Building resilience in challenging environments

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What’s the Deal with Boundaries?

How do they apply to me and how can I use embodied awareness as a tool for understanding them?

Boundary. The word conjures up images of solidity, barriers, no trespassing . . . something impenetrable and off limits. And because I’m a rebel of the 60’s and 70’s, I’ve always had difficulty being told that I can’t get to where I want to go! I interpreted boundaries as an unhealthy protective device used out of fear or even laziness. By putting distance between themselves and others, they would not have to care. And a “healthy” boundary sounded like an oxymoron. My interpretation had contributed to a disdain for the topic. 

Moving beyond that simplistic perspective, I began to understand that boundaries are an essential component in relationships and communication. And I wanted to learn more. Most interestingly, how might boundaries be applied in the context of embodied awareness? Can we create a practical tool for assessing and accessing our boundaries?

I’ve developed respect for the concept of boundaries and realize that it is a complex topic. This post is an overview and introduction to the topic from an embodied perspective. 

So what is a boundary, anyway? 

Though I’m still not a fan of the term, an embodied awareness of boundaries can be a useful tool for managing difficult situations and relationships. Because not all boundaries are positive, I’ll add a qualifier to a working definition: 

Healthy boundaries are unique parameters that guide how we relate to others and that define behavior that we will, and will not, tolerate in any given situation. 

This definition provides apt parameters for how to apply the concept, beginning with the term healthy. Healthy boundaries support your autonomy and your sense of connection, they lead to open communication without obligation or hurt, and they uphold your values while allowing you to remain curious about others’ perspectives. No wonder boundaries are such a complex subject!

Boundaries are unique. The boundaries of each individual are composed of a complex history including culture, experience, sexuality, race, socioeconomic status, geography, physical makeup, age . . .  Resulting in a distinct personality and a concurrent distinct set of boundaries. 

Boundaries are multipurpose. They apply to our physical space, to our emotional and intellectual lives, even to our time and possessions. They involve our personal physical space and extend to our emotional & intellectual lives. How much space do we need? Do we over share or find we’re stingy with sharing? Do we allow others to take over discussions or belittle our ideas? Do we allow our work to take too much of our time?

Boundaries are dynamic. Not only can they be porous, rigid, or somewhere between, they also take a particular shape and quality depending on the context and players. What might be a rigid boundary with a patient may turn porous with a friend and even non-existent with an intimate. You may find yourself using the concept of boundaries to guide you on topics that do/don’t work with particular people: you know you’ll always argue with Uncle Jasper when discussing politics!

By exploring boundaries through the practice of embodiment, you will begin to sense your limits and discover what feels most comfortable to you. We’ll begin by working with the idea of a boundary being either rigid, porous, or semi-permeable:

Take a moment to breathe in through your nose, feeling the air travel up from the base of your spine. Feel yourself lighten. Exhale slowly through your mouth and feel yourself expand beyond your physical body. 

Imagine a solid wall surrounding you. How distant or near is it to your physical body? What color is it? What is it made of? Is it opaque or transparent? As you envision the wall around you, sense what is happening in your body, to your thoughts, your breathing, your body temperature . . . Do you feel more tight or loose? Are you breathing more slowly or quickly? What else do you notice?

Take another deep inhale and exhale, and let that image dissipate.

Now try to imagine that you have absolutely no limits, that your gaze and energy and attention go on forever, way beyond your space, the structure you’re in, your town, country . . . Beyond this planet, even. Sense into yourself. What do you notice? What types of thoughts are you having? Are you feeling settled, nervous, just right? How about your breathing and heart rate? How does this time compare to the first exercise?

Inhale deeply, exhale and lighten, letting that image recede.

This time imagine that you have a kind of bubble surrounding you, that is transparent yet defined. You can see outside the bubble and others can see in. Passing from one side of the bubble to the other requires an invitation of sorts, it is a kind of passage. The bubble wall has a tension to it, but is permeable. Notice how near or far you place the edge of your bubble. Are there particular people or things or events that are in the bubble with you? Who or what is on the outside? What do you notice about your thoughts, body temperature, breathing pattern, and heart rate? 

By comparing and contrasting we can get a sense for where our systems feel most comfortable. Your comfort zone will likely shift depending on the situation. You can then begin applying that embodied awareness when you are curious about your boundaries in particular situations. You might notice that you have very rigid boundaries in certain circumstances even though you noticed that that isn’t comfortable when you did the exercise. Or the opposite: that you have created a porous boundary and that also gave you a sense of unease.

When you are aware of the physical sensation of your boundaries, you can play with shifting them. Imagining a boundary more opaque or rigid, describing a broad space around you or very narrow, allowing none to pass through, or all. 

The skill of embodying concepts provides you with a practical tool that you can use in the moment, on demand. You can be curious and play with shifting how you literally, and figuratively, perceive the world around you. What your system enjoys, and what it finds uncomfortable. 

Have fun! 

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