Cultivating Healthy Boundaries, Part I: The What and How

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I want to talk about something really important. In fact, to me, it’s one of the most important things in the world.

I want to talk about boundaries.

In the New Age community, I see a lot of talk about boundaries without anyone ever actually using the word — memes talking about good vibes and bad vibes, positive energy and negative energy, spells for protection. You’ve seen the ones.

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And, while each of these examples can be drawn out into a much more nuanced conversation, I want to stick with the broad topic of healthy boundaries for now. Because boundaries are so incredibly complex, I’ll be breaking the topic into multiple installments. For this first one, let’s review what boundaries are and how we develop them.

What are boundaries?

We can look at boundaries as the lines we draw between ourselves and others (and the world at large), or like bubbles around us, or like fences. In their simplest form, a boundary is the meeting point of “yes” and “no” within us, whether it relates to partners, kids, family, jobs, social roles or expectations, culture, or another facet of life. A boundary tells us who to let in, and who to keep out; it tells us what behaviors are acceptable or unacceptable; it tells us when we are safe or unsafe.

A healthy boundary protects our energy, time, resources, and wellbeing.

There are a just a few major types:

  1. Physical boundaries are about our physical safety and comfort level. They have to do with our bodies, our energy, personal space, and privacy. Physical boundaries also involve touch, sex, and all forms of physical intimacy.

  2. Emotional boundaries involve our feelings, our sense of emotional safety (which is often deeply linked to physical safety), how we react, how we regulate our emotions, who we let into our lives and who we share intimacy with, and how we communicate about needs, desires, and responsibility.

  3. Mental boundaries, for me, involve how much we permit our minds to stretch and learn new things. Once cultivated, the intellect can not itself be harmed, and supports the emotional boundaries in learning new concepts, languages, and information. I think that discipline shows up here, too.*

  4. Spiritual boundaries are about our experiences of the ethers, deities, and getting our spiritual needs met — or not, depending on where you fall on the spectrum of belief. Like mental boundaries, these are inherently tied up in our emotional and physical boundaries.

*Some folks believe that mental boundaries are about our thoughts, values, and opinions, and how we can rationalize or talk about them without having emotions tied into them — but I believe that it is, simply, an outdated and oppressive concept rooted in patriarchy to believe that our thoughts, values, and opinions are separate from our emotional or physical boundaries. In fact, this is the single most effective way that men as a whole have oppressed women and femmes: by calling us “emotional” or “hysterical,” and viewing themselves as superior because they function from “intellect” only. But I’m here to tell you a secret: living from a place of “pure rationalization” or “intellect” can only be achieved through a lack of empathy, or the deep denial of the internal empathic response. Which is how we identify sociopaths, incidentally, because they are either incapable of feeling empathy or they have so effectively denied those emotions within themselves that they no longer feel responsible for the harm they cause. So, you’ll have to make your own choice about this one.

What was it like reading this list? Did anything jump out at you? Was there a particular boundary where you felt yourself going “eesh, I need to work on that one”? Or was there one you’d never considered?

The truth is, we are all constantly managing all of these boundaries all the time. It’s a lifetime dance that ebbs and flows, and we are each of us capable of making our boundaries healthier.

And while there’s only a few major categories of boundaries, we make choices about millions of tiny little boundaries within those categories all day long.

Three styles of boundaries

There are three broad styles with which people do boundaries, although each of these is truly a spectrum. We can have really hard boundaries (picture a tall, solid wall), which permit very little in or out. We can have flexibleboundaries (picture a fence with a locked, well-kept gate), which permit a moderate amount of movement in and out. Or, we can have soft or porous boundaries (picture just an open field), which permit lots of movement in and out.

There are benefits and drawbacks to each kind. With hard boundaries, a person’s energy, time, and resources will be far more protected. However, their ability to engage in intimacy, community, and even joy may be limited, because they don’t let much of the outside world in — or much of themselves out. A person with hard boundaries needs to determine whether their boundaries are hard out of protection of finite resources, or if it’s a defense mechanism that is being employed to protect the person’s tender inner self from the necessary harms of every day human life. Even self-proclaimed hermits need human connection and intimacy, and it’s easy to use the facade of a wall as a way to escape from engaging with the world.

Soft boundaries demand that a person actually sacrifice much more of their time, energy, and other resources, which they may give away in return for companionship, community, adventure, or in the search to figure out who they are. On the flip side, a person with porous boundaries is often easily taken advantage of, may have trouble separating who they are from who their partners, friends, or family members are, and may not believe that they are worthy enough to be protected by stronger boundaries. They may be in danger much more often than the person with hard boundaries, because they can’t see — or ignore — warning signs of threat. (My two cents is that women are socialized to have much more porous boundaries than we should, but that’s another Medium story.)

For me, the goal is to be somewhere on the flexible spectrum. This requires getting clear on what we will and won’t tolerate, what we can and cannot do, what we can and cannot offer to others, what we need and what we want. It requires befriending the dreaded word “no” (which truly becomes such an ally and companion in a world as messy as ours). In this way of knowing what we want and need, we can let in love, intimacy, community, joy, and opportunity, without sacrificing our safety, desires, and precious energy reserves. This doesn’t at all mean that there aren’t risks: flexible boundaries cannot prevent hurt, but they can let in healing.

In reality, we move back and forth across all three spectrums throughout our lives, but learning how to stay somewhere centered is truly one of the keys to a healthy, happy, fulfilled life.

Developing healthy boundaries also comes with a caveat that we don’t talk about very much: as our boundaries get better and clearer, we will lose people in our lives. But here’s the thing: we start to find new people with healthy boundaries who are willing to communicate and respect our needs.

Where do our boundaries come from?

We learn about and internalize our original set of boundaries during childhood. We absorb the template that our caregivers provide through observation first, and then direct experience later.

Think about the caregivers that you grew up with — how did they signal to one another that they were angry or sad? Did they signal at all? How did they communicate about their needs or wants? What did they do with the frustration of not having those needs or wants met? How did they convey their feelings to you? Were you afraid of their emotions? How did they — or did they — say no, and when? Was it consistent or inconsistent?

Since our boundaries started developing in infancy, they are often deeply unconscious. This means that 1) figuring out what our boundaries are, and 2) why they’re like that can take a lot of exploration. Which is okay — that’s how we grow. It’s also true that a huge proportion of us have trauma in our childhoods or adolescences, and learning how trauma affects boundary developement is really important.

Let’s circle back to those memes.

How is this relevant for the witches or spiritual folks in the crowd?

In spiritual communities, it can be easy to relax our boundaries — if we’re monitoring them at all — because we want to be part of a community. But being spiritual does not mean someone has healthy boundaries or that they will respect yours. In fact, spirituality is often a great cover for self-serving narcissism. In the same vein, the quest for spiritual evolution can become an excuse for avoiding earthly things — like having tough conversations about boundary crossings.

So those memes talking about “good” and “bad” vibes, or “positive” and “negative” energy? I feel torn about them.

The thing is, with healthy boundaries, there has to be allowance for both good and bad, negative and positive. We silly bipeds are human; we’re good and bad at the same time. Shutting down everyone who makes us feel some kind of way isn’t a sign of a healthy boundary, and it isn’t spiritually advanced. On the flip side, if we’re actively working with our boundaries, needs, wants, and our ability to communicate about them, then we arelearning to identify folks who are lost in their own darkness or who can’t respect us. We just need to be aware of whether we’re using the hard boundary to avoid accountability, or for actual self-preservation, and we can’t do that without investigating the boundaries we’re cultivating.

I know we’re just starting with the basics and then I’m throwing in the nuance of these memes, but I think as modern spiritual folk it’s important to be having both conversations. Most of us do not have set communities where we’d have to learn to tolerate the discomfort of community members that we don’t necessarily get along with. In the same respect, it’s critical to develop our awareness of our boundaries so that we can protect ourselves from folks who pass into territory of threat.

In the next installment, we’ll take a look at ways to determine what kinds of boundaries you have — and what kind you want to develop. (Click here to check it out.) If you have any thoughts, reactions, or questions, please feel free to hop in the comments! Thanks for joining me, see you for Part II!