Your boundary is the edge of your experience. It’s where you begin and end. It’s not your skin, but rather an extension of your body in energy form- the space directly around you. Its width and shape and permeability are aspects that only you can determine. We often move about unaware of our boundaries until something is off. When someone feels too close to you, they’ve encroached on your boundary. When they’re too far, your boundaries are not in contact with each other.
Gestalt theory offers a nice little brain-stretching hypothesis: there is perhaps no contact without boundaries. I completely agree with this. If you cannot feel yourself, you will not know when you’ve come in contact with something other than yourself.
This is not to say that we can’t or shouldn’t feel intertwined with or part of each other at times. Rather, it is through a strong sense of one’s body and boundary that intermingling can occur on a deep level and in a safe way.
When I feel strongly grounded in myself and aware of my space, I have a sense of my entire body. I can list many sensations and any associated emotions. I can feel, see, smell, hear and taste. I can detect what isn’t me or mine, because it comes with a different sensation profile. Speaking of Gestalt, do you know what we did as therapists-to-be during our trainings? We smelled each other! Talk about boundaries! Breathing in another person’s scent is a very clear way to have an experience of the self and the other. On a very deep level, even if their particular smell is familiar or evocative, you can really feel their separateness. In fact, these can be some of the clearest moments of those three parts: “I, you, we.” It’s this sense of “That is not my scent. It is yours. And your scent creates in me a feeling of…” Mine. Yours. Ours.
Embodying yourself and your space brings clarity and safety. It means tuning into your senses and allowing them to guide you from moment to moment. It is when we are checked out and unaware of our boundaries that we experience confusion, taking things personally, feeling bitter and resentful. Embodiment does not solve pain, but it does make pain clearer so that it can be dealt with appropriately. If you’d like to know more about that particular aspect, I say a whole bunch about embodiment in my article on The Body and Aliveness.
I talk about boundaries often, because therapy is hugely about exploring them. The relationship between myself and a client must begin by getting clear on where we each end, and where we make contact. Most of this happens on the client’s end, but because different people evoke different experiences, I always have some adjusting to do, too. And the way we interact together is always a rich source of exploration. The most healing in therapy happens in that contactful space between our bodies. We explore what it feels like (sensations and emotions), and why (thoughts). We look at how the narratives about our contact are helpful or hindering in terms of meeting needs, and we practice safe and meaningful contact. As a person is ready and willing, they can then begin to practice this outside of the therapy room.
The clarity of knowing what’s “me” and what’s “not me” enables us to communicate with ourselves and others in a way that feels good (even when it’s difficult), and works to meet our needs.
It’s terribly important to remember that boundaries are flexible. Inflexible boundaries are what we call defenses. They serve us fine in specific circumstances or for limited periods of time, but they hold us back if overused. A solid boundary has a built-in function that allows for adapting to new circumstances and new information. Sometimes I think of something my first therapist said to me about being like seaweed. Seaweed takes root in the ocean floor. It moves back and forth with the tides, but it stays firmly planted. The image really worked for me me, and I think of it often when it comes to the sense of my space. (Note: the metaphor either ends if and when the seaweed is uprooted, or you can follow me down a bit of a hokey metaphorical path about the subsequent journey of the seaweed in which I WILL make this image continue to work. I’m flexible. Case in point.)
Sometimes we think we are clear on our needs and boundaries, but in our attempts to communicate them to others, we inadvertently spill over into someone else’s space. This happens because we sometimes forget, or never got to learn, that we each have control over exactly one person: ourselves.
Discovering what you’re made up of, where you end and others begin, and how to navigate space pays off like crazy. It’s powerful and relieving to discover not only that it is up to you to meet your needs, but that there are clear and meaningful ways to meet them even when others are involved.