by Diane Linsley
In this article, I'm going to explain boundaries from three different
perspectives - conventional, post-conventional, and enlightened.
Most people think of boundaries as rules that you make in order
to protect yourself from other people. For example, you have rules
about how other people are allowed to touch you or talk to you.
If someone breaks these rules, you inform them that they have stepped over your boundaries and that you will not tolerate being treated that way. Assertiveness is the action side of boundaries.
For post-conventional thinkers, rules are less important. Post-conventional thinkers can imagine multiple scenarios in which predetermined rules are not the best way to cope with a situation.
After enlightenment, things become even more complex. There are many exceptions to every rule, and any situation can change in a split second. The enlightened person lives in the Now, but he also takes the past and future into account. The complexity is mind-boggling. But we'll get to that later.
"The key to boundaries isn't convincing other people that we have limits - it's convincing ourselves." ~Melody Beattie, Codependent No More
Whatever you tolerate in a relationship, that's what you'll get.
I learned a lot about setting boundaries by raising children. Children need to know what the rules are, and raising them without rules is a form of abuse. Children need to have clearly delineated boundaries with clearly defined consequences. This provides them with a sense of security that is essential to their psychological development.
Children have a strong need for fairness. They need adults who not only set rules for them, but who also follow their own rules. Children are deeply disturbed by the hypocrisy of adults.
Child abuse of any sort is a boundary violation. Abused children grow up to have boundary problems. Their boundaries are either too rigid, which interferes with intimacy, or they are too weak, which leads to being victimized by others. The first step to recovery is learning how you have been violated in the past, which shows you where you have holes in your boundaries. I suggest reading Facing Codependence by Pia Mellody. This book was a real eye-opener for me.
Practices for Setting Boundaries
The next step is to define your own boundaries. If you're not sure where you need stronger boundaries, refer to your values system. I recommend doing the values process. Once you know what you value, you can begin standing up for yourself in the areas of your life that matter most.
For example, if you value your health, you will need to set boundaries to protect it. This may include reducing your exposure to stressful situations and people, saying no to foods that aren't good for you, and going to bed on time (even if it means leaving the party early).
When you know what you value, you can talk with others about your values. This is a good way to set boundaries.
My first boundary practice was saying "No" to my mom's attempts to make me eat sugary desserts after I was diagonosed with gestational diabetes in my twenties. That was a big deal, since I had never said "No" to her before.
Whenever I have a client who tells me they have trouble saying "No," I tell them to practice making "No" their first response. That surprises them! I'm not saying they should never say "Yes." I'm just suggesting a way to change the old habit.
Once you are comfortable with saying "No," then you can go back to saying "Yes" when appropriate. Your "Yes" means nothing if you can't say "No."
If someone is pressuring you to make a decision, that's a boundary violation. If you aren't sure what to do, then buy time. Say something like, "I'm not sure I can do that. Let me get back with you." Then end the conversation or change the topic. Don't make a decision until you are ready.
The ability to say "No" is so central to our well-being that it's one of the first words we learn. If you missed that stage of development, you will have to go through it now - if you want to be free.
Setting Boundaries with Manipulators
One of my all-time favorite books is Who's Pulling Your Strings? by Harriet Braiker. It teaches you how to identify and deal with manipulators. You will discover how you are allowing yourself to be violated through your own attitudes and beliefs about yourself. If you think it's necessary to be nice and please other people, you will have an incredibly difficult time setting and maintaining boundaries. It's crucial that you disidentify with the voice of the Pleaser. Pleasers are sitting ducks for abusers. I recommend doing Voice Dialogue to identify the Pleaser. Then work on finding opposite voices that balance the Pleaser. How do you know you if are being abused? If you are in an abusive relationship, you will experience a lot of CRAP. CRAP stands for criticism, rejection, abandonment and punishment.
You can identify boundary violations by the way you feel. Boundary violations result in feelings of fear, anger, sadness or shame.
Anger is a common indicator of boundary violation, but some people have trouble feeling angry because it wasn't allowed in their family of origin. It took me a long time to figure out that my feelings of sadness and shame were actually disowned anger from many years of abuse. Abusers may undermine a victim's ability to defend himself by forbidding him from getting angry.
"Like all emotions, there's a logic and purpose to anger. We typically get angry when we see injustice, believe we've been treated unfairly, or encounter an obstacle to achieving our goals. If we can learn to use anger constructively, it can inspire us to make positive changes on our own behalf - to try harder, to fight for what's fair, and to communicate more passionately." ~John M. Gottman, 10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage In Complex PTSD, Pete Walker says that some people need to practice getting angry. But he also says that crying is helpful for dealing with PTSD attacks. So I cry. Then I set boundaries. Narcissists often shame their victims with cynicism and contempt. Excessive shaming in childhood leads to the development of a toxic Inner Critic, which then attacks a person from the inside and makes it hard to create healthy boundaries. Dealing with the Inner Critic is essential to recovering from abuse.
Once you have mastered conventional boundaries, you may move on to a more complex stage. I compare this stage of boundaries to the post-conventional stage of cognitive development.
Post-conventional thinkers have gone beyond black-and-white thinking. Because they are less rule-oriented, others may perceive them as not having good boundaries. But this isn't necessarily true. They are just more flexible and less rigid.
Post-conventional thinkers live in a state of paradox because they can see many points of view, and their perspective is always shifting. This can make them feel like they have no firm place to stand. But at the same time, this new way of thinking is very liberating. They are beginning to see the paradoxes of life, although they can't solve them. But that's not a problem for someone who is just trying to live in the Now, which is the main task at this stage of development.
They are willing to take more risks because they are less likely to criticize themselves if they make a mistake. They have begun to realize that there are no mistakes - only learning experiences.
As they get closer to enlightenment, they see that people are trying to defend something that isn't real - the ego. Their greatest desire is to be free of the ego because the ego is the source of all suffering.
The best advice I can give for this stage of development is to set boundaries around your precious time. It takes time to meditate and do all the spiritual work that is required to progress to the next stage. Say "No" to things that waste your time. Reduce busywork, minimize possessions, and prioritize your values.
The enlightened person has a low need for ego gratification. They live in the Now, and they respond to situations as they arise.
I once dated someone who couldn't comprehend my perspective, and the large gap between our levels of development was an insurmountable problem. He said that I was the most complex person he'd ever met. He couldn't function in the relationship because he had walls instead of boundaries, along with a long list of rules. The flexibility of my boundaries scared him because he was trying to avoid intimacy. Real intimacy can only be achieved when you have healthy, flexible boundaries.
Flexible boundaries are like the skill of a martial arts master who cannot be overpowered by bigger, stronger opponents because the master is able to deflect every attack with a non-resistant defense. Eventually, the opponent wears himself out trying to fight against the master.
"Properly boundaried people exert quiet but considerable force." ~Pia Mellody, The Intimacy Factor
I have lots of patience because I understand people. But if my boundaries are violated repeatedly, then the relationship is over. I don't act hastily because I trust in the natural unfolding of the universe. But when I do act, it is decisive.
The enlightened person acts when everything comes together in a moment of clarity. He has tolerance for his own ambiguity. He can stay in a place of indecision indefinitely until the right moment has arrived for acting. Up until that point, all options are available because he is open to infinite possibilities.
Boundaries in Intimate Relationships
In a healthy relationship with an aware partner, there is little need to defend your boundaries, so there is a potential for deep intimacy. If both partners are spiritually mature, boundaries can drop away as they experience each other in a state of spiritual Oneness.
It takes great courage to face your shadow material or do deep emotional healing work. A person who can do these things has the courage to go into the depths of a truly intimate relationship. Other people just have sex and call it intimacy.
Sex is a momentary dropping of physical boundaries. It's a pale imitation of enlightenment. But it can give you the tiniest idea of what enlightenment feels like.
Boundaries and Compassion
At every stage, boundaries need to be balanced with compassion. This can be difficult if you have a tendency towards codependency. Codependents often see themselves as victims, but they are not aware of how they violate other people's boundaries.
An example of poorly boundaried, codependent behavior is giving unsolicited advice. Another example is expecting others to follow your advice. Until you give up trying to control others, you will continue to have boundary problems in your relationships.
Having compassion does not mean that you fix other people's problems. Try thinking in terms of yin and yang compassion. Yin compassion is the feeling side - the part that relates to the suffering of others and desires to reduce suffering.
Yang compassion is the side that recognizes "right action." It includes "tough love," which allows another person to learn from their mistakes, instead of jumping in to bail them out - even when it hurts to watch the suffering inherent in the learning process.
To get more clarity about these two sides of compassion, try speaking to the voices of Yin Compassion and Yang Compassion using the Voice Dialogue process.
Strength, Flexibility and Balance
I recently attended a performance of the Peking Acrobats. This is a good metaphor for healthy boundaries. The performers are able to do amazing feats because they have great strength (Yang), flexibility (Yin), and balance (making adjustments as needed in the Now).
Reality is a constantly shifting, multidimensional thing/event. You can't cope with Reality with a list of rules. You need inner strength, flexibility and balance.
The balancing act never ends, so you might as well enjoy it! If you lose your balance and drop the ball, forgive yourself immediately, and pick it up again. It's okay if other people don't understand you. Be your own best friend, and practice self-compassion.
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