social network is very small and our security depends on other people. But even as our network expands and we become agents of our own security, we still tend to stick to our patterns that keep us confused or disempowered around our own boundaries.
The time to learn new skills that help you honor your boundaries is now.
Feeling not okay is not normal or necessary to give or receive love and acceptance.
So, go! Go and communicate your boundaries. "This dynamic feels good. This dynamic does not. Living by these values feels aligned. Living by these values feels icky." But be advised that really effective boundaries are not walls that rupture relationships, rather, they actually help connect you to other people....which means you and whoever is on the other side of your boundary can both be authentically seen and heard.
When the thing someone is calling a boundary is actually a wall, it is feeding fear and creating isolation. It drives people apart. What was intended as a tool to guide considerate interactions ends up shutting people down, pushing them apart, and encouraging shame.
When we put up walls, it separates us from ourselves. Walls usually happen when something stings in a place we already feel pain. As I began to pivot from my way of ignoring my boundaries and letting people cross them at my own expense, I sometimes over-corrected. I can still be a bit harsh at times. And I notice it happens when something very sacred to me that I have not protected well in the past feels threatened again. My walls go up when I'm afraid and when I'm reminded of the times I felt like I let myself down earlier in life.
But what I know now is the sting that results in instantaneous wall-building is showing you exactly where to put your loving attention and ask for help. Holding onto walls makes that tender spot off-limits to everyone. But, boundaries as thresholds allow attention and TLC to go there safely, if you're ready for it, when you're ready, on your terms.
Thanks, Claire, for making this request just now. It's actually a great time for my own personal reflection because my husband and I have been having boundary conversations lately. And the central focus is mostly on how to see and hear our partner without sacrificing our own experience or any part of our authentic self.
I'd be violating his privacy of I shared my partner's end of the conversation, but I'll happily share mine.
I like to start the conversation by acknowledging my own boundary that has been crossed or is being threatened in the circumstance. And then I set the stage for the conversation by saying I'm going to speak from both sides of my boundary threshold. The first is my own, inner experience. It's my emotions, my beliefs, my questions, and my personal perspective. But the second is his side. I can see why he may hold certain beliefs and take certain actions, and I can hold space for the inner experience he is grappling with.
It's a very clear divide in perspectives and I get to speak for myself first. Simply knowing there is space for both of us to have separate but connected experiences is comforting and actually strengthens our bond while reinforcing respect for personal boundaries.
There are always two sides to a boundary and being able to witness and be witnessed across that line gives us a secure connection with ourselves and others. The shift in perspective from one side of the threshold to the other usually happens quickly for me, but it doesn't have to happen that fast. In fact, it may do me some good to linger a while before sending my gaze across to another. We all need to take space for ourselves before we hold space for another, and that's okay.
Happy boundaries to you.