Tag Archives: Relationships

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.

Thoughts verses Feelings

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“Give me the feeling that comes with that thought,” I’ll say to a client.

They stop, look perplexed for a moment, then say something like, “I can’t believe he would do that to me!?”

“That’s a thought,” I say. “Give me a feeling.” The client looks more perplexed, the frown deepens and they shake their head. Sometimes they lean closer and look at me like I might be a little crazy. So begins my lesson on feelings verses thoughts.

We all get stuck here. It takes real effort differentiating the two, but it’s really important to do this. Our thoughts, and the feelings that follow, work within a millisecond of each other. They’re so closely intertwined, we can’t see the pattern. Yet, distinguishing between the two is the difference between constant engagement with conflict and illusions or peace.

One is made up in your head. The other is the energy that arises in your body as a result of what you made up in your head. Do you see the difference? A thought is made up in your head. The feeling is in response to the thought and carries different energies through your body. Many times, neither of these reflect the truth.
The reason I use the simplistic term, made-up-in your-head, is because a majority of our thoughts are based upon our own versions of reality – the lens by which we see the world. That lens has history to it, because our brain is using past references to pull forward a schema it understands so it can stay in control.

You might think because your spouse slammed the door too loudly that she’s mad at you. If you stay with that thinking, feelings burst forth based on how you felt when your parents argued and slammed doors. Now, what kind of feelings rise up inside you? Anger, fear, sadness, guilt? Suddenly, you’re back in that place where parents were shouting and throwing things and you’ll respond accordingly to your wife. This is the illusion.

The narratives we make up (say it together), in-our-heads, cause all sorts of problems. If you challenge your thought and investigate why the door slammed, you might find the poor woman standing with a handful of groceries and having to use her foot to shut the door. Or maybe the wind slammed it shut. Or maybe she was so happy to be home from work that she pulled the knob too hard.

There’s a third part to this breakdown. It’s the emotion that occurs as a result of the feeling. Our language uses emotion and feeling interchangeably, however there’s a difference. Within that millisecond we talked about, where a thought occurs and a feeling is felt, we also respond. That’s emotion. Emotion is the rejoinder to the feeling, be it a smile, frown, yell, or freezing in place. This process feels so natural, it’s hard to imagine there’s a pattern at all. Though seeing this pattern can help us change ours. If we observe our usual process and not engage in it, we break the illusions that were driving us.

It’s also important to remember that a person or situation evoke a thought. If we can grow more aware of what’s occuring around us, we can pay closer attention. We can then slow down and observe what we’re thinking. In Buddhism, the way to peace is through the Eightfold Path. The first four of these eight are; right understanding, right thought, right speech and right action. If we’re to understand outer stimuli evokes us, then we can be aware of the thoughts and feelings that arise, and not speak or act in harmful ways.

The most damaging aspect to this is when we stay convinced that our thinking is the only truth. Then we cling to the feelings and emotions that flare as a result of that illusion. We rationalize our choices out of shame and maintain the attitude of the victim. This way we don’t have to reflect deeper on the nasty words or actions we spew onto others. We justify and spread hurt and darkness.

If we’re willing to acknowledge that our truth is subjective, then we’ll be more willing to notice what stimulates our thoughts, feelings and emotions. We stop engaging in blind ways that keep us running in circles with no clarity. In this way we spread light and we allow our own light to  burn brighter.