Boundaries are a fascinating area to explore in terms of how we show up in the world, how we make our presence felt and how we relate to others whilst relating to ourselves. Boundaries mark the interplay between us and the other, the meeting of the internal and the external. Most of us need to make some adjustment in terms of how we conceive of our boundaries and in implementing them.
It astounded me when I first learnt to fly to learn that the sky is divided up into different zones or areas on a flight map, much as the ground is. What seems like open sky to the naked eye is in fact a complex division of space, both horizontal and vertical, where permission to navigate or travel has to be identified rather than assumed. We are not free as a bird to go wherever we want. These limitations are to do with safety and protection, to respect those on the ground below and safeguard others sharing the sky with you, to enable flight paths and avoid collision. In effect these divisions establish rights of passage in a spatial relationship through unseen boundaries. Much as social convention, regulations have to be learnt in order to understand how to travel without infringement (violation) and to enable collaboration and order.
Boundaries are thresholds marking parameters in between spaces. Human relational boundaries are not just physical, they are energetic and emotional. We need to know how to create them to keep ourselves safe, and others. We need delineation to establish and enforce privacy and personal respect. There are no go zones. We have a right to establish our own personal space and protect ourselves from infringement (other domination). The need for this will vary within culture and personality, but there is still an implicit sense of inside or outside differentiation, even if there may be less division or separation of self and other or mine and yours in some cultures and belief systems.
Terry Real describes boundary as being to the psyche as the skin is to the body and uses the metaphor of orange skin to express the outside inside concept. The white pithy inside is you and we need to contain it by taking responsibility not to leak or play out our emotional stuff onto other people or by trying to control or push or pull. The orange peel outer skin is to the external world and we need to protect ourselves from what is incoming whist remaining connected. Boundaries are the filter or pause where we can operate with discernment. Where we decide whether we will take in what is being said to us. Where we decide it’s ours or theirs to absorb. If someone says something we disagree with, we might either believe it or become defensive. Without a filter we may absorb their words, because there’s no boundary. With a boundary, we are able to realise the opinion of the other is not necessarily a reflection or accurate mirroring of us, but their stuff, and so feel less threatened by disagreement. It is a place of healthy differentiation.
From working with many people around boundaries, the scope or shape and size of personal space needed, varies greatly between individuals. Some are comfortable with intimate physical proximity. Others need a great deal of space between themselves and others to relax or feel safe and at ease. This is not just a reflection of the physical. Energetically we know when someone does not welcome us any closer, or when there is an invitation towards. We can practice extending a greater inclusivity to others and we can also develop our capacity to create stronger self protection. To consciously work with exercising our boundaries, we need to understand where our natural inclinations lie, to know where our energy projects a no go or a ‘go where you want’. We need to understand how we can take up space and send out both non verbal and verbal messages.
Boundaries are not just for a firm No, they are for respect my request. Some people can find saying No challenging and this then would be a skill to develop as a natural right of assertion. This reticence can be for various reasons such as fear of conflict or upsetting someone or around a habitual difficulty with checking in and putting our own wants first. Visualising ourselves in a bubble and knowing where the parameters of that bubble are can help us get a feel for our boundary and our entitlement. Protecting or ourselves by filling that bubble or interior space with a quality for ourselves that we wish to harvest can help us enforce our own resilience where we might be feeling that we are not being respected, or feel a sense that someone has a tendency to push into or against us. Boundaries are part of our agency and self assertion, knowing what is and isn’t ok for us, speaking up and standing up for ourselves from that place and holding our ground, with clarity and confidence communicating the message “I do mind, I do matter”.
Where we have weak or blurry boundaries we are likely to be overly caught up in people pleasing, dependency, care taking, and taking on responsibility for other’s thoughts, feelings and behaviour. We are likely to be thin-skinned or sensitive with a tendency to become reactive. This is often described as being overly porous; taking too much in. By extending ourselves or reaching out too much towards others we can lose connection with our own sense of self. We are not operating from a place of self-esteem that resides from the inside out but are instead drawing on the outside-in. This means we don’t have a solid foundation of stability and security within. Boundaries mean we have a strong sense of our selves in relationship to others through taking up equal space (what we want and feel).
The opposite of this is rigidity, being walled off (closed) and armoured so that we don’t let the outside in. We are overly defended to keep ourselves safe inside and so deny ourselves responsiveness, connection and flexibility. We are not fully available to others or fully expressing ourselves and may be avoidant. We don’t encourage closeness or intimacy but tend to push away or withdraw and our energy may be contracted or held in. Many people experience this sense of armouring from within the body around the heart and chest. We need to understand the role of our armour, soften the defence and expand our capacity to relate from this place to allow more flow. The practice here is to develop our skill in extending our boundary to give ourselves more relational space.
Boundaries are not fixed, in the same way that how we relate to others is not fixed. Having an awareness of our boundary placement means we are resourcing our self worth through how much we chose to show up in the world, in the same way as using our voice to speak up or hold our tongues. Utilising our capacity to protect, assert or allow is a central aspect of taking responsibility for our own agency and safety. We don’t need to either shrink or dominate in the world but hold the space we need to feel at ease within it to connect with others.