Boundaries and Why They’re Awesome

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.

“I just need to be single for a while.”

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” -Rumi

If you want to learn how to better yourself in order to be healthy for your next relationship, you may find that you’re more likely to learn while you’re in a relationship. In order to truly master something, you must embody it through practice.

When someone says that they need to be single for a while, I get curious about what that means for them. It’s often said right after a break-up, especially by the serially monogamous. And I very often hear it spoken in tandem with the existence of a budding relationship. So let’s dive a little deeper into this.

Our society is pretty big on dating. “You’re young!” “Live a little!” “If I were in my 20′s again….!” “You have to find out what you like!” Dating is a really important way to learn about yourself and others. And it’s fun! And awful! It’s the best! And it’s definitely the worst! I love when a client comes in after a first date. There is so darn much to explore, and it’s really fertile ground for insight into beliefs about oneself and others. First dates are also a killer place to practice somatic techniques, because you need ‘em in those nerve-wracking first moments!

What our society pushes on you less frequently is exploring where you may be blocked when it comes to intimacy. Can we please make the following into catchphrases?: “You should explore that!” “Try journaling!” “What role do you think you play in that dynamic?” “Bring that up in therapy!”  “What is your intuition about this?” The messages we get the most often ought to be about enriching your life through self-exploration and learning how to get the closeness and connection that we desire. Shopping around for what you like can be a tough battle without understanding your needs and their motivations.

Knowing yourself comes via many different roads. For some, it is far easier to travel new paths with another person alongside them. While I absolutely advocate for learning to do things alone, I believe that that can be done within a relationship, and I also believe that you have to honor your natural tendencies. Some people do better when they’re partnered. If you’re trying to be single, but find yourself quickly falling in love with someone new, then I’m talking to you, chum.

Often the challenge is not being alone, but in bringing your whole self into any relationship.

When we fall in love with someone, we have all kinds of glorious ideas about the relationship to come. Some of those things turn out to be reality, and some of them do not. A lot of couples break up when one or both parties discover that it won’t be exactly as they fantasized. This makes it really important to understand what you like and why you like it, as well as to uncover what prevents you from expressing your full self.

So how the hell do you do that?!

The short answer is that you have to keep yourself conscious of your process as you move through it. The best way to do that is to work with a therapist with whom you jive. You can also read some of the kick-ass relationship books that are out there (a few of my favorites are listed below), and revisit them each time you are struggling with a new part. The counsel of a person in a relationship you admire can also be tremendously powerful. But I really encourage you to be in therapy. It rocks.

The therapy room is a fabulous place to explore both how you got here, and how to move past your stuck place. We get to explore what you’ve learned about relationships, and how those lessons are helping or hindering you. And we also get to explore the therapeutic relationship as a microcosm of what happens in your life outside of therapy. This is one of the primary ways that therapy is successful in exacting change: when we encounter those stuck places in our therapeutic relationship, the process is made conscious and you get to practice how to do something different. And then you get to go apply what you’ve learned in your current or future relationships!

Loving someone completely means letting your heart swing on a trapeze with theirs. It’s absolutely terrifying, especially the first time. But the more you do it, the more comfortable you will feel- the more aware you will become of each minute shift in your movement. After a while, you won’t think about it anymore. And then occasionally, you’ll grab a bit of awareness and think, “My god, what am I doing?!” But then you’ll feel your hands gripped by theirs and you’ll realize that you’re safe. The likelihood that it will go well again increases. But it wouldn’t have had the chance to if you hadn’t risked it in the first place.

Everyone deserves a crazy awesome relationship, and that includes you.

Recommended Reading:

  • Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson
  • Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix
  • In Quest of the Mythical Mate by Bader & Pearson