A Boundary Building Crib Sheet

YES and NO are two very powerful words. They are the gatekeepers that maintain the boundary of self and other. We need boundaries to protect ourselves from things that don’t serve our well-being; however, they also need to be flexible enough to filter in the good stuff like life experiences and connections. Many of us have great difficulty building and maintaining healthy boundaries especially in situations and with people we are emotionally invested in. This is because our emotions sometimes mess with the circuitry of our rational higher brain when they interface with each other in our decision making. Finding that middle ground between masochism (YES-ing to death) and isolation (building a wall of NO) is possible, but it takes practice. I’ve created this crib sheet to help guide the process and deal with some of the challenges that come up along the way.

(1) EMOTIONAL ASSESSMENT

It’s important to really examine the emotions that come up for us when setting limits and boundaries. I often ask clients (and myself) to reflect on how they feel when they say either YES or NO. After getting a general sense of what that brings up for them emotionally, we start to examine the feelings triggered in different situations and settings where YES and NO have been exercised. This self-reflection is key in helping us to understand and eventually reframe the responses of others.

Perhaps your friend’s inability to handle your NO is about their own fear of rejection, but their passive aggressive response to you may trigger a stream of intrusive negative thinking that has you fearing you will lose this relationship if you don’t say YES. This cycle only maintains and perpetuates some pretty shitty self-esteem and relationship dynamics.

(2) IMAGINING THE OPPOSITE

What would life be like if you didn’t always say YES? How would it feel if you could just say NO without an explanation? What would change for you? These are just some of the prompts to get you thinking about the real costs and benefits of boundary building. Imagining the opposite is kind of mind blowing. One of my clients sat with the word that came up for her (i.e. freedom) when imagining what life would be like is she didn’t say YES all the time. That imagined life prioritized her own needs and took the burdens of others off her chest. It sparked a series of small changes in behavior that prepared her to let go of a very toxic relationship.

(3) COMMUNICATING OUR BOUNDARIES

This should not be confused with explaining our boundaries. People respond best to open and direct communication that is compassionate. Congruent communication is a skill that helps people in relationships understand and express each other’s needs without defensiveness. Adapting this style of communication to express our need for boundaries will help reduce the blow-back from people in our lives not used to us having them.

Some great examples are the following:

“I know I haven’t always been good at letting you know how I feel and as awesome as you are, I know you’re not psychic. This is why I want to talk to you about a few things.”

“You are very important to me and it means a lot that I can be this honest with you about my needs.”

My personal favorite and one that I find is absolutely necessary when you work in a care-taking and/or helping profession is the following:

“I want to be there for you, but there are times when I am too overwhelmed with my own stuff and life. The only way I can be present for the people I care about is if I am taking care of myself first. This is when I have to say no to certain things.”

(Insert the flock of doves emanating from the heavens)

People may still react to your compassionate dialogue; however, rest assured that their reaction tells you more about whether they are meant to remain in your life or not. A healthy relationship is one that is reciprocal and interdependent. If they truly care about you, they will support your needs even if it takes them a little time to process and understand them. For those that don’t get it, keep reading to (5) TAKE A TIME OUT FROM THE TOXIC.

(4) A ‘NO EXPLANATIONS’ APPROACH

You don’t have to justify your boundaries further than the compassionate communication outlined above. Explanations are often about anticipating and/or managing other people’s emotions. If you find yourself worrying that you might disappoint an important figure in your life by saying NO, you may needlessly over explain your boundary. You may feel the need to exaggerate your explanations to the point of lying to avoid being interrogated about your boundary. Fighting this urge is hard work and success varies depending on the situation and/or relationship.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I only recently got good at the ‘no explanations’ approach. Below is one of my success scenarios.

My then boyfriend asked me to come hang out with his friends while they watched the UFC fights on PPV. There were a number of reasons why I didn’t feel like going, but rather than list them all, I chose to say, “No babe. I’m good. You have fun with the boys.” He immediately asked me what I was going to do on a Saturday night alone. His assumption that I couldn’t possibly have any other plans or things to do was enough to trigger some irritation, but I managed not to react. I smiled and told him, “I’ll be fine. You enjoy the fights.” My lack of explanation started to trigger some mind reading from his end. “You probably want to go out to some club, don’t you? Yeah, I know what you girls do. That’s cool. You go let some bro feel up on you instead of hanging out with your man.” At this point, I wanted to punch him in the face and/or leave the room, but I maintained my calm and restated my original response with a little “sass” to reframe his mind-reading. “I’m going to miss you too baby. You have fun tonight.” I rubbed up on him like an exaggerated club dancer to drive home how ridiculous he was being. He laughed. I laughed. All was good and no more questions were asked.

If only they all worked out this way. What I will say about all the not so successful attempts is that they highlighted my triggers and vulnerabilities. Understanding where and why I got derailed helped me to revise my approach in order to react differently next time. I have several ‘no explanation’ tactics at the ready for interactions with my parents because I know from many a trial and error how my frustration and anger gets the best of me. The worst part of those exchanges was knowing I had gone off the rails, but not being able to bring myself back. When I would hear “relax, it was just a question” I knew I had failed. Prepare your ‘no explanation’ strategies before challenging situations to increase your success and reduce distress (rhyming intentional).

(5) TAKE A TIME OUT FROM THE TOXIC

If you find that your boundaries are being tested over and over again with certain individuals despite all your congruent compassionate communication and ‘no explanations’ attempts, give yourself permission to take distance. If you can’t do that for yourself, then I give you permission to take distance. You don’t have to respond to their texts, DM’s, or any attempts at contact immediately or at all. You can choose the terms by which you will engage with them and interact accordingly. They will almost definitely feel a certain kind of way about your distance, but don’t let their reactions make you feel that you’re “ghosting” them. If your relationship is one-sided and co-dependent, it is not healthy. Your silence is self-care. And speaking of self-care…

(6) REWARD YOUR BOUNDARIES

Setting boundaries that put your needs first is an act of self-love. For those of us who have trouble saying NO to others, work with the YES and recognize that boundaries can be an act of saying YES to yourself. For people with rigid boundaries, look at the ability to say YES as being in control of the gate between yourself and others. You get to choose what and who you let it. Say YES only to what feels good to your being; nothing else gets through the gate.

As you build healthy boundaries, people who do not serve you will start to exit your life. Those exits may be dramatic and may hurt for a period of time; however, you will start to be surrounded by people who not only support your boundaries, but will also have boundaries of their own. You will get to experience what it feels like for someone to communicate a boundary with you, and learn to appreciate their openness and honesty. If we all communicated our needs directly and with compassion to each other, we probably wouldn’t even need to call boundaries boundaries. They would become more like lines of contact connecting individuals to each other in a sort of collective relationship tapestry. We aren’t there yet, but it’s worth imagining.

 

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A Curated Life – Reality Testing Social Media

For the past few days preceding the new year 2019, many people were blowing up their social media profiles with collages of a year in review. Actually, let me correct that and say MOST people. This was especially the case on Instagram, although Facebook and Snapchat were no slouches. Let’s not also forget the iPhone’s penchant for sending unsolicited “Moments” to many users as the year wound down to its close. Some of those moments weren’t very “smart” while others were too much so. What people tend to forget is that all of these images and snapshots of life only represent a fraction of a life being lived. All these carefully curated lives are flooding our ability to reality test as we scroll, check, and comment. They have the power to trigger a range of negative emotions and automatic thinking of oneself that I would compare to self-torture. How do we override this or do we even want to?

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One of the major complaints a client shared with me was how accomplishments cannot be faked. When this client sees posts of college graduations, new homes, or weddings the negative self-appraisal switch gets activated. It’s easier for her to dismiss the filtered faces and Photo-shopped bodies because they are “obvious” in their fakery. Here begins the exploration of what is meaningful about these accomplishments using a form of reality testing known as The Socratic Method. For this client, graduation meant attaining higher education that will get someone a better salary and financial stability. This belief has three parts to it, one of which is TRUE. Graduating college is attaining a higher education in the form of whatever degree is earned – TRUTH; however the type of degree earned can reality test the other two parts. The person she saw in the graduation photo may have earned a degree in History with a minor in Art. Does that automatically set them up for a particular job? Will that job have a salary that is “better” than hers? Will that person have financial stability as a result of the job and salary that their degree garnered them? The belief obviously falls apart. The one part that is true is parsed from the distorted beliefs attached to it. This helped get my client thinking about her tendency to make assumptions and self-torture based on what she saw on social media.

Another client’s depression was triggered when his iPhone sent him a selection of images titled “Holiday Moments.” The images reminded him of the awful break up he experienced the previous Thanksgiving, and how his family had picked apart his life over the recent Christmas break. What he expressed about the images gave the impression that they were painful to look at, so much so that they caused him to have a depressive episode. Reflecting these feelings back to him padded the landing for the following challenge – if these photos are so painful, why would you want to keep them in your phone? This led to an exploration of what it would feel like to delete the photos and how he was holding himself back from dating due to self-blame for his relationship ending. He decided he wasn’t ready to delete the photos, but it got him thinking about his own self-torture i.e. using images to justify the “story” he tells himself that perpetuates and maintains his depression.

I looked at the collages of various friends and acquaintances throughout the Holidays, some of which I knew had a particularly challenging year. I found myself becoming annoyed and even angry at the discrepancies between their curated lives and the ones they were living in real time. Part of my reaction was rooted in the many hours I gave audience to their hurt feelings, struggles, and inability to take action to change their negative circumstances. I knew the truth and it angered me that they couldn’t own it. That being said, I also know how incredibly difficult it is to acknowledge the above and resist the urge to get a self-esteem boost outside of the situations that are bringing you down by “false advertising.” We have ALL been there and our brain chemistry facilitates this behavior. There is a region of the brain that floods with dopamine every time we experience something novel or receive a reward. It gets activated when we receive positive reinforcement for the images and moments of our lives we share on social media. It can quickly escalate from an occasional mood fixer to an almost addictive need to post and check for likes and complimentary comments. These behaviors don’t give us the same reward of feel good chemicals. If anything, they give us less unless we escalate our activities.

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The reality in the unreality of social media is that we humans are social creatures. We make meaning of our existence in relationship to others. Our self-judgment is part of the driving force behind curating our lives for the eyes of others. What happens when the careful selections don’t get us many likes or comments or worse, when they become the target of trolls and bullies? We become trapped in a negative feedback loop that maintains the dysfunctional cycle of seeking gratification for a life not lived as we would like it, but as we want others to perceive it. Before you post, think about the expectations you have of sharing the content. Whatever these are, they can serve as your personal barometer to test whether or not you’ve fallen prey to this cycle. A little less self-torture in 2019 is a great intention to set and more importantly, to SHARE.

Some recommended reading:

The New York Times: This Is Your Brain Off Facebook (article pub. 2/01/2019)

Planning on quitting the social platform? A major new study offers a glimpse of what unplugging might do for your life. (Spoiler: It’s not so bad.)

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/30/health/facebook-psychology-health.html

 

 

The Healing Decade

I started setting my intentions for 2018 last weekend.  Today’s blizzard and frigid conditions have made it possible to do a whole lot of reflecting on the events of years past, my growth from them and what obstacles still exist. I discovered something very interesting. The major shifts of my life have come in ten year bundles buffered by life altering events on either end. Rather than posting a year in review, I’m choosing to do more of a life in review starting with the significant event that set in motion all the things that have led me to where I am today.

The trauma decade (11-21 yrs)

At age eleven I had a serious car accident. My injuries confined me to a wheelchair and then required over a year of intense and painful PT to get me back on my feet, literally. All the activities that I engaged in prior to this accident which made me feel good within my body were now a source of intense fear and anxiety. I had serious psychological injuries that were never addressed. My self concept and my sense of independence were deeply affected by this accident. Complicating matters worse was a strict, authoritarian upbringing where verbal and corporal punishment were the status quo for relating to children and the wonderful world of puberty, where changes occurred outside of my control. I was a wounded child in a woman’s body with a mountain of responsibility and guilt placed on me for pretty much everything that was going wrong. The depression, post traumatic stress, anxiety and negative self concept all set the stage for my budding eating disorder, which manifested into full blown Anorexia at age 21.

The transformation decade (21-31 yrs)

Anorexia wreaked havoc on my body and mind in the first part of this decade, but my inner resilience helped me to pursue my childhood dream of singing and performing. Yes, I definitely had a very warped end goal when it came to music making. I needed heaps of external validation to feel “okay” with myself, so any drunk heckling from an audience member would upset me to the point where I couldn’t finish a song. I also modeled because I needed that attention to reassure myself that I was desirable and lovable. Of course, those two things do not go hand in hand. When I sought treatment, the onion began to unfold. I was forced to face a lot of vulnerability and insecurity. It was terrifying. I didn’t have any coping skills. My eating disorder and all this hyper-focus on my appearance and sexuality were the ways I dealt or didn’t with my issues. I turned the dial way down on all of that. I started to examine the reasons behind a lot of the things I was doing. I wasn’t ready to quit it all cold turkey, but a transformation was occurring. During this time, I entered into a serious six year relationship with a man whose personality pushed buttons of change for me. Coinciding with this was my Saturn Return. Even if you’re not a believer of astrology, many of us undergo a major reevaluation of priorities and cognitive growth between the ages of 28-31. This is proven by behavioral neuroscience. At age 31, I was successfully in remission from Anorexia and newly licensed in my chosen profession of massage therapy. I felt optimistic, but I had only cracked the surface. The floodgates were about to spew.

The healing decade (31 yrs and counting)

When a train is approaching a station you feel it initially as a tiny flutter of air that gets progressively stronger until it practically knocks you over when the thing emerges from the tunnel. That’s exactly how this decade has been thus far. At age 31, something shifted for me – the flutter of air. My sister gave birth to her first child and holding him triggered a desire for family that overwhelmed me. Everything that I felt comfortable and complacent with needed to go and believe me, it WENT. The great purge gained momentum as the years progressed. This last year and a half, I experienced a mass exit of relationships that no longer served me and the pulling out of the many energetic hooks placed into me by the people I had chosen to give my time and my heart to. Despite all the loss and the ache I feel in many parts of my being, I have never felt lighter and more myself. It’s amazing how clear your intuition and wisdom become when you aren’t burdened by other people’s stuff. My graduate program has given me a lot of perspective on how I perpetuated and maintained some of the situations that plagued me in the first half of this decade. My inner circle consists of some really incredible, intelligent and supportive people who are doing the work on their end and who I admire greatly. The best advice I got this year came from an article a “soul” friend shared with me about reclaiming my power. I get to control who gets access to me. I can and will heal through all this loss and painful adjustment because I have reclaimed that energy for myself. I am surrounded by the best cheerleaders. These people show up. They reciprocate. They care. One of my intentions for this year is to continue to allow them to take care of me, even when I don’t always know how to ask. This vulnerability is a strength that will set the stage for the type of partnership I want for life; the pivotal event I know is coming.

In the meantime, I will keep my gaze on “the bandaged place” as the Sufi poet Rumi so eloquently put it because through that wounded place “the light” will enter me. Amen.