I might have gone into biological chemistry if I enjoyed math a little more. Lessons on the microscopic world have always fascinated me. It's enthralling to study the universe of tiny machines at work in every part of our being, each one equipped for infinitely tiny jobs that make life on the grand scale possible. One of the features of cellular life that's truly amazing is the function of the membranes that surround the cells and also the components inside. So small and simple, and yet perfectly attuned to admit passage of those substances which benefit the cell while repelling those that don't.
Our cells have the advantage of being exquisitely engineered to do this job without having to think about it. Here on the larger plane of human relationships, it's not so simple. Choosing and managing the boundaries we have in relationships is a complex task, and often we are not fully aware of the inner forces that shape the protections with which we choose to surround ourselves.
Boundaries in Your Story
"I'm your mother," Kara's mom said sternly. "You don't get to have boundaries with me."
Sure, as parents there are times when a "no" from your child can't be honored. But this remembered statement from Kara's teen years crystallized a narrative that formed throughout the course of early life. Through patterns that permeated their relationship, she learned that intimacy meant never being allowed to say "no" to mom, not even when she made her feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or humiliated. Any resistance to or retreat from her mom's overbearing behavior was treated as a grave offense. Mom would become angry and critical, or petulant and wounded.
This warped lesson in boundaries had a two-edged consequence. Kara felt powerless in relationships, believing to her core that she had no right to resist what she didn't like or what she knew wasn't right. She'd also learned from her mother's reactions to her and others that if someone did have boundaries, they must not love or truly care about her. She found herself reacting to others in much the same way, and though she didn't understand why, she felt deeply ashamed.
Brad recalled the rush of shame when his friends, having discovered him crying in a secluded spot after a playground altercation, mocked and ridiculed him. Throughout elementary school, teen years, and college, he'd seen it was only safe to be seen as tough, cool, and accomplished. Being called "sensitive" was an insult; feelings were a sign of weakness. The rules were quite clear: be funny, be popular, score touchdowns. You'll know you're a man when you achieve success, other guys fear you, and girls are willing to have sex with you.
Fast-forward to an adult life that checked all the boxes yet was still falling apart. He was doing okay at work, but he couldn't shake the anxiety that said he wasn't allowed to have a bad week, make a mistake. Worse, his wife was becoming deeply depressed. Because he had long since learned that anybody who accessed his emotional side was trying to humiliate him, he couldn't allow her to know him, either. The narrative of his culture allowed him to accept his desire for sex, but not his need for anything more meaningful.
He came across to everyone as a happy, laid-back guy, but anyone who really wanted to know him--including his wife--got shut down.
We are hardwired to learn what's safe and what works in life. We watch others and interpret their actions, then we form beliefs about ourselves and the world, and invent life strategies accordingly. A good portion of this process is unconscious. These interpretations and beliefs, however, are often troubled, partly due to the source material we have to work with, and partly our own innate (and faultless) fallibility. The ratio will vary.
This often leaves us unable (or perhaps unwilling) to keep ourselves safe and cared for, or thinking that we are keeping ourselves safe when we're really just keeping authentic relationships at bay.
But how are we to know? In the words of one wise, green-skinned Jedi, "You must unlearn what you have learned."
Healthy boundaries are not negative or restrictive. They give freedom. They're built on a foundation of knowing your worth and respecting yourself--and having that same respect for others. Having good boundaries allows you to be honest and compassionate with yourself, regardless of where other people are at.
Your boundaries are chosen out of sober knowledge of yourself and your chosen values. You'll feel a freedom to move. Like the smart little membranes that protect your cells and enable their vital functions, effective boundaries invite intimacy while guarding against what's improper and unhealthy.
Barriers are quite different. We may believe they serve the functions of boundaries, but they don't. Barriers are founded on fear, pain, and falsehoods. They're cynical, telling us that intimacy is a pipe dream and people can't be trusted. They're shameful, telling us we can't achieve and don't deserve. Rather than being chosen in the pursuit of growth, barriers are reactionary; we erect them feeling we have no other choice. And the big irony is that they end up allowing all kinds of hurt and unhealthiness into our lives.
But trading your barriers for boundaries is something you can do. It takes time, it takes help, and it takes a willingness to embrace the scary and freedom-giving idea that some of the things you believe are entirely untrue. You've got to challenge the story you've always been told, the one you've been telling yourself, and begin to reframe the narrative in a way that's truthful and compassionate for you, and by natural progression, for others too.
The first step is you deciding you're worth it.
Mike Ensley is a nationally board-certified Professional Counselor in Loveland, Colorado.