Author’s Note: this is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Not Buddhism. Not Psychology.
Maybe we have heard people talk about having “healthy boundaries.” Maybe we have read about them. Maybe we already have them, and maybe we have no idea whether we do or not.
Certainly, in the world of psychology, one hears of holding or developing boundaries often.
The first time I heard of boundaries was during a class, when a professor gave an experiential exercise so as to describe them. She had our class stand up and, with a rope she placed in a circle on the floor, asked one student to stand in the middle. She then instructed the rest of the class to stand around the circle. It was up to the student to decide how close the rest of the class was allowed to get to them. If we got too close, our professor asked the student to tell us to move away. And so it went until the student in the middle felt comfortable.
Now, this example describes boundaries in a very physical manner, and yet it can be helpful to learn about certain things (such as so many of the ephemeralities that make up so much of psychological thought) in this way. Sometimes feeling a thing in our bodies helps us to better understand a thing we deal with in our minds. Boundaries are a way that we protect and take care of ourselves, and are often learnt (similar to, as well as a piece of, resiliency).
Sometimes, in psychology, we talk of enmeshment. This is a phenomenon that likes to occur in large part when we have not yet developed certain boundaries for ourselves.
Feeling as though we do not have adequate boundaries does not mean we have done anything wrong, it only means we are learning to construct them, and, as with any resiliency training, it is a slow-going process.
First we have to learn where our boundaries of comfort and discomfort lie – as with the rope on the ground – as well as how it feels in us – how we feel – when those boundaries are either met and respected, or thrown aside. We have to learn, in a sense, how it feels for us when we feel safe, as well as unsafe.
This thing we could call enmeshment occurs when we are not yet clear on these feelings of ours, and so, in a way, lose ourselves in another. As we start to develop boundaries (I am afraid to say, often only because we begin to notice this loss of our self in others), we start to see how the two – our feelings of safety and unsafety – relate to one another. And we may then begin to exercise our newfound boundaries, and choose to leave certain situations (both physical and otherwise) as we come to find that we do not like how we are reacting in and to them.
I only began looking at my own relationship to enmeshment and, subsequently, learning to develop boundaries for myself during my graduate studies. Still a very shy young man, I was afraid of being accepted by my peers and by my lovers. Early on in my studies, I began to spend more and more time with a couple of students; two men that seemed to exemplify the cultural traits of masculinity to me. I felt safe with them, protected, but could not see how I was losing myself – my moral compass, if you will – within this subgroup I had found.
It was only when it became utterly clear – through a series of inappropriate actions that had taken place – that I was forced to take a look at how I was relating to the people around me.
One of these men with whom I called a friend was intentionally creating trouble for other students (on the surface, a misguided desire to push his peers out of their comfort zones. Underneath, his own form of safety showing itself as the aggressive, angry-male trope), leading eventually to many students feeling personally unsafe.
My part in all of the chaos that ensued was one of negligence. I seemed to be on the side of this friend of mine, and did not see, as such, that I too was causing harm, if only by not taking into account how I actually felt or made others feel. I had grouped myself into a corner of sorts, with my peers seeing me as having similar thoughts to this friend of mine.
I am afraid to say that I did not see how my actions were affecting others – in a way causing just as much harm – until it reached the point where this friend of mine was made to leave our programme. Suddenly my constructs – the ways in which I found others to make me feel safe – came crashing down. And I, still in this programme of ours, was left to deal with the consequences of my own actions.
First I had to finally get in touch with the feelings I had around safety and unsafety, and start to listen to myself. I had to see how I was acting around others, and to make the decision to start acting the way I felt was true (or authentic, if you will) of myself.
Fascinatingly, I came to find that the feelings which arose out of this friendship were frighteningly similar to those which came out of my loving relationships up to this point. I had been seeking out those who would take care of me, often to the detriment of my own well-being (and in this particular case, the detriment of others).
I also had to take responsibility for my part in all of this classroom chaos. Consequently, many in my programme no longer trusted me. And so I spent the better part of the next year rebuilding relationships with my peers.
While I also came to realise that my relationship to boundaries were such that I had none (I should like to point out here that boundaries are relational. We learn to develop them as we come in and out of contact with others. A painful process, to be sure). I had been losing myself time and again in those that made me feel secure. The internal pain of this, however, was not enough to cause a shift for me.
You see, this relationship I had formed around enmeshment was done so to protect me, likely when I was very little. And along with it – this agreement of sorts with myself – came the unintentional choice to allow myself undue suffering. It is just often safer as children to allow ourselves, and internalise, all of the pain occurring in the constellation that is our family system (although the alternative is just as likely; as with this friend of mine, it was safer for him to externalise this pain onto others, rather than to let himself feel it).
I learnt it was safer to become enmeshed in another – a saviour of sorts – than to yet begin the process of creating boundaries.
I would also like to point out that my experience with learning about boundaries – no matter how painful or insufferable it was for me – was not one in which I was ever particularly in any real, physical danger. Although the causes and conditions surrounding my behaviour came from a place of feeling small and weak, there are those practicing similar enmeshment strategies with the very real possibility of being unsafe or physically harmed. In a way, my experience of learning to develop healthy boundaries for myself still came out of an utterly privileged place in our culture. I had the time to figure these things out for myself, while many others do not have such a luxury.
Boundaries, however, help all of us come into closer contact with our needs. As we learn to develop them, so too we develop a more stable sense of ourselves. They help us to develop greater resiliency in the face of adversity. They help us to speak up, and use our voice for what means the most to us, to advocate for ourselves and for others.