Last week I wrote about how respecting feelings is essential for health — well, there’s an equally important other side of this equation, and that is about boundaries. This is exponentially harder than simply respecting feelings, because it relies on our ability to respect feelings and so much more.
I define boundaries as what we can handle and stay sustainably healthy. Each of us personally has boundaries, and relationships have boundaries. We definitely can’t see them, and often times we aren’t aware of our ability to feel them, either. Most of us are pretty poor at setting boundaries, at being aware of what they ideally would be, how to trust our assessment of that, and how to stand firm in it and communicate it.
A few years ago I had a yoga teacher introduce me to the concept of “Maintaining the Integrity of Your Space” (thank you Jason Vinci, where ever the heck you are these days) — this was a huge breakthrough for me. I was raised in a family that valued being of service and being considerate of others. As a child, there was a lot of shame around being selfish and/or being inconsiderate of others. My psyche developed by over compensating — I was conditioned to be thinking of others, and to be self less, to a fault. I had no framework for self care and I had no awareness of how much fear I had around getting anywhere close to putting myself above anyone else. I didn’t realize how damaging this was to my mental, emotional and spiritual health. When Jason shared this concept of “Maintaining the Integrity of Your Space” it gave me a framework to start to functionally care for myself without fear of being selfish. To start to respect boundaries in a way I had never considered before.
First of all, you can’t respect what you don’t know, so before that class with Jason, I definitely wasn’t respecting my boundaries. My boundaries were a mess because I generally didn’t pay any attention to them or the idea of them. I thought I simply wasn’t good enough, or the other person wasn’t good enough as opposed to that I wasn’t good at boundaries! And, just starting to realize that I had a right to boundaries didn’t mean that I had any clarity yet on what they were and how to feel them moment to moment, in the flow of life.
Some boundaries are simple in theory — we are all deserving of, and ultimately need, respect, communication and consistency. Without those three things, we are not in a healthy environment. We can develop resiliency, for sure, but fundamentally we deserve and need these three things to be healthy. Respect is caring and validation of a right to exist (and includes love and compassion). Without that, our health will not be supported by our environment. Similarly, communication is necessary to be a healthy human being. Cut off, we will not have a way to be optimally connected to our outside world. Consistency is what enables us to trust, to be vulnerable, to open to the deeper intimacy that is like a flower blossoming. That is the good stuff. If you haven’t watched Brene Brown’s TED Talk on Vulnerability, definitely check it out. If you have ever read The Little Prince, there is a part about the fox asking for consistency from the Prince — it is a simplified example, that I didn’t understand on a deeper level until recently, but the vulnerability that we need to allow in order to deeply connect with someone absolutely requires consistency.
My deep values are another example of simple boundaries, again in theory. Courage, Compassion, Curiosity and Openness, Honesty, Humility and Evolution are all examples of deep values that give me boundaries for my life. If you haven’t spent time thinking through what these are for you and prioritizing them as boundaries, I highly recommend it. It is a powerful practice.
In the real world, day to day, boundaries are quite complex, for a number of reasons. First, boundaries are based on subjective feelings, not objective realities. What may feel disrespectful may not have been done with disrespectful intention — so what may FEEL like a boundary issue is actually a communication issue, if you want to look at it like that. It is really tricky to navigate! If we don’t trust our selves sufficiently, we don’t know how to navigate our feelings and what we are taking personally, it is going to be quite messy. I have distilled it down in my relationships by coming back to the fundamental mantras I have shared in the past — I need to feel heard and I need to feel that you are caring about my feelings (and I promise that to you). That is the basis of respect and communication, and I focus on that before whatever the conflict at hand actually is. That gives us a firm foundation and is all about the development of skills beyond that, as long as both people are committed to respecting each other and coming back to upholding those promises.
Second, nothing (and no one) is perfect. We need to find what our boundary is around trust and repairing trust — we need to feel that out for ourselves. There will be times when our partner isn’t able to be respectful or consistent, and we need to figure out how to repair that trust. Equally important is in trusting ourselves — how often do you say to yourself that you aren’t going to do something but then go ahead and do it anyway? We need to think about treating ourselves with the same trust and respect that we want from others — not that we will be perfect but repairing when necessary. Honoring ourselves and maintaining our self respect. Not easy stuff. And, as a reminder from last week, respecting feelings is a must, but, tolerating “bad” behavior is a must not. Repeat after me: I love you, I do not love your behavior.
Third, boundaries can’t be defined in a linear “If this then that” sense. What I mean by that is, at any given moment, with slightly different circumstances, the boundaries could be different. A good way to exemplify this is when someone ask you a favor. Suppose someone asks you to drive them to the airport. You would need to know when they need you to do it, and much information about all of the surrounding circumstances, because generally speaking you would be happy to drive them to the airport, but if they want you to drive them at 5am on a Sunday and you have a concert the night before, you might not feel like you are able to. In fact, there are so many unexpected circumstance that could pop up at the last minute to change whether it feels “doable” or not. You need the whole picture of that moment to adequately figure out the boundary, and rarely can we see the whole picture. And of course, the “drive to the airport” analogy is just an over simplified way to start to think about our boundaries — real boundaries are a lot more complex than just doing someone a favor. This is why we need to stay open and flexible with our boundaries. I will never say never, and never say always. 😉 There is so much subtle nuance to each moment, and that impacts our boundaries.
On that note, I need to add that respecting boundaries doesn’t mean that you don’t push and that you don’t bend — healthy boundaries are made to be expanded and to be flexible. We hopefully are in a state of growth and evolution, becoming stronger, healthier and more powerful, which will inherently expand our boundaries. Staying open to that, not assuming that because something was a boundary last week, it means that it will forever be one
Back to the original reason why this is so tricky: we need to FEEL the boundaries, FEEL what FEELS strong and true, versus what feels weak and untrue, and learn to trust that as we flow through life.