Among the plethora of messages on social media regarding boundaries and vulnerability, I tend to think of TED Talks, memes and YouTube interviews starring Brené Brown and Glennon Doyle Melton. Sharp, wise and fierce they are, my head nods and nods agreeing with their messages of self care and staying true to oneself despite terror or fear of how others might react or even how the truth might set you free. Some examples:
“When I look at narcissism through the vulnerability lens, I see the shame-based fear of being ordinary. I see the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose.” - Brené Brown
“You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other effects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then, we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.” - Brené Brown
“People who need help sometimes look a lot like people who don’t need help.” - Glennon Doyle Melton
“I have met my self and I am going to care for her fiercely.” - Glennon Doyle Melton
And my favorite:
“No woman on earth doesn’t give a fuck—no woman is that cool—she’s just hidden her fire. Likely, it’s burning her up.” - Glennon Doyle Melton
So if we are living in a world that’s starting to champion vulnerability and boundaries as the antidotes to depression, anxiety and inauthenticity, why does it seem some people wear boundaries inside-out, upside-down, right-side-out?
It’s like their boundaries don’t fit their beautifully imperfect yet stunning shapes — something sticks out in a misshapen way, or there’s a whiff of something superficial or defensive in the air? They might appear or sound one way then quickly change their tune passively or in a puzzling way. Feeling confused or bewildered at their cryptic boundary-setting, you might feel like you’ve been gaslit.
Whether you’ve been in group therapy to learn boundaries (which can be excruciatingly raw feeling yet invaluable in the rich lessons you take home) , and/or whether you’ve been taking the independent self-care route of reading inspirational boundaries memes, you might be practicing getting to know what you will allow and what you won’t and how to communicate to others your limits and allowances. Kudos. It’s initially a learning curve of over- or under-correcting until you fine-tune your boundary-making in a more graceful and forgiving way for yourself and others. And, it’s a complicated-but-worth-it dance that continues as you change (and as others do too), so if you can find a way to be playful and grounded about it instead of grasping too tightly, you’ll probably discover more ease in the process.
What happens when boundaries are masked as the defensive mechanisms of procrastination and walls?
1) For example, you know when you’re smugly proud of yourself for setting a boundary like no work phone calls or emails after 8:00pm. It feels good to be able to turn off your brain and feel like you’re feeding yourself with pleasurable you-time, and all those office problems can be resolved tomorrow (or another day). Healthy? Absolutely. But then quarterly taxes are suddenly due, and taxes feel like a four-letter word like WORK, yet you tell yourself over and over that nope, I don’t work after 8:00pm even it means I might miss the deadline! Healthy? That’s questionable.
2) Or, you might be familiar with the Joy of Group Projects (please scroll to photo below for a good laugh) where three out of the five people in the group (might or might not) finally volunteer to show up to “finish” the project the night before it’s due. They claim they work better under pressure. Meanwhile, you and the other more responsible party roll your eyes because you finished the final draft last week.
(Both examples #1 and #2 are Procrastination)
Procrastination is not self-care or an ideal way to roll repeatedly. Ultimately, your nervous system pays to squeeze out results under a tight deadline that produces unfavorable stress hormones. And others will likely create distance in working with you again. (Now, we all do a little of these to an extent, but if you tend to be a repeat offender and cause others to suffer too, it’s probably time to get curious about your need to wait and rely on pressure to show up.)
3) Or for example, when the Boundaries Movement has influenced you like the Kale Trend — where anytime you feel distress around someone, you shut them down like whenever you have to decide on something green to eat, it’s kale. Because Kale is Magic. And Boundaries are Magic, and there cannot be enough, ever. (pssst….I’m kidding.) Seriously though, instead of using discernment to compromise, perhaps have a mature conversation, take space for today, or get curious about where you participate in the unhealthy relationship dynamics too, sometimes it might feel easier to simply build a thicker than necessary boundary between you and them. You might stop answering calls or emails, or be unable to look them in the eye, or seem to always have some dramatic emergency that needs your everlasting attention today, right now. You basically avoid without explanation or really very clear reason on your end.
4) Or the classic Stonewalling on a regular basis. Stonewalling can be quickly illustrated as being in an argument or confrontation with a loved one or friend, you have a disagreement, you become triggered or inflamed and instead of talking through it with a level of being grounded and speaking from the heart and logical brain, you shut down and ignore them. You walk away and, quite literally, check out to the point the situation might feel foggy or distant. *Note: Sometimes this is our body’s way of keeping us safe, and especially for children or for those who are historically and regularly oppressed, it’s a lifesaver in abusive relationships, but as we get older and in healthier places, learning emotional regulation and nonviolent communication during confrontation is necessary for problem-solving and ultimately living and working peacefully and productively with other people.
(Both examples #3 and #4 are Walls)
If you have good boundary setting skills and/or are working on strengthening them, which is not always perfect but that’s okay, you practice getting to know and clearly communicating your needs or wants or wishes instead of cutting off people. But, it depends on if the other person can accept and hear them. If they can, that person or party is probably a relationship keeper because they’re healthy enough to respect you and the relationship. However, sometimes walls are necessary in relationships, especially when the other party becomes abusive, or they cannot respect your “NO” message, or they can dish it out but can’t take it. However, typically unhealthy walls that are really defense mechanisms or methods of avoidance are pretty passive and show up as the examples above.
If you’re wondering how to get to better know your limits, your wants, your needs, this is an exciting and possible time! Despite the ongoing tragic news headlines and seemingly sharp increasing rate of socially acceptable addictions culture to superficially soothe our pain and dis-ease, I also believe there’s just as much support and healthy culture of living more consciously, fully and truthfully. Support, hope, and possibility do exist, and it’s possible to transform and live in a more grounded, clear, authentic way.
“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
From a therapeutic standpoint, I personally and professionally am fascinated with attuning to our body’s signals, messages, patterns, urges, sensations to guide us. When we practice connecting with the body — many times with the support of a trained professional like a therapist — we can can invite our deep wisdom and sweet richness that has been waiting all along to be set free for healthier living.
I recently wrote a blog entitled Beef Up Your Body-Based Boundaries — that might give you some insight into befriending your body as a guide. In my therapy practice, I also use somatic techniques including movement for individuals, couples and families as a way to help negotiate boundaries while staying present in one’s own body. As a writer, I respect the power of the written and spoken word, but sometimes our bodies communicate to us in nonverbal ways, and boundary-knowing and boundary-setting needs to be practiced somatically, through the body, staying fully awake in the relational dances with self and others.
Interested? I’m happy to have a 15-minute phone chat. Feel free to contact me here.
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