Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Do What You Need To Do

"Junk Fence" photo borrowed from Elite Feet

“Setting healthy boundaries”, what the heck does that mean?!

Most of us understand that old saying “Good fences make good neighbors”. It refers to setting a physical boundary around one’s property. It’s something that is generally agreed upon by both neighbors as a binding or legal division, it keeps pets and often plants and maybe offspring safely contained, and in the old days people often visited over the back fence. Healthy personal boundaries refer to how well we protect our body, mind and spirit. In this context it’s something like defining property limits in that it shows others “this is where I begin and end, and outside that is your stuff”; “stuff” being emotions, day to day problems, attitudes, opinions, ethics, and personality issues. People can violate physical as well as many psychological boundaries. Our job as emotionally healthy people is to set up a “fence” that consists of the limits we impose on what is acceptable to us emotionally and physically, that help define us, and that grant what kind of access is okay, and who is allowed that access and when, while also protecting us from people who are the emotional and psychological equivalent of bullies and vandals and thieves, people who are boundary violators.

Think of it in terms of having healthy self respect (which might be a foreign concept to many). When children are taught the difference between “good touch” and “bad touch”, they are being taught healthy boundaries. Child molesters are an egregious example of boundary violators. If you work in a corporate office setting, you may have had a “class” covering what is considered sexual harassment, because a lot of people don’t have a clue, or are intentionally disregarding your right to your personal space. Emotional and psychological boundaries are harder to understand than physical boundaries, as they are more difficult to define succinctly. One clue is that when something “feels bad”, in that it makes us uneasy, angry, or feel ashamed; there is often a violated boundary involved. The key here to making a strong boundary is understanding that we are responsible for ourselves, which means owning all of our feelings and taking responsibility for our own attitudes. Simply put, nobody “makes us angry”, we do that to ourselves, we push our own buttons, it’s an “inside job”. It may be that the other person triggers our old wounds that we don’t even realize seethe in our subconscious, but they are still our wounds. It’s difficult to remember that feelings and thoughts are ephemeral and transitory, they come and they go, and the pain or pleasure they trigger is equally illusory. Our thought and feelings are not “Us”, but we think they are. What they are is our EGO, our false self, the self that feels it's entitled. The "real" self is in the quiet places between the thoughts and feelings. It's the part of us that feels connected to everything. The ego part is what makes us feel separate and isolated. This ego as illusion is a common concept in Buddhist thought. I like to think of it as our true self being more like the Christian concept of the soul, stainless and perfect.

We are habituated in the West however to identifying “self” as what we think and feel. But that's really just ego. When my mind is still and settled then, where am “I”? And that's scary in a way because our idea of self is based on habitual patterns of thoughts and feelings and our resultant behaviors. But if you can become aware of this than it's easier to understand how we are responsible for what we think and feel. Conversely other people’s thoughts and feelings are their responsibility. If someone says “YOU made angry, you made me feel sad, you ruined my day, my life”, guess what? Yep, those are still their feelings and thus their responsibility. If you did violate their boundaries you owe them amends, but they must own their feelings. A common Buddhist description of anger is that it is “the acid which destroys the vessel that contains it”. If I am stewing over something someone did that in my perception injured me, it isn’t affecting them, it’s raising my blood pressure and roiling acid in my stomach. They are probably eating chocolate cake while driving down the street in their new car while illegally talking on their cellphone, all of which they essentially stole from me (yes, I am visualizing a specific soulless cretin), but they aren’t feeling any pain! So when I take responsibility for my anger over letting someone toxic repeatedly violate my boundaries because even though they did not respect my “No”, no matter how loudly or how many times I said it, well, eventually I find that with practice and awareness, it becomes easier and easier to let that anger go. And I am healthier and happier for it. But it can be really hard work.

Having healthy boundaries doesn’t mean we don’t have compassion or empathize, but it does mean that we shouldn’t codependently wallow in someone else’s issues or psychodramatic angst. If you find other peoples emotions to be contagious, then you likely have weak or porous boundaries. There is a difference between having empathy with someone and getting sucked into their issues and sharing their misery vicariously, or letting them dump their crap in your lap. Healthy boundaries in the context of interrelationship mean being able to say “No” and stick to it or being able to remove oneself from the situation if your no isn’t an acceptable answer. I wish I had learned that a lot better a lot sooner.