In the middle of writing this series, I stopped to take a break. I walked the dog, ate some food, and went to a coffee shop for a change of scenery. In front of me in line was a mother and a child of about 6 years old.
"I don't know what I want!" he whined and thrashed around.
The mother spoke so quietly it was barely audible. "You can have an apple."
The boy immediately started back, "But you said!!!"
"Ok fine," the mother replied expressionless, quickly yielding to a less-healthy snack. The boy quieted down (only for about a minute) while the mother juggled items in her purse. The boy scooted out the door as the mother trailed behind, seemingly trying to keep up and maintain order.
Something about her was so relevant to this topic - a worn out caretaker who gives in to others
at the first sign of conflict. I'm not judging her. I've been her so many times before (Hell, my dog even managed to boss me into a walk in the rain that very morning.) I simply recognized her need, even if just in that moment, to develop firmer boundaries.
A Weakness, or an Awareness?
Some might think of people with boundary issues as weak or unable to stand up for themselves. But that's only looking at the negative side of the coin. People with boundary issues can be incredibly empathic and willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the group - whether it's their children, their spouse, or their company. They may even have a strong mindset like, "I can go without what I want; but they can't." From this perspective, boundary issues aren't just about being "weak."
If you're someone with boundary issues who feels weak or broken, here's the more likely reality: You are more aware of a universal truth - You recognize Oneness more than the average person. You feel other people's pains and desires so strongly that you naturally want to yield to them - They start to feel like your pains and desires. And (perhaps subconsciously) you understand that their happiness and your happiness is truly interdependent. There is less of a boundary between you and other people because of this subtle awareness.
So What's the Problem?
With that said, we live in a world where not everyone has such "watery" boundaries (if you're into astrology, check if you have a lot of water in your chart). Some people are vigilant about getting their personal desires met at the expense of everyone else. And far more people simply don't realize when they're stepping on others boundaries. This is because they are not aware of oneness. They find it hard to imagine themselves in other people's shoes. So people with watery boundaries are more vulnerable to accidentally depleting their energy (in the best case scenario) or being outright taken advantage of (in the worst case). This is when problems arise.
Oneness Gone Overboard
If you're someone whose boundary issues seem to stem from people-pleasing and selflessness, you have to recognize when things have gone overboard (And for many of us in this boat, we went overboard years ago and never managed to climb back in hehe :) When you go overboard, you start to deteriorate - often even causing suffering to those you were trying to please in the first place.
Some common symptoms of people who struggle with their boundaries:
- They feel indecisive a lot
- They feel guilty for not doing what others want them to do
- They are more easily talked into things by others
- They often feel unsatisfied with life (because they are not asserting their wishes)
- They feel resentful (because they do things they don't want to do for the sake of others)
- They struggle to make decisions without input/encouragement from others
- There is a consistent haziness surrounding what they want, how they feel, or other identity-defining characteristics
- They lack confidence in their abilities (self-efficacy)
- They often feel that people stomp on their boundaries, though their friends/family/ partners are usually clueless that they've done so
- They may be passive aggressive/indirect when angry
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Usually when people talk about boundaries they talk about the importance of learning to say "no" to things you don't want. But that's just part of it. Spiritual teacher, Teal Swan has talked about how boundaries are not just about saying "no." Rather, boundaries are what we use to define ourselves as individuals - for example, your preference to read fiction over non-fiction, or your decision to study physics rather than chemistry. From this perspective, boundaries are more about choice and identity than they are about putting up walls and keeping people at bay.
The person with clear and healthy boundaries navigates the process of defining themselves seamlessly. They do what the want to do without second-guessing or allowing others to discourage them. They take action toward what makes them uniquely comfortable and happy. They pursue their desires, as long as it's not causing destruction. They accept that sometimes, people will be disappointed in their decisions and may even criticize them out of ignorance. Regardless, they stay the course. For people with healthy boundaries, there is no guilt for practicing these things. Why? Because they understand that they are not responsible for managing other people's feelings.
Now, let's look at the opposite - the person who struggles to assert their boundaries or struggles to even recognize their boundaries. Remembering the definition from earlier (boundaries are about choice and identity), what does this mean about people with boundary issues? Basically, it means there are issues surrounding identity and self-trust. You may be taking responsibility for problems that are not yours and struggling to distinguish between "mine" and "not mine."
Are Watery Boundaries Ever Healthy?
With overly-rigid boundaries, it's scary to think of what the world would look like. In its extremes, we've seen things like genocide (believing in absolute separateness, having a complete lack of empathy, and no understanding that in a sense, we are all one.) So yes, while people with very "strong" boundaries may seem more correct in mainstream society, this is pure cultural bias. These people run the opposite risk - serving the SELF at the expense of OTHERS.
While this isn't a part of mainstream thought just yet, people with overly-rigid boundaries could learn a lot from those who struggle with boundary issues - particularly, empathy and the ability to live communally instead of just subscribing to "every man for himself." (We are currently in the slowwww process of breaking out of that paradigm).
It is VERY important to remember this one key factor if you struggle with boundary issues: There is no need to feel guilty, weak, or somehow defective for the way you naturally are. Be proud of your ability to give selflessly and consistently help others. Just start to recognize when you are going overboard. Practice asserting your feelings, saying no, and carving out space so you can actually distinguish between your own desires and others'.
In Part 2 of this series we'll talk about how boundary issues form and what weak boundaries ultimately mean for your life. In Part 3 we'll talk about how to actually practice HEALING your boundary issues.
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