Travelling the Alphabet — B is for Boundaries


Boundaries and defences are so similar on the surface but so dissimilar in both their action and function, one being essential good for emotional health and one being ultimately destructive and damaging. Thus understanding the difference between them both is crucial. We certainly need boundaries but mostly we construct defences instead. These are the differences:

A boundary is flexible, internal and is based on your own deepest, ego-free, Interbeing*-based values of what you will and will not allow yourself to be forced into or subjected to. It allows other people to be who they need to be and for all to be ‘who’ they are without anybody encroaching on anybody else’s wellbeing. A boundary says I love you and I know you love me and I accept your right to be who you are and you accept my right to be who I am; if you need to do this and I need to not do this that is all ok, we can listen deeply to each other but we can agree to differ without fear and anger getting in the way.

A barrier is not flexible, it is rule based. It says if you love me you will obey this rule or do that in order to suit me or please me. It creates approval junkies. It allows little or no flexibility and creates division and separation. A barrier sticks its head in the sand and runs away, it says ‘don’t go there don’t do this because you are afraid’. It encourages the build-up of fear-based restrictions in your life. Barriers want to silence you or others without listening or being open. They want to stop you acting and hide you away, to protect you from the things in life which you most need to face related to truth and compassion and living ethically and free of harmful outcomes for yourself. It will hide you away and pretend it has your best interests at heart, it will stop you facing your fear full on and overcoming it, it will keep you afraid and cowering. Barriers come from fear and boundaries come from strength, trust and openness, and confidence in your value system.

A little while ago a friend told me not to talk about things that caused her distress. Yet her behaviour and choices were contributing to those events occurring and her avoidance of the deeper issues have, and continue to have, a contribution to the devastating impacts on the lives of other people. The friendship feels as if it is slipping out of existence because barriers do that and boundaries do not. Her barriers of self-defence are unable to flow with my boundaries and values in life anymore and she is closing down in defence against me. I shall remain open to her if at any time in the future she feels able to listen to me again too, as I have done with her many times before. But I have my boundaries relating to my conscience of the greater good in life and one of them is that I will not collude with abuse of others in any form or guise if I can possibly know and avoid it, and I will not judge others who do, but I will speak out about it.

A word of warning here though, whatever your values and boundaries are, do not fall into the trap of self-righteousness about being right and others wrong. That is just another form or barrier making you feel better at someone else’s expense. My other tradition is Quaker and one of the favourite advices I follow repeatedly is ‘have you considered you may be mistaken’. So in this case am I wrong to challenge or to question my friend’s choices, or is it a positive thing that has short term challenges to deal with. My answer to that is to look deeply at motivation. My motivation is not to be right but to help to alleviate suffering and challenge choices that contribute to it. My value says I cannot please other people at the expense of ignoring my vow not to contribute to the suffering in the world any more than I do and to educate myself to lessen that as quickly as I am able to by educating myself about it all. I feel like I am being even more self-righteous and ‘right’ here but I honestly promise that this is not my intention, I am just trying to break down the complex links in separating out ego based barriers and healthy enabling boundaries.

For instance in my life someone proudly announced they were having all their internal pine doors replaced by deeply polished mahogany doors that all matched. Their house extension meant that period pine painted doors no longer matched the newer ones and she wanted uniformity and no more painting to do. I could not conceal my obvious shock and horror at her refusal to acknowledge that her choices had immense impact on the forests where these trees grow and that this was a wasteful and unnecessary use of natural resources. My deep distress was impacted by the short story I had recently read by one of my favourite authors, Isabel Allende, about the lives of indigenous tribes-people from the amazon forests and the brutal and inhumane impact on their lives by the logging companies, turning them into either sex-slaves as comfort women or labouring-slaves as tree fellers. I could clearly see the connection between these two realities and she was angry with me for bringing it to her attention and didn’t see why I should be upset or impinge on her social climbing house lifestyle with my tales of nasty things that were not her responsibility.

Another incident recently also occurred in a similar way when a friend of mine was annoyed that I don’t have an I-Phone and then was even more annoyed with me for stating the reason why I don’t have an I-phone, because of the harmful waste of enslaved children’s lives and often their deaths in the mining for the minerals that these products depend upon, and I won’t get an I-phone until this changes and all the mining is done by adults, willingly and safely and ecologically soundly.

So if we separate these two examples out into stages of processing for differences between boundaries and barriers.

First of all we have an underlying value, in this case mine is not to cause or inflict suffering onto others knowingly, if I can possibly help it, and as far as I am able, to also work to end the causes of that self-same suffering for others.

That is a deep core value I hold and cannot be diverted from. If I am diverted from that value then I feel so at odds with myself and my core being that it causes me deep distress. But this core value can be anything that you feel strongly about for your own sense of ethical, spiritual or moral well-being. Going against this value causes me deep distress because I feel the suffering of all those individuals trapped in those horrendous circumstances. I do not want to be a part of that system of enslavement and cruelty by contributing to a market that demands these products at these costs. So this is the part that is self-interested if you like, I want to feel happy in my life, not sad all the time, thus I have values that allow this to occur. I almost certainly have a lot of mirror neurons which make me deeply empathetic and sensitive but I find strength in that sensitivity and do not run from it if I can help it. The strength is in using to speak out and help co-create change to end all suffering.

Then we have the choices made, deeper knowledge we can all develop, our understanding of our place in the universe.

It is not all up to us!

Shock Horror, what does this mean?

We are but a part of it all, a very important part of it all but not the only part. The ego will try and keep you at the centre of everything; ‘it is all down to you, all your responsibility to rescue the world and sort it all out, and with some urgency’. Thus we are tempted to draw up the barriers and protect ourselves and hide from these truths. In legal terms this is ‘wilful blindness’ but it is one of the most common failings of humanity; until we can all embrace this approach, fully based on the Buddhist ethics teachings of mindfulness, instead.

But nothing is resolved in shutdown mode. You cannot really run away from anything because you are part of everything and it is part of you, thus it will impinge on you at some time or another, in some form or another. And if you only have barriers to protect you, they will be washed away, like all flood defences ultimately are, by the torrents of the truth.

So the best choices to make are those made in full awareness, but knowing that it is not all down to you. You cannot avoid however, taking your part in either making it worse (actively contributing is little different to a head in the sand) or ameliorating the situation. There are many ways to do this.

We have some choices, even if they may be limited sometimes. People will need for instance an I-phone in order to carry out their business lives, but they can also campaign and sign petitions to state they want this slavery practice changed and these abuses to be stopped and viable alternatives used instead. That is within everyone’s power to do, and enough people together create a torrent of protest that does actually mean these practices are ended, perhaps not overnight but in time. The people who have vested interests in hiding these horrors will put up many barriers to prevent themselves being compromised and losing their source of exploitation, but we can collectively create a torrent of protest against such practices and thus bring about change. Torrents of truth always over-come barriers because barriers are rooted in fear and truth will always overcome fear in the end. The illusion of time can make us feel cynical of this life basis, but if you explore in depth you can see it does always happen. It is the failure of immediate outcomes that leads to cynicism and doubt, taking the long view shows it is always real though.

In this way we have a clear boundary and can maintain our values but also be pragmatic about our role in the whole picture. This way the ego does not get over important and take control again in a different format.

Also stepping back and understanding the universe as being basically made of energy; just energy and particles organised in specific ways. We cannot destroy or create anything but we can have a say in how that matter is organised. Knowing this and keeping this in mind can be very liberating and empowering but keeping it in mind means responding also to the reality of a material world that we also all live in and are obliged to interact with. It is the marriage of those two realities that enables us to develop strong values and boundaries that keep us safe. Everything can be changed, nothing is permanent, and we can influence those changes by our own energetic inputs. It is worth the effort and cynicism is not necessary, just don’t think it is all down to you and going to happen in an instant, or even in your lifetime which is no more than a blink of an eye anyway. But your input via your energy and active rejection of cruelty and abuses will and does create change in the end. Don’t let go of that bit, in the end. There is a time to speak out and protest and a time to be simply happy and in touch with the pure loving joy of life itself. But by not being part of the problem you automatically become part of the solution.

Finally in this process, learn to let go of the ego centric view of the world and your place in it, but taking firm hold of a realistic assessment of how much is your responsibility. You can only be responsible for the choices you take in this present moment. So, no matter which choices you made in the past you can always change them NOW and work to undo what you may have done in the past, or at least not repeat them and add to the burdens of suffering in this world. If you know in your heart that these things are true of yourself then you have developed natural boundaries which are strong and solid and will keep you ‘safe’ from your inner critic. Because that is probably who you most fear, the inner critic who will use someone else to prove they are right and that you are not as great as you thought you were or want to be. Which leads to another important part of healthy boundary building; be honest and also pragmatic about yourself.

You are probably great to some people and yuk to others, with a lot of in-betweens. This is a spectrum and none of it is accurate because no-one can know you from the outside. Even if they can read your energy, they can only know you at some level. Let’s face it, we don’t even know ourselves very well and we are party to all the thoughts and motivations going on inside our own minds. Sometimes others can know things about you that you don’t know about yourself, because they can see what our ego’s would have us avoid looking at, but they don’t know all of you either.

We are all enigmas and that is because we are not fixed. We may change our values over time, based on what we learn. We will almost certainly adapt our choices and behaviours over time too, based on feedback and self-image and many other factors. So how can anybody deeply know the entirety of another when they are always evolving? If you can accept this about yourself you can give yourself room to change, remove the need to be right or not found out, remove all guilt and shame and become an emotionally flexible but strong person with very healthy boundaries. Believe me this takes time and effort and I cannot claim to have mastered it yet although I am using this process and it has certainly worked over the years alongside other principles which I write about else where such a gratitude and letting go etc.

We all want to appear to be strong and unassailable, but real strength arise out of openness, and not being afraid of our vulnerability or our depth of emotion. Real strength comes from having firm boundaries, which are not rigid; that you will not compromise but are open to modification if that fits with the original core value. For instance I might change my stance on mahogany if I can be demonstrated clearly to that the new way of managing its harvest involves no habitat loss on devastating scales and no harm to other living beings apart from the trees themselves of course, which are also living beings with consciousness ( another essay elsewhere). Healthy boundaries allows us to laugh off the nonsense coming our way daily without being unkind about it, and without defending ourselves, there is no need to defend if one is not afraid.

Another minor point I feel should be added here is that there are times when we have to say ‘I can’t manage this right now’. My own example is that I am still recovering from a massive breakdown caused by PTSD. This has been the most devastating experience of my life and in other ways the very best, because so many good things came out of it. But I do still get triggered by anything that echoes the energy of what caused the PTSD in the first place. And thus I often say no- can’t do that. However I never say ‘no I can’t do that ever’, just ‘not yet’, or ‘not all of those things in one go’. Step by step I am finding I can cope with slightly more each day, a little more risk, a little more full on activity, a little more demand and expectation, never allowing too much but always remaining flexible to the expanding level of what I can cope with and how my nervous system is gradually rewiring itself. This flexibility and withdrawal and pushing myself makes it a healthy boundary and not a barrier because there is no silence from me, no refusal, just a cautious recalibration of what I might manage today and what I might manage more of next week if today goes ok.

One of the really great outcomes of the PTSD was that all my defences were smashed in the torrent of terror and truthful realisations that overcame me. I have been very careful not to allow them to re-assemble as they were but to sit back and re-examine everything I have learned through my practice of mindfulness. I have made sure that I instead established healthy boundaries and I remain open and do not allow the energy of defensiveness to reassemble in my emotional landscape, after all that was exactly what let me down so badly when I got broken. My boundaries grow stronger by the day, backed up by the evolving neuro-plasticity of a strong mindfulness practice. I am looking forward to how that works out, tomorrow and next week and next year who knows how far ahead.

Rewritten extracts from the original Releasing your Child’s Potential on Pathways books by Sylvia Clare and Living the Life you Want on Pathways books by Sylvia Clare and David Hughes.

  • Interbeing is the Buddhist understanding that everyone and everything is deeply connected, all comes from the same sources and is all made of the same molecules and atoms as everything else, thus we hurt ourselves when we hurt anything else because we are not just connected to everything else but we are part of it all and never separate in any way other than through our own ego based perception. It is explored in more depth elsewhere in these essays.