In therapeutic spaces, we used to talk about a boundary as something outside a person, a line that separates and protects them from others. But I’ve come to realize that boundaries aren’t something we create and then put in place. Instead, a boundary is something that’s already within us. It’s our sense of “what’s okay for me” and what isn’t. It’s our internal knowing of “what nourishes me?” and what doesn’t. So the work of boundaries is not in creating something artificial to place between us – on that side appropriate, on this side not. Instead, it’s about first listening to and second respecting our own limits or edges.
That said, if you find yourself acting very rigidly and walled off from situation to situation, or you find yourself unable to say no and put yourself as a priority, this may be an indicator its time to work on your relationship with your own boundaries.
Boundaries seem to land on a continuum. On the one end we have boundaries that are open (meaning we let quite a lot in), and on the other end are boundaries that are closed (meaning not much gets in at all).
On the more “open” side of the continuum, this end is characterized by taking on other people’s opinions of you and allowing that to alter how you feel about yourself. It also involves taking on other people’s feelings, so that their anxiety becomes your anxiety, their disappointment becomes your disappointment, and so on. People on this side may have a harder time standing up for themselves even when they’re feeling uncomfortable. It also might mean sharing a lot of personal information without the foundation of a trusting relationship within which to do that.
On the more “closed” side of the continuum, this end involves being protected, but not influence-able –nothing comes in. Walls can protect us at times, but when overused, tend to keep us isolated from others and closed to the healing potential of vulnerability. When you are behind a wall, you are not open, and you are not listening. There are several types of walls, including walls of anger, words, preoccupation, silence, worry, depression, humor, pleasantry, and seduction. When threatened, we learn to keep our boundary extended and convert it into a fortified wall. This allows us to feel safer but the consequence is that we become cut off from life and sometimes our selves. Many people relate to others from behind their walls, well defended and field dependent (the need to please and control others). This may seem appropriate for everyday interactions at work or in social situations. However, walls do not allow for self-awareness or intimacy (the desire to reveal oneself to another). Once created, walls imprison as much as they protect.
The activity that we engaged in was to reflect on our boundaries within different areas in our lives. Participants drew a line on a sheet a paper to represent the boundaries continuum with one end representing more open and the other end more closed. We then plotted how open or closed we are within our work environment, learning environment, close friends, acquaintances, partners, parents, children, extended family. What did you learn about yourself in terms of your boundaries?
You can also review some handouts on boundaries on Nicole’s website: http://www.feministcounselloredmonton.com/handouts.html