Sure, we know that it's popular these days to have something called "healthy boundaries". If we leave our work at the office, say "no" to offers we don't like, and ask people to step off our toes when they're too close, we may think we've got the whole boundary thing licked. But there’s more to boundaries than we typically tend to think.
Fundamentally, boundaries are meant to help us find safety. They delineate where our (mental, emotional, physical) space ends, and where another's may begin. When we have healthy boundaries, we take responsibility for our needs, thoughts, and feelings, and we allow others to have their own needs, thoughts, and feelings, without taking responsibility or needing to somehow change them. When we honor our boundaries, we set limits, and take adult responsibility for our experiences.
One way to think of boundaries is to recognize how we interact with them in several different categories:
1. Physical: How much space would we like between ourselves and others? What sorts of affection and touch do we want, and not want? How much sleep and self-care time do we need to feel our best? Usually, traumas such as accidents are primarily physical boundary violations. We can feel violated by life itself—as if we have lost trust in the integrity and ongoing well-being of our physical self. Sexual and physical assaults, while of course being physical boundary violations, can also be emotional and energetic boundary violations.
2. Emotional: How would we like to be spoken to? What sorts of feedback feels good to us, and what is unnecessarily hurtful? Can we allow other people to feel sad, angry, hurt, or fearful, without needing to “fix” them in some way? Can we allow ourselves to feel sad, angry, hurt, or fearful, without blaming it on anyone or anything else? Can we choose what we’re ready to share about our inner life with another person, at a pace that honors the safety and trustworthiness of the relationship?
3. Intellectual/mental: Can we respect other people’s viewpoints and ways of seeing the world, even if we strongly disagree? Can we respect that other people want to do things differently, have different preferences, and may understand certain concepts and situations differently than we do? This can be especially challenging in situations involving politics that we feel strongly about it, or if we feel we know "best" about how to do or see something.
4. Spiritual: Can we allow others to have their chosen spiritual life (or lack thereof), without feeling the need to change them, convince them of their wrongness, or force them to see things differently? Do we honor our own need for spiritual engagement or lack thereof, without needing to explain, justify, or rationalize our chosen belief system? Do we respect our need to honor our spiritual values instead of letting them take a backseat to our more everyday concerns?
5. Energetic: What kind of people do we want to be around, and what kind of people are toxic to us—and can we honor the need to chose our relationships carefully? If we can’t choose the relationship, can we arrange ourselves in a way so that we minimize contact with the unhealthy other? What sort of spaces and situations do we repeatedly find ourselves in—are they chaotic, confusing, abusive, and messy, or loving and joyful? The energetic boundary is closely related to physical and emotional boundaries. You may feel violated energetically if, for example, you are visually “sized up” by another person, or you find that someone has looked through your personal belongings or space without permission.
Oftentimes, our boundaries change over time, as we develop emotionally. Many people in early recovery from trauma, addiction, or substance abuse find that they need to uncover or develop their personal boundaries, to both protect them from relapse or further traumatization, and to encourage emotional growth.
I’ll post on How to Set Healthy Boundaries in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!
Teri Dillion, LPC, LAC
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