I can't get this conversation out of my head.
Recently, a really interesting conversation sprang up about the word "boundaries." For the most part, the group was considering the value of setting healthy boundaries designed to make you stronger and more self-assured, creating a safe haven from which to grow and evolve.
Then Jane (not her real name) dropped a bomb into the mix: If we are all One, why do we need boundaries? What if all boundaries are self-limits in disguise? What if that circle we draw around ourselves, saying "This is Me and this is Not Me" or "This is acceptable and this is not acceptable," is just a noose cutting ourselves off from experiences our soul (though not necessarily our human self) craves?
There was a moment of stunned silence, then the conversation exploded in a bazilliion directions.
The definition itself isn't much help: Boundaries (noun) - "Something that indicates bounds or limits; a limiting or bounding line. Also called frontier."
Limit, frontier, or safe haven?
If you feel confounded by this question, you are far from alone. On the one hand, we can easily see the effects of poor boundaries in our own lives and especially in the lives of others. It’s easy to look at someone else and immediately see how they are allowing their squishy sense of Self to cause suffering and interfere with cultivating happy healthy relationships.
Yet you would have to be living under a rock to have missed all the teachings regarding Oneness, selflessness, and non-separateness.
So just how do we reconcile a healthy sense of Self with our desire to embrace the Oneness?
We’ll get to the question of Oneness in just a moment, but first let’s take a step back...
A Little History
The concept of personal boundaries is a fairly recent addition to human culture and your own sense of good boundaries will evolve as you mature and awaken. In fact, people who have done a lot of spiritual work may be most at risk for allowing boundary violations because setting and enforcing boundaries feels at odds with what they are learning about inclusion and compassion.
Historically, the word comes from defining property ownership. It’s only in the last hundred years or so that the concept of personal boundaries has burst into collective thought with issues such as women’s rights, civil rights, and human rights leading the charge. Before these movements entered the mainstream, women, children, serfs and indentured servants, slaves, prisoners and other disenfranchised populations “belonged” to others who “ruled” them physically and often emotionally or spiritually. In terms of human history and evolution, a hundred years is barely the blink of an eye and the idea of individual rights and boundaries is still not a universally shared belief throughout all cultures. Even in cultures where the general concept is accepted, the details are hotly debated.
The confusion at the legal and cultural level only adds to the confusion at the personal, physical, emotional, and spiritual level. For example, we decry the way other countries treat our citizens who have been taken prisoner of war, yet justify punishment towards those people our own country has captured. Does that mean respect of boundaries is conditional upon circumstance? That slippery slope opens the door to violations from every sector – law enforcement, government, corporations, religions, and ultimately towards and between you and me. Any time we embrace a double standard or become complacent, we put ourselves and our individual boundaries at risk.
If we lack clarity and consensus for legal, cultural, and even physical boundaries, is it any wonder we have little clue how to develop good personal, emotional, and spiritual boundaries? If collectively we don’t have a clear picture of where your rights end and mine begin, how can we expect to understand our right to personal sanctuary? It’s no wonder many of us, maybe especially those striving to be on a more spiritual path, question whether we are even entitled to boundaries.
Crossing the Line
In order to know whether you or someone else has crossed the line, you need to understand what that line looks like.
Boundary violations come in two flavors – trespassing and enmeshment.
When someone invades your space without invitation (or worse, when specifically asked not to go there), they are trespassing in your territory. It’s fairly easy to recognize and probably the easier violation to address. Ignoring your stated preferences is also a form of trespassing as is bullying and intimidation. We typically know it when it happens and often stand up for ourselves and fight back on autopilot.
Enmeshment is more insidious and far trickier to navigate. It is a grossly inappropriate obliteration of individual identities, ignoring the emotional and psychological autonomy of one or both. The forms it takes are more subtle and may even appear socially acceptable from the outside looking in which can result in a lack of external support.
• Your spouse tells you what to think or do. Is s/he looking out for you or negating your ability to think for yourself?
• Your best friend tells you who to date and puts down the people you choose on your own. Is she looking out for you or sneakily sabotaging your efforts because she wants you to herself.
• A colleague asks for your help, then disappears, assuming you will complete the task for her. Of course, she never gives you any credit for helping.
• Your mother criticizes the way you raise your children and tells your spouse you are doing everything wrong. Ironically, you are consciously choosing to do things differently from your her because of the pain her child rearing practices caused for you.
In each case, the perpetrator acts as if the two of you are one person so you “should” do things the way s/he thinks you should. Standing up for yourself in these situations typically leads to hurt feelings, damaged relationships, and drama.
There is often a feeling of being trapped by circumstance or the perceived value of the relationship. How do you choose your battles with so much at stake?
Enmeshment becomes ever more complicated in codependent relationships. The lines that define each of you as individuals become so blurred that you can’t even imagine a way to change the relationship. Your personal identity becomes lost within the tangle the two of you have created to the point where the thought of not taking care of each other, even though you’ve come to hate the feeling that pseudo care brings, feels even worse. Because you see each other as an extension of yourself rather than as separate people with thoughts and feelings of their own, creating a boundary feels like cutting off one of your own limbs.
Even healthy couples need to be heedful of not mistaking intimate love with boundaryless love where each sees the other as just an extension of Self. Healthy love does not obliterate the individuals in order to form the couple. It’s more like a Venn diagram with the two blending in ways that honor the individuals while creating a strong common core. Healthy love continues to foster the growth of the individuals while simultaneously growing the union. Boundaries can help prevent the overuse of venting, dumping, or acting out so that growth can flourish.
What Can You Do?
Learning to recognize the signs and feelings of boundary violation may be easier than figuring out what to do. Expect to feel uncomfortable as you begin to experiment with setting and enforcing boundaries, much like you experience discomfort when starting a new workout routine. Just as your body gets stronger as you exercise, your spirit and emotions will strengthen as you practice your new boundaries. At first, you may feel wobbly or even weak. Keep exercising that boundary “muscle” and it will become stronger.
When you feel violated, ask yourself what line has been crossed, then tune in to your feelings at a deeper level. Are you feeling ignored? Like the other person can’t see you as a separate individual? Has there been a misunderstanding that can be sorted out? Does the breach feel accidental or deliberate? Allow yourself to be curious about what is happening rather than leaping to judge or criticize either of you. Taking that moment to tune in can provide a wealth of clarity for how you really want to respond.
Cut yourself a little slack, be self-compassionate, dust yourself off, and do it again until it feels completely natural. Just as physical exercise has fringe benefits – the more you exercise, the stronger you become, and the stronger you become, the more you are able to exercise - healthy boundaries feed on themselves, spreading out to strengthen you and your sense of Self in ways you may not have anticipated. The paradox is this - As your
boundaries become stronger, they break down the barriers that were preventing genuine love and care from flowing effortlessly into your life.
So What about the Oneness?
If we are all One, if we are not separate, why do we even need boundaries? Don’t boundaries just reinforce the separateness? Isn’t the point of Oneness to let go of the idea of separation and join the unity of Soul?
Jack Engler, psychologist and mindfulness meditation teacher, wrote "You have to have a self in order to let go of a self." To me, that says we have to first recognize who we are within this human adventure we call Life. We have to know what that human experience is, what it looks and feels like, in order to understand the role of ego and separateness as part of the duality that guides us back to unity. It is through the exploration of individual Self that we form our beliefs about gratitude vs. greed, inclusion vs. aversion, delusion vs. insight, kindness vs. selfishness, and forgiveness vs. blame that become our catapult in returning to Love.
Healthy boundaries help protect us from exploitation and victimization. They help us understand surrender as something positive, of being in the accepting flow of nature and life rather than the knuckling under to mistreatment. They become our foundation for spiritual and emotional development.
Strong boundaries act like a seed wall, a pod full of nourishment for the birth that is happening. As you become stronger, you are less and less likely to be ensnared by enmeshment, less likely to get blindsided by the sexual or guilt-based or ego-feeding advances of an emotional vampire. Boundaries create a safe place where your spiritual, emotional, and psychological development can be nurtured and where your new insights can be incorporated into your daily life with less friction.
We have a responsibility to care for this body and mind, the vessel that is carrying us through this human Life. Good boundaries aren’t so much about isolating the Me in each of us as they are about each of us doing our part to foster mutual respect throughout Humankind. And that is the fundamental building block of Oneness.
Click here, to learn How to Set Good Boundaries.
Anne Wade is Teacher, Writer, Mentor, and Coach for courageous women in midlife and beyond who want to disrupt their own status quo and design life on their own terms, even in turbulent times. She has developed the Becoming Found process of going within to find and address the inner barriers we have all inadvertently built up against love, happiness, health, wealth and any other desires of our hearts. Teaching women to unapologetically shine like a superstar and live their legacy is Anne’s mission.
You can follow her on her Facebook page “Anne Wade – Becoming found” or join her “Becoming Found” Facebook group.