The Complicated Nature of Boundaries

dsc_8918Boundaries are a common topic in the realm of mental heatlh.  This is because boundaries matter.  They are integral to attachment—how we give and receive care.  They are integral to safety and the way we care for ourselves. Brene Brown describes boundaries in simple terms, “what is okay and what is not okay”.

Boundaries and Beliefs

Boundaries seem simple enough based on the above definition but they develop in very complex ways. Our early care-receiving experiences influence our worldview. This worldview can be broken down into 4 statements (although I acknowledge that this is an oversimplification):

I am. . .

Others are. . .

The world is. . .

So I must. . .

The world view we develop then influences how we relate to ourselves, others, and the world. How we relate directly influences our boundaries. For example, if I learn I am valuable, others are trustworthy, and the world is good, I then learn to love and be loved.  If I believe I deserve to be valued I will not accept poor treatment, and if I learn to care for others I will likely respect their boundaries in return.

However, if I learn I am unlovable, others are unpredictable or uncaring, and the world is not safe, then I may believe I must protect myself and refuse to trust others.  This could result in rigid boundaries in which I keep everyone out, refuse to accept care, and isolate.  In addition, I might believe that I must violate the boundaries of others to get my needs met.

If I learn that I am to be used, others are hurtful, and the world is unsafe, I may believe that I must do what I am told—or that my boundaries do not matter.  As a result I may develop diffuse boundaries, allowing others to dictate my boundaries for me.  This is not because I am “easy”; it is because I have learned, based on my unique experience and worldview that this is how I survive. It is how I stay safe in an unsafe world.

Boundaries and the Body; Trusting your Gut

If I were to stand by you and begin to inch closer and closer, I would likely reach a point where you became uncomfortable. You might communicate this by moving away or simple telling me I’m too close. But how would you know I am too close? When I do this exercise with individuals or groups their response to this question is usually, “It feels weird” or “I’m not sure”. Typically, it is not a thought that signals someone is too close, it is a somatic experience—a feeling in the body.

Those who suffer from post-traumatic stress (PTS) often lose connection with their bodies. When faced with threat, our bodies engage in fight/flight (our nervous system prepares for action) or freeze (we prepare to endure rather than escape). Our body is flooded with physical sensations that signal the response most likely to increase our survival. In individuals with PTS or PTSD, the survival responses stay engaged.  So now, even seemingly trivial annoyances trigger a big reaction.  Or small stressors result in complete shut down and disengagement.

So what does this have to do with boundaries? Well, if I numb and disengage at the first sign of threat, I begin to lose connection with my body.  I am no longer privy to the “gut instincts” that tell me when someone is too close. If I am constantly flooded with signals of threat and triggered by daily reminders of threat, I can no longer differentiate between what is truly threatening and what is benign. My boundaries now seem unpredictable and untrustworthy. I may miss cues that I am in an unsafe situation or relationship. I might push people away prematurely because I’m hypervigilant, sensing threat when there is none. Eventually I may stop trusting myself and live by black and white rules—keep everyone out or don’t set boundaries at all.

Now What?

Because boundaries are tied to our experiences, our beliefs, and our gut instincts, changing them is not as easy as simply shifting our behavior. It’s much more than learning to say “no”. Boundaries are complicated! They are not meant to be black and white. If I have learned that setting a boundary gets me hurt worse, setting a healthy boundary may feel extremely uncomfortable and unsafe. Accepting help when help has been unpredictable or manipulative may feel too risky.

Addressing boundaries involves creating self-awareness around how your boundaries developed and the purpose they serve—identify your worldview. I find for most people boundaries are about safety or connection. Developing healthy boundaries means finding a way to connect to your body and learning to trust your gut. It means finding healthy ways to genuinely connect with others. This could be a complicated process requiring counseling and support but it could also mean developing skills to stay present in the moment through mindfulness. Finally, developing healthy boundaries may mean taking a risk because changing the way you live, connect and perhaps the way you survive is HARD!

The best thing about developing healthy boundaries? YOU get to return to the driver’s seat. YOU are the gatekeeper who chooses who gets in and who gets out—and you change the rules whenever you want. It’s not black and white—my boundaries are different depending on my relationship with each person. PTS and PTSD steal your power, and developing healthy boundaries helps you take it back. It’s risky and hard, but YOU are worth that.

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