Since I began this blog I’ve wanted to write about boundaries, not only because I myself am trying to develop better ones, but also because it seems to me boundaries are a large part of what’s broken in our culture.
We’re all aware of headlines from all over the world about human rights, ethnic and racial struggle, politics, sexual identity, religion and war. It seems to me boundaries are a core piece in each headline; an enormously complex piece of human function and dysfunction. How do we define, understand and effectively manage boundaries — both our own and those of others? How do we manage people who consistently violate our boundaries?
Trying to organize my thoughts about this is like trying to herd cats. That being said, I can choose a starting point, so I’m going to start there and see if the subject organizes itself as I write.
I approach most subjects with a definition and curiosity about what others are saying about it. A Google search for “boundary” tells me it’s a “dividing line.”
I’ve read two articles recently about boundaries. One is written from an emotional intelligence perspective and one is about human rights, kind of a sidewise look at boundaries through the idea of respect. Both have contributed to my mental soup on this subject.
My experience is that any piece of human function or dysfunction begins with myself. Self-reflection and self-inquiry are powerful tools for me, even though I occasionally wince at what I find!
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
So, let’s play a game. Open your refrigerator, or your pantry, or your cupboard. Look at a shelf where you keep food. Everything is in a container. The container around the food is a boundary. If none of that food had boundaries around it — well, that would just be a mess.
As we start thinking about boundaries from ourselves outward, let’s take a jar of strawberry jam. It’s a glass jar with a screw top lid and it’s clearly labeled strawberry jam. Effective boundaries, it seems to me, begin with a correct identification of what’s being contained. We have to know who we are before we can create healthy boundaries, because our boundaries won’t look like someone else’s. They’re not one size fits all. You can’t keep strawberry jam in an eggshell. You don’t want raw eggs in a jar labeled strawberry jam. A can with the label torn off could still be food, but it’s hard to use it effectively.
Mislabeling happens in two directions. There are those externally who tell us who we will, should or must be (or who we will, should or must NOT be), and there are our own internal expectations of who we are and what we need. If something goes wrong right here, at the first step of boundary work, we’ve got problems.
This takes us directly back to several dynamics I’ve posted about — expectations, stories, saying yes and no, and pleasing people among them. My experience in my own western middle-class culture has been painful pressure to be who I’m expected to be, not who I really am. If this can happen to me, a straight, white, average-looking, average-sized, able-bodied, unambiguous female, then I know hundreds of thousands of people out there are being systematically emotionally and spiritually maimed in ways I can’t begin to fathom.
This opposition to knowing and being ourselves is everywhere. Capitalism is based on the idea you’re not okay as you are, but you will be if you buy…whatever it is.
Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash
I’m strawberry jam. I’m not grape jelly, even though it’s more valuable. I’m not blackberry jam, even though it’s more attractive. I’m not raspberry jam, even though it’s more popular. Go ahead, glue a label on me that says “currant jelly.” I’m still going to be strawberry jam, and my true boundaries are a glass jar with a screw top lid and a label that says strawberry jam.
As cruel as it is, the external pressure we feel to be other than we are is not the most damaging thing. The most damaging piece is what we do internally to ourselves. I can spend my whole life with my fingers in my ears and my eyes squinched shut saying I’m peanut butter, but I’ll always be strawberry jam. Other people will know it. I’ll know it. Nothing will ever work for me because I’m in the world trying to be something I’m not. I won’t find my people. I won’t find my place. I won’t figure out and make my contribution. I won’t have effective boundaries. I won’t be happy.
Not only that, but my inability to manage and maintain effective boundaries affects everyone around me. If my jar is cracked or broken, strawberry jam is going to ooze out onto the shelf. It’ll make a mess. It’ll attract pests and predators. It’ll be wasted and it will impoverish the peanut butter, the toast, the butter and whatever else might have connected with me as strawberry jam.
Photo by Jonathan Pielmayer on Unsplash
In order to have healthy boundaries we have to know what we need. In order to know what we need we have to know who we are. Finding out who we are can be a terrifying prospect, especially if we’re captive to what other people, media, our culture, and most of all ourselves tell us we MUST be in order to get loved and find happiness, meaning and purpose.
I have made up my mind I will build better boundaries. I will figure this out. If anybody out there will walk beside me, I’ll be very pleased. I know I’m not the only one struggling with this. In fact, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have trouble with some piece of it.
My starting point is right here, with myself. I’m strawberry jam and my boundaries are a glass jar and a screw top lid. My label says strawberry jam. I’ve no interest in forcing, persuading or coercing anyone else to be strawberry jam. I just know what I am. It might be that strawberry jam is outlawed, shunned, shamed, beheaded, tortured, raped, imprisoned, damned to Hell, unsaved, unenlightened, unlovable, unwanted, unworthy or lined up against a stone wall and shot under a hot sun. I’ll still be strawberry jam. I’m not confused and I’m not going to feel ashamed about it.
Peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich, anyone?
All content on this site ©2016
except where otherwise noted
This is the second of I’m not sure how many posts about boundaries. See last week’s post for the beginning of the discussion!
Today the aspect of boundaries I want to explore is the one I have the most trouble with. This aspect concerns managing boundaries with people we love.
Continuing with our metaphor of food on a shelf, last week I was comfortable with my identity of strawberry jam. I know who I am, I’m in an intact container (most of the time) and I intend to be labeled accurately and effectively. That’s all INTRApersonal start-where-you-are work.
However, there’s other food on the shelf. The universe doesn’t revolve around strawberry jam, alas! In fact, next to me is a jar of dill pickles.
Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash
We’ve been together as long as I can remember, sitting side by side on the shelf. We’ve watched other food in other containers come and go. The eggs in particular have quite the turnover rate. We’re companions, friends, and in fact it’s not an exaggeration to say I love Pickles.
But one day I notice something has changed. The clear green juice in the jar with floating bits of herbs and spices is getting cloudy. And is that — could it possibly be — grey fur along one side of a pickle?
Disaster. Catastrophe. It can’t be true. My beloved Pickles is beginning to grow fur. Everybody on the shelf knows what this means. Sooner or later, the refrigerator/cupboard/shelf Gods will cull Pickles. Gone forever.
I can’t imagine my life without Pickles.
Naturally, I want to help. No kind of food could possibly want to wear grey fur. There must be something I can do.
If I love Pickles, I must be able to fix this.
If I really, truly love Pickles, and my love is real and unselfish and unconditional (and Pickles is worth that kind of love), there’s a way for my love to fix this.
If I fail to fix this, my love is at fault.
That, ladies and gentlemen, eggs and bacon, is where I lose my boundaries. It’s all very clear and self-evident when it’s laid out in black type on the page, or in this case, screen. Love can’t fix everything. Love isn’t always enough. Sometimes we can’t “help” other people. Bad things happen to good people all the time. Loss is part of love. Right?
My brain understands this. My brain functions pretty well. My brain is not the problem. It’s my heart, my emotions, my stories, my beliefs and my expectations that are unruly and stubborn.
Photo by juan pablo rodriguez on Unsplash
Perhaps I haven’t explained it well, my connection with Pickles. I know him better than anyone. I understand him. He’s the most important person in my life. He’s part of who I am. If I lose him, I’ll lose part of myself. I thought nothing could ever part us, or damage our respect and trust in one another. In fact, we’re so close we don’t need boundaries.
(Naturally, he feels the same way about me. He doesn’t say so, but one doesn’t expect pickles to emote like strawberry jam.)
Loving fully and unconditionally means no boundaries, right? Isn’t that what we learn? If we love unselfishly, completely, without reservation, then boundaries are unnecessary and we can count on getting that same kind of love in return. Loving well equals being well loved. Isn’t that the way it works? Only a selfish bitch maintains boundaries, an unloving, cold woman, a ball breaker. Only an indifferent, unfit mother maintains boundaries between herself and her children. Only a judgmental, critical, power-hungry female protects herself with boundaries. Generous, attractive, truly loving people have no need of boundaries. They don’t count the cost. They always say yes. They give freely of their resources to whoever is in need without expectations or strings attached. They never keep score. They have no needs, these lucky, healthy, beautiful, abundant people. They feed and nurture the world.
Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash
Boy, does this world need people like that. That’s the kind of woman/friend/mate/mother/daughter/sister I want to be. If I want to save Pickles, that’s the kind of person I have to be.
Here’s the thing.
I can’t be that. I’m not sure anyone can be that.
I’m not talking about ideology here. I’m not qualified for or interested in religious debate. What I’m saying is I can’t be a bottomless, endless nurturer and giver with no needs, and I’m not convinced anyone else can, either. I know some who say they can, pretend they can and/or expect others to be, but I’ve never met anyone who really lives like that — at least not long term. Not successfully and not happily, anyway.
But aren’t we supposed to?
Did I learn this wrong? Did I misunderstand? I can’t point to any one person who taught me this, after all. Did I make it all up? Or, alternatively, am I not the woman I think I am and aspire to be? Am I small, mean, petty, hypocritical and selfish? Am I unable to love the right way? Am I a fraud? Am I self-deluded?
Why am I in such chronic painful confusion about something my intellect sees so clearly? Why does it seem that managing boundaries INTERpersonally carries such a negative connotation? Why can’t I reconcile loving someone with all my heart with effective, appropriate boundaries between that person and me? What is the source of this cognitive dissonance?
Which is more devastating — people who have no boundaries themselves and bitterly resent mine, or people who maintain boundaries between us when I have none?
In the first case I feel trapped, resentful and intruded upon, and in the second I feel hideously rejected, unappreciated and used. Neither feel like healthy connection, but I call both love.
So here I am, side by side with Pickles on the shelf. We look at each other through the glass sides of our boundaries. I want to climb inside his container and take him in my arms, love him back into clear green juicy health, but if I do that I’ll start growing gray fur myself, and I know I can’t fix him at the same time I believe I should be able to. I want to run away, turn away, not know what’s happening, but I can’t.
There’s nothing I can do. My love is not enough. Grey fur is creeping over Pickles and I can’t avoid it, flee it or stop it. I can only wait and watch and sit here in my container, while Pickles sits in his.
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except where otherwise noted
As I’ve thought about this post, I realize the theme of being lost and found is a thread running through my life and my writing. Years ago, when I was first introduced to Clarissa Pinkola Estes and devouring everything I could find by her, she used a phrase I’ve never forgotten: everything lost is found again.
Everything lost is found again.
The possibility of that truth gave me deep comfort, something I badly needed in those days.
Maybe we don’t find all the things we lose in our lifetimes, and maybe not in our deathtimes. But maybe someone else finds what we lost. Or maybe what we lost comes back to us looking so different we don’t recognize it. Or maybe what we lost is not truly lost at all. We carelessly leave things behind, or we amputate them, or we deny they were ever there in the first place. We fear we’ve lost them. We try to lose them. But maybe they never really leave us, they just hide somewhere in the attic of our minds until we need them. We ascend the stairs, enter the musk and debris of years, all the broken, aging, outdated and rejected parts of our lives and ourselves mouldering together in cobwebs and dust.
I like to imagine that.
I’ve posted before about being lost and found. I went back and read it as I worked on this post, so as not to be repetitive. That post was a seasonal meditation on the nature of change. I didn’t explore it quite from the angle of losing to find.
I came across a quote recently from Kristin Martz: “We lose ourselves in the things we love. We find ourselves there, too.” It made me smile, and think about the parts of my life so deeply absorbing I am self-forgetful as I live them. My head is empty. I am pure being, without self-consciousness or anxiety. Time does not exist. I feel a kind of boundary ecstasy, an awareness of connection to everyone and everything, an essential and lovely part of some greater whole.
Perhaps during such times we lose all the crust, the armor, the accumulation of useless and punishing junk we’ve somehow picked up or been taught, and are pared down to who we really are in our souls and spirits.
Many of us don’t want to let go of our junk, though. It’s been with us so long it forms part of our identity, part of our story, and we don’t want to let it go. Then who would we be? How would we recognize ourselves? What might change? What different or challenging things might we be required to do? We don’t take the leap into anything we might lose ourselves in, so we never fully find ourselves, either.
Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash
Maybe the times in life when we truly feel we’ve lost it all are also the times we’re finding unimaginable grace and meaning.
It’s a circle, a natural life cycle, an ebb and flow of experience.
Another thing I came across somewhere years ago is the idea of an older, wiser version of ourselves, always at our shoulder supporting, advising, guiding, and cheering us on as we journey through our lives. I often make a picture of it in my mind, myself as an old (well, older!) crone, holding my hands out to a younger, struggling self the same way I hold my hands out to children I’m teaching to swim.
“You can do it. I’m right here. I won’t let go of you. You’ve got this! Now … swim!” Or jump. Or put your face in the water.
“Risk,” my elder self says, “dare, follow your heart, do what you need to do for yourself. Go ahead, write, it, dream it, imagine it, enjoy it. Be happy. Play. Rest. This is the way forward.”
And, “I believe in you.” That’s what I most long to hear.
I know it’s terribly cliched, but lately I’ve been thinking about what life means. Does it mean anything? Can anyone say what it means, or must we all make our own meaning? I lean toward the latter. I’ve wondered before what life is for, what I am for, but always in soul-dark times. This is not a dark time for me. In fact, I’m gradually coming back into the light. Now the question is a curiosity, a toy, and my answers are not concrete, not a vehicle for getting through another day, but more intuitive and less formed into language.
I keep going back to that quote: “We lose ourselves in the things we love. We find ourselves there, too.”
Losing everything to find something. There’s some kind of deep truth in that my intellect can’t quite grasp, but my spirit does.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
I wonder, with an inward smile, if that’s not my answer for the meaning of life. Finding myself, however that happens. Paring away all the scar tissue and junk, losing and losing and losing the people and places I thought were part of my identity, along with objects, money, youth, innocence, and countless other small, ordinary losses we all experience until the best, most extraordinary me is revealed. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the meaning of life is nothing more than to immerse ourselves in it, cherish our physical experience and pleasures, give ourselves to those activities in which we lose ourselves …
… and find ourselves?
No philosophy. No agonized handwringing or intellectual labyrinths. Just body, soul, joy, and loss. And discovery on the other side of loss.
Maybe the meaning of life is simply to live.
It’s in the moment we take our eyes off the road and the car in front of us to reach for our water bottle that it happens.
It’s in the moment we’re preoccupied with our distress over a fight we had with a loved one before we came to work that we miss something key in the meeting.
It’s the moment of emotional reaction, the moment of distraction, the moment in which we’re trying to manage our feelings that provides an opening for accident, miscommunication, injury, even violence.
Windows are openings in boundaries, in walls and barriers and closed, airless cells. They allow egress and entry, movement. Sometimes air, sunshine, and birdsong come in and our best selves go out. Sometimes monsters and demons crawl in and our worst selves go out.
Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash
Predators of all kinds look for windows, openings in our defenses, in our boundaries. Windows that can be cracked, wedged, broken, pried. Their tools are ideology, lies, personal attacks, misdirection, denial, silencing, and threats.
If our emotions can be controlled, if distrust and drama can be manufactured, if we can be put on the defensive, our windows become open holes. We are no longer able to open and close them at will, control what comes in and what goes out.
When our ability to think critically and be proactive is overwhelmed by our reactions and defenses, we cannot make thoughtful choices. We no longer have the energy and presence to look, listen, feel, and think about what we’re hearing or seeing. Our emotions hold us captive, and whoever controls our emotions has our power.
Emotional manipulation is seductive. We become attached to exercising our outrage. Our fear is addictive, so addictive we employ denial and cling frantically to what we want to believe, what we want to hear.
Predators need not show their work, cite their sources, or back up their assertions. They need not tell the truth or undergo the tension of collaboration and cooperation. They don’t need to waste their time with civil discourse, learning new information, or considering other points of view.
All they need is a lust for power and an open window. Like the screen you’re reading this on.
Oppositional energy and inflammatory language are short cuts, toxic mimics for true discourse and contribution. They provide a hiding place for those hunting for power and control, those unable to think critically or master information.
If we’re busy arguing, defending, and being distracted by our emotional hijack, we can’t evaluate situations and people clearly. If we can’t get a grip on a situation, perhaps somewhere in the background a predator has jimmied a window or two and successfully invaded our house.
Toss them out.
And then let’s repair our windows.
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A little over three years ago I wrote a post titled “Questions Before Engagement.”
Since then, the world has changed, and so have I.
I’m not on social media, but my biggest writing cheerleader is, and he tells me people are talking about how to recognize red flags. He suggested I post again about problematic behavior patterns.
A red flag is a warning sign indicating we need to pay attention. It doesn’t necessarily mean all is lost, or we’ve made a terrible mistake, or it’s time to run. It might be whoever we’re dealing with is simply having a bad day. Nobody’s perfect.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
A persistent pattern of red flags is significant. Ignoring problematic behavior sets us up to get hurt.
The problem with managing red flags is we may be flying several ourselves, and until we figure out our own behavior we’re going to struggle to deal effectively with others.
We all have an excellent built-in system alerting us to possible danger. We call it intuition, going with our gut, or having a hunch or a feeling. We may not know why we feel uneasy, but we subconsciously pick up on threatening or “off” behavior from others. The difficulty is we’re frequently actively taught to disregard our gut feelings, especially as women. We’re being dramatic, or hysterical, or a bitch. We’re drawing attention to ourselves, or making a scene. What we saw, heard or felt wasn’t real. It didn’t happen, or if it did happen, we brought it on ourselves.
We live in a culture that’s increasingly invalidating. Having a bad feeling about someone is framed as being hateful, engaging in profiling, or being exclusive rather than inclusive. Social pressure makes it hard to speak up when we feel uncomfortable. Many of the most influential among us believe their money and power place them above the law, and this appears to be true in some cases. In the absence of justice, we become apathetic. What’s the point of responding to our intuition and trying to keep our connections clean and healthy when we can’t get any support in doing so?
If we grow up being told we can’t trust our own feelings and perceptions, we’re dangerously handicapped; we don’t respond to our intuition because we don’t trust it. We talk ourselves out of self-defense. We recognize red flags on some level, but we don’t trust ourselves enough to respond appropriately. Indeed, some of us have been severely punished for responding appropriately, so we’ve learned to normalize and accept inappropriate behavior.
So before we concern ourselves with others’ behavior, we need to do some self-assessment:
- Do we trust ourselves?
- Do we respond to our intuition?
- Do we choose to defend ourselves?
- Do we have healthy personal boundaries?
- Do we keep our word to ourselves?
- Do we know how to say both yes and no?
- Do we know what our needs are?
- Are we willing to look at our situation and relationships clearly and honestly, no matter how unwelcome the truth might be?
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Once we’ve become familiar with our own motivation and behavior patterns, we can turn our attention outward and focus on the behavior of those we interact with.
Red flags frequently seem too bad to be true. In intimate relationships with partners and family, the anguish of acknowledging toxic or dangerous behavior and setting limits around it cannot be overstated. Those we are closest to trigger our deepest and most volatile passions. This is why it’s so important to be honest with ourselves.
The widest lens through which to examine any given relationship is that of power-over or power-with. I say ‘lens’ because we must look and see, not listen for what we want to hear. Talk is cheap. People lie. Observation over time tells us more than words ever could. In the case of a stranger offering unwanted help with groceries, we don’t have an opportunity to observe over time, but we can say a clear “no” and immediately notice if our no is respected or ignored. We may have no more than a minute or two to decide to take evasive or defensive action.
If we are not in an emergency situation, or dealing with a family member or person we’ve known for a long time, it might be easier to discern if they’re generally working for power-with or power-over. However, many folks are quite adept at using the right words and hiding their true agenda. Their actions over time will invariably clarify the truth.
Power-over versus power-with is a simple way to examine behavior. No labels and jargon involved. No politics. No concern with age, race, ethnicity, biological sex, or gender expression. Each position of power is identifiable by a cluster of behaviors along a continuum. We decide how far we are willing to slide in one direction or another.
- Silencing, deplatforming, threatening, personal attacks, forced teaming, bullying, controlling
- Win and be right at all costs
- Gaslighting, projection, DARVO tactics (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender)
- Fostering confusion, distrust, disinformation, and violence
- Poor communication and refusing to answer questions
- Emotional unavailability
- High-conflict behavior
- Blaming and shaming of others
- Refusal to respect boundaries
- Refusal to discuss, debate, learn new information, take no for an answer
- Lack of reciprocity
- Lack of interest in the needs and experiences of others
- Encouraging questions, feedback, open discussion, new information, ongoing learning, critical thinking
- Prioritizing connection, collaboration, and cooperation over winning and being right; tolerance
- Clear, consistent, honest communication
- Fostering clarity, trust, information (facts), healthy boundaries, reciprocity, authenticity, and peaceful problem solving
- Emotionally available and intelligent
- Taking responsibility for choices and consequences
- Words and actions are consistent over time
- Respect and empathy for others
We don’t need to be in the dark about red flags. Here are some highly recommended resources:
- The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker
- Bill Eddy’s website and books about high-conflict personalities
- Controlling People by Patricia Evans
Image by Bob Dmyt from Pixabay