Beef Up Your Body-Based Boundaries


I don’t really buy it when people huff they “don’t care what others think.” It can be true and empowering here and there, especially if they’ve played roles that hit the expiration date last summer. But overall, the “I don’t care what you think” bomb tends to be a defensive swing to one side after tip-toeing around certain people or situations on the extreme other. When we really don’t care in a healthy way, we don’t carry deadly ammunition through our words, actions or energy.

Here’s the deal: We are creatures of connection.

Even if we are of the introverted persuasion and less social and groupy, our nervous systems are primed for safe, engaged connection with others from the day we are born. Stephen Porges, the scientist who discovered the third type of the nervous system response called the Social Engagement System, paved the way for us to understand how the vagus nerve influences this connection. The vagus nerve affects the body above the diaphragm including facial muscles (eye contact), tone of voice (prosody = safe sounding vocal tone), and hearing (essentially, the middle ear’s ability to tune in to caregiver’s voice). (Experiment with yourself in the mirror to see what kinds of facial expressions and voices feel appealing, calming, repulsive, triggering. When you find the appealing/calming communication combos, try them with others and feel the energy shift to a sense of being grounded and okay versus contentious and threatening.)

How does all of this relate to beefing up your boundaries?

Instead of becoming the Dreaded Defensive Donna tearing through the world with iron fists, how about pausing with the practice of compassion. Start with compassion for yourself first. Have compassion for how you’ve hidden, shrunk, cowered, messed up, or dissociated in an attempt to just get through the hell you need to get through.

This practice of compassion might actually bring up tears, sadness, long-lost grief for what you’ve craved. This practice of compassion might also elicit stabs of anger that feel like urges to fight or to flee ever confronting what you need to do about a situation. The tears: Good. Tears are your bodies way of releasing stored trauma, stored emotion that is time to shed. The fighting and fleeing: Let’s find healthy body-based ways to move through those urges to fight and flee.

Body-Based Boundaries: What do they look like?

I recently came upon this conversation between Brené Brown and Russell Brand. The interview questioned “Are People Doing the Best They Can?”, but the gist of Brown’s research showed that the most compassionate people — the ones whose hearts seemed like saints — embody the strongest boundaries. In other words, those people who can practice having compassion for themselves and others don’t take shit from others. They can offer their hearts, their resources, their minds, but they do so with boundaries, with forethought, with mindfulness. And here’s a snapshot, a daily practice, of how to set boundaries in a body-based way:

  1. Know thyself, thybody — Know Thyself, standing alone, could be an awfully humongous philosophical pill to swallow (thanks, Socrates), so for today let’s aim to practice: Know Thyself, Thybody. Pay attention to your body. Notice your heartbeat. Notice if both feet are on the floor or if you just must cross your legs in retreat. Notice if you’re leaning away from someone. Notice your belly tightening. Notice if your hips jut forward way ahead from your heart. Notice if your hands are clammy. Notice if your voice gets caught just behind your tongue. Get curious about all the sensations that might feel like too much, the ones that make you question your ability, the ones that make you doubt yourself. Get in your body, get curious like a friendly, loving investigator.

  2. Sensations over Content — After some practice, if the signals your body is giving you make you recognize a pattern of sensations despite the content of the situation, this could be your guiding light. Many times our bodies know before our mind knows. Many times we think we are too sensitive, we think we are the ones who need to bend just a little more. This article on Gaslighting can help explain how to recognize patterns, when “It’s not Me, It’s You” actually applies toward manipulators. Many times we have to use deep discernment to know what is mine, what is theirs, what is a red light, what is growth. Practice, practice, practice getting to know these sensations. Practice deciphering the sensations from the content to know what might be your next step.

  3. Stay with Your Mind, Heart & Body as You Take Action — Once you’re on the journey to knowing your body more, it might be time to take action. This could mean meeting someone in the middle if you’ve discovered some rigidity or fear in yourself. This could mean Small Doses or Negotiations with certain people, places or things. This could mean Recycling of a Relationship (aka: let it go to invite the new…aka: farewell, adieu, adios, take a hike!). Taking action can result in a plethora of options, but the main idea is to stay with your body when you take action because you’ll need to use your cognitive, thinking, logical, creative and heartfelt skills too. Invite your brain to get handy and creative while staying with your body as you complete a pattern, movement or gesture that needs to happen to healthily change or create a new dynamic.

“If you have a comfortable connection with your inner sensations — if you can trust them to give you accurate information — you will feel in charge of your body, your feelings, and your self.” - Bessel van der Kolk

In case you’re wondering or suspecting, this body-based boundary work is rich, complicated, fascinating and usually needs some support as it tends to open up buried stories and traumas of many kinds as well as a vast window of possibilities for empowerment and a dose or two of peace. If you’re interested in knowing more and want to have a 15-minute phone conversation, feel free to contact me here.