Tag Archives: Boundaries

The Power of No

CGJung“No” is probably the most powerful word in our vocabulary. Anyone who’s ever raised a toddler understands how frustrating the word can be. It seems their “no” stage goes on forever and controls everything and everyone around them. It’s challenging, exhausting and can prick some unresolved, primitive conflicts within parents if they’re not conscious about their responses.

That one syllable word coming from the mouths of our sweet, little cherubs who are supposed to love, adore and follow our every command feels disturbing. When a child begins to say “no”, parents may perceive this as a power imbalance and grow threatened. “No” changes everything for those children (and parents) but not in a bad way.  “No” for a toddler means she’s just beginning to understand she has choices over her life. She’s beginning to see she can decide what to wear, when to go potty (and where), what she likes to eat, how she likes to play and with what toys she wants to play with. No says, “backoff, I’ve got this”, even when she doesn’t.

In his psychosocial development model, Erick Erickson, refers to this “terrible twos stage” as the stage of Autonomy verses Shame and Doubt. When a toddler feels she can make choices, she begins to learn what she likes and dislikes. If she doesn’t have the opportunity to explore, she begins to question her preferences. She loses the ability to know what she wants and develops a sense of shame as a result. “No” for her can either hold clout or fear.

Sadly, lots of grownups are terrified to speak this word. Unlike toddlers who have the luxury of exploring their boundaries without too much understanding of their effect on others, grownups have been around the block a few times. “No” for some carries uncomfortable history. It may mean in the past people shunned them when they set boundaries, so they fear rejection. “No” might mean we’re really not sure anyway, so let’s keep things as a maybe. Then “no” carries a sense of  shame and doubt about what we want and who we are. Not being able to say “no” indicates a constant sense of obligation to please others.

To say “no” takes personal power. Personal power means we’re tapped into our internal locus of control – we know where to set limits. We’re able to understand where our emotional and psychological boundaries are and how they might be different from others around us. We have a strong sense of what’s important to us and as a result know what we’re not willing to compromise. We understand how to set those restrictions and aren’t worried that we won’t be liked.

When this inner gauge is broken, “no” is perceived as a dangerous word. That’s because speaking the word states we’ve made a decision that may be separate from what others want. It also states we’re willing to take responsibility for our choices.

Jumping into the world of a solid decision thrusts us out of a state of avoidance. Just like the toddler, we’re saying, “I like this and not that.” It’s a definitive sign that we’ve made a clear choice. Once made, we’re required to follow through. In this way, “no” is the jumping off point to freedom. “No” preserves your own energy and shows people you have self-respect. It preserves identity.

“No” also decreases anxiety. It provides clarity. When people understand where the limits are, everyone can calm down. Setting that boundary not only provides distress tolerance for adults, but it teaches children they’re safe. The toddler who throws a temper tantrum in the store because he wants that toy is also attempting to see just how much he can push people around. When he realizes he doesn’t have full power over a situation, he can sit back and let go of the reins. When “no” is consistent with both firmness and kindness, that child learns that “no” is safe. Even better, he carries that lesson into adulthood where he can set his own limits against people who attempt to push him around. That child will grow up to understand his own inner locus of control.

People who are too involved in fixing people have little personal power. The act of stepping in to rescue is the act of taking choices away from someone else. To step back and say, “No, this is your job to do,” resets the power imbalance. It frees whomever they were controlling to make their own decisions. Each person reclaims their own power.

The flip side of this is “no” can be used to control everything. It can be the fortress we set against the world. When we feel so hapless and insecure that we have to stop everything, we’re not setting limits we’re walling ourselves off.

Sometimes “no” requires explaining. Sometimes not. Yet, the reason for “no” always needs to be understood by the person using the word. When the speaker is clear, the word holds truth. Personal truth is the way to individuation.

 

Mandala Artwork-CG Jung, The Red Book

The Art of Negotiating Boundaries

SCAN_PIC0001smallThe difference between living a life of happy engagement or miserable chaos rests in how we apply boundaries. In my work, I hear clients speak about boundaries all the time. However, when it comes to applying them they seem confused. A lot. So, here’s a primer.

A boundary looks a little different for everyone. A perfect metaphor is a fence. Some fences are higher, some are lower, some are more open, some are harder to scale. Boundaries are meant to protect, ensure, define. What a boundary is not is a fortress wall that blocks out everything. Nor is it an open puddle that anyone gets to run through. We’re responsible for setting our own boundaries. When we expect someone else to do it, we’ve pretty much violated ourselves.

Boundaries fit into two categories: outer and inner. The first is easily understood because outer, or physical, boundaries are a tangible concept. Physical boundaries include setting limits around your body, your possessions, your personal time, your work and living space. It also includes your etheric space. Etheric space is your physical or auric energy that expands beyond your skin and bones. It’s the unseen yet often felt “circle” that feels penetrated when someone you don’t know stands too close.

People have no right to touch you if you don’t want them to. They have no right to steal your things, tell you to do something that hurts you or make themselves at home if you want them to leave. They also have no right to drive your car without your permission or go through your desk drawers at work. These examples of boundary violations are pretty obvious. What’s not so clear is how to enforce the boundaries.

Inner boundaries are harder to assess because we can’t physically touch them. As a result, those boundaries get horribly dishonored – by those who possess them as well as by those who offend. This more dubious concept of boundaries bewilders people. It takes intentional work to first identify them and then to learn how to effectively set a limit.

What makes up the world of inner boundaries are your feelings, thoughts, beliefs, spiritual experiences, creativity, memories, fantasies, hopes and dreams. Yet, many people aren’t connected to theirs. We can determine where our body ends and another’s begins, but if we don’t know what we feel, believe or want, how can we know if we’ve been infringed upon?

Violations of inner boundaries range from emotional abuse – if the behavior is purposeful – to clueless insensitivity. Name calling, commenting on someone’s body, passive-aggressive behavior, withholding attention or affection, mocking and mimicking, adultery, raging or intentionally distressing people are some examples. Enmeshment, which is when someone wants to know your every waking thought or feeling and tells you how to think or feel, is a massive inner boundary violation.

The initial work to establish inner boundaries is to take a few steps back and develop a loving dialogue with yourself. Exploring your inner world and being able to identify the difference between your thoughts and feelings is important. Stating your dreams, developing your beliefs based on your sense of integrity, allowing yourself to visualize your future, all this doesn’t happen overnight. It’s extremely useful to do this work with a licensed therapist if you’re struggling, because more than likely there are influencing factors keeping you from committing to your individuation.

Defining if a boundary has been violated is about the ability to measure your discomfort level. If you’re okay with a house guest staying a few extra days, that’s one thing. If you’re desperate for time alone but find it’s easier not to tell him, then you’ve lowered your boundary threshold. Only you are able to determine what that threshold is. Is it a mild inconvenience or total violation? Saying “no” is not a bad thing. It may be a last resort after you’ve politely stated having a guest three more days doesn’t work for you, but it doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you a person who respects your time, energy and space. When you respect yourself, so will others.

The gauge when enforcing an inner boundary is much like enforcing an outer boundary. Again, it’s about measuring your discomfort level. How do you feel about what that person said or did? What in you is unsure, even though you feel horrible right now? We can state that we expect better treatment from them. Whether they choose to give it, is out of our control.

Part of setting a boundary is to establish a consequence that you’re willing to follow through with. That consequence can’t be something hurtful to the other person or infringe on their integrity in any way. So, if you say to your spouse, “If you choose to ignore me the whole day after we argue, then I’m hitting you over the head with this frying pan!”, then you’ve completely overstepped his boundaries and are the violator.

A consequence is something within your control that sets a limit. It also must match the boundary infraction. “If you choose to ignore me the whole day after we argue, then I choose to go shopping and have dinner with my friends.” You can’t control if he choses to stonewall you, but you can control how to get your needs met in other ways.

It’s also very important to explore why you allow your boundaries to be manipulated. Are you afraid the other person won’t like you? Do you fear you won’t be heard or that you’re not worthy of being listened to? Boundaries don’t keep us from being intimate. It’s exactly the opposite. If we establish a boundary with someone, we’re negotiating with them. This requires engagement and exploration of the issues around the boundaries. We’re showing the other person we respect them enough to negotiate and more importantly – we respect ourselves enough to be negotiated with.

The Inner Boundaries of Emotion

Here  No matter how close we are physically or psychologically to someone, we have our own sense of what we feel and think. Our loved ones cannot feel what we feel, nor can we feel for them. Nor are we responsible for their feelings and what they choose to do with them.

This seems to surprise many of my clients when the subject comes up in our sessions. Who can blame them for the confusion when we’ve grown up with phrases like, “Two hearts become one”, or “Separate now whole”? We can buy necklaces with two halves of a heart that snap together to make a whole heart. Even in parenting, we tend to forget that this child we conceived and raised is actually a separate human being who’ll have his or her own worldview that might not reflect our own.

When we try to be “one person” in relationships, we’re decimating our wholeness. When we give up our beliefs, pleasures, emotions, likes and even dislikes to fit like a puzzle piece into another’s world, we don’t make us or the relationship stronger – we actually weaken it. When our children express an opinion that’s different from ours, this does not mean they’re rejecting us as people. We don’t have to hand over our identity to please someone and we don’t have to diminish another’s inner world to keep them close to us.

It’s our wholeness that creates true intimacy. It’s the engagement of sharing our own reality with another that’s fulfilling. It’s being present to understanding another’s reality that bonds people. Sharing what you feel and listening to what your loved one feels takes effort, intention and time. In order to be present for another, we must want to be present. This very act of slowing down validates your loved one. When we’re listening without judgment and without forcing our own views into the moment, what we’re saying through our actions is “You’re important to me”.

This simple process of being present and listening to another is true intimacy.