October 2, 2021

10 Questions to Strengthen our Emotional Boundaries.


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I nearly picked a different workshop, but this one was like an answer to an unformulated prayer.

The description of Boundary Boot Camp Weekend for Women seemed almost custom-written for me. I needed a retreat, so I bristled a bit at the “boot camp” part, but she had me at high functioning codependent and exhausted.

The instructor, Terri Cole, is the author of Boundary Boss: The Essential Guide to Talk True, Be Seen, and (Finally) Live Free. She encouraged us to let the weekend be a tipping point. I was skeptical about my ability but ripe for change, still raw and confused from a recent conflict. Driving there, my frozen nervous system thawed into a wave of tears, and I told the silent divine witness all about it.

Either that or I was completely losing it.

1. What do (and don’t) you want?

The first exercise set the tone, helping me define the darkness I was muddling through and the light I was seeking. What feelings did we want to experience less of and more of? We wrote them down. I wanted less panic and powerlessness. More joy, rest, and ease, please. I think we were supposed to pick one each, but I’m wired more for multiple emotions. The act of naming them became an invitation to make different choices. As time unfolded before me, moments of choice would arise, and something inside would remind me that I wanted rest or joy.

2. Is your boundary blueprint helping you or hurting you?

My boundary blueprint was bound to create some issues. I grew up thinking that giving the shirt off your back was a virtue, and The Giving Tree was a sweet story of unconditional love. Now, I see a tree that kept thinking she wasn’t enough and giving more of herself away. The boy kept yearning for more and leaving because he was never satisfied. When he was too old and tired to keep that up, he came back to sit on the stump that was left of her. Happily ever after? I don’t think so.

3. What’s hiding inside your silent agreement?

That tree and that boy had what Terri Cole calls a “silent agreement.” In relationships with boys like that, I’d occasionally sense a blueprint lurking beneath the surface that was foreign to mine, but I’d shake it off. During one breakup, I found myself saying things I didn’t know I knew and breaking the unspoken rules. “You’re like a black hole.” “I still love you, but I have to love myself more.”

Don’t berate yourself as you become aware of things you’ve unconsciously agreed to. Look for the secondary gain. My “giving tree” habits buffer me from feeling needy or like a burden to anyone.

4. Whose side of the street are you on?

Boundaries can be physical, sexual, material, mental, or emotional. I have the most trouble with the emotional ones. I’m responsible for my feelings, “my side of the street.” That’s it. It’s hard for me to believe that simple truth and act accordingly. I love that way of inserting a boundary, by the way. Not my circus. Not my monkeys. Not my side of the street.

I recognized myself in the phrase “auto accommodating.” Both of my kids, in fact, had recently given me feedback about that very issue. My son said, “I asked you where it was; I didn’t ask you to get up and look for it.” My daughter scoffed at my fatigue, reacting to the trace of martyrdom, “No one asked you to do all that.” It’s true. I try to meet expressed needs, but I also instinctively respond to unexpressed, implied, or anticipated needs.

5. How’s your relationship with time?

My relationship with time is directly related to my quality of life. Driving home to my life after the weekend, finishing an audiobook, I was stunned when I heard two Greek words for “time” defined. Chronos and kairos tidily identified everything that was terrible and wonderful about my life—the way a still lake can contain and reflect the whole sky. Chronos is clock time. I hate the way it brings out the worst in me. Maybe you’ve heard the Hootie and the Blowfish lyric “Ti-i-ime, why you punish me?” I wrote that. Just kidding. But I could have. Kairos dwells outside of clock time and is full of possibility. So do I, and so am I, when I tap into it. It’s the zone where synchronicity is possible and where moments happen.

6. What fills you? 

Full disclosure. The workshop was not my primary motivation. I needed to visit the Omega Institute. My last visit, before the pandemic, felt like a lifetime ago. My eyes welled at the mere thought of being held in the meditation space, aptly named the Sanctuary. It’s my go-to safe place. I’ve reached, in my mind’s eye, for the felt sense of it countless times.

The campus holds many memories and moments. My sense of what’s truly healable expanded as I sat in the cabin on the field, learning about EMDR. I was newly pregnant, too new to be sure, at that time. The labyrinth evokes a memory of children blowing bubbles from the center of it, sending me hope about the next child of my own. Encouragement to express myself still lingers in the air upstairs in the Ram Das library, the site of my Writing from the Heart workshop.

7. Are you willing to break some rules?

During an afternoon break, I visited the Sanctuary first. It was empty and Buddhist-like. I sat on a cushion, followed my breath, and softened my attention. Tears began simmering. I let them come and go. I followed my curiosity about what it would feel like to sit at the front of the room. I scurried away when I heard someone else entering.

What my body really wanted was rest, so I laid down on a bench. I felt like I was breaking rules and making them up at the same time—crying during meditation, sitting in the teacher’s seat, lying down instead of sitting. The Sanctuary forgave me, holding my rebellion with equanimity.

8. What do you hear in silence?

Pema Chödrön wrote, “In the middle of the worst scenario of the worst person in the world, in the midst of all the heavy dialogue with ourselves, open space is always there.” She also wrote that ripka, a Tibetan word for mind that means intelligence or brightness, is always there if we can quiet our small chattering mind.

As my awareness relaxed and widened, a new thought dropped in—so potent that I opened my eyes. I’d shared with my workshop partner earlier about the energy I expend trying to compensate for what a certain someone has done, is doing, or might do. It was a peripheral part of our conversation, but voicing it captured the attention of my inner boundary boss, who was compelled to respond. That’s not possible.

It’s not humanly possible to make up for what someone does on their side of the street. Even if they are master gaslighters. Even if their version of events renders me unrecognizable to anyone or everyone else in my life. I can only clean up my side of the street, where I live.

9. Can you stay on your side of the street?

The workshop included an experience with Tibetan singing bowls. The simple instructions as we all got comfortable lying down have stayed with me. It might bring up emotions for us or a neighbor. If so, we could send them love and focus on our own experience. Wait, what? Someone in the room could be having a feeling and I could not respond and, instead, focus on myself?

I’m glad I unconsciously listened.

As the mystical sound reverberated around us, I gradually let go of distractions and felt like I was floating, imagining flower petals floating around me. I actually felt like I was, well, dead, but didn’t feel scared. Then, I felt like I was a lotus—an image I may have borrowed from the pond outside the sanctuary. Death. Rebirth. Hmm. Perhaps some old habits needed to die if I wanted to feel more alive again.

Later on, during a lecture, a woman a few feet from me flinched and looked around. It was a spider, apparently. I was distracted too until I remembered I had a choice about that. I could send her love and back up to my side of the street.

10. How slow can you go?

I returned to the Sanctuary for a class that included a walking meditation component. I’ve never walked so slooowlyyy. I was surprised how much I liked it. Before departing home, I opted to walk the labyrinth the same way. I noticed more. I glanced over the hill at the sculpture of concentric human figures, wondering how the associated Iriquois philosophy applied to me. “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations,” I recalled arguing to someone recently that I couldn’t give from an empty cup.

A fragment of an Elton John song from long ago came back, soothing me with the possibility of giving in a way that is “no sacrifi-i-i-ice a-at all.” That’s it. That’s the change I want to be in my world.

I paused at the sight of a dragonfly landing on a nearby rock. As I slowly moved again, he flew too. I stopped. He stopped on another rock. I smiled to myself. Do dragonflies smile? If so, I bet he did, too.

My next couple of encounters with humans had the same relaxed, happy capacity for connection. Eye contact. Smile. Hello.

I’d needed a retreat, and this one sure met my need for rest.

The poet, David Whyte, writes about rest as a shift from outer targets to an inner state of “natural exchange…between what lies within and without.”

I hope this exchange of my words and your eyes is natural in just that way. I hope it helps you to curate boundaries that guide you, like the stones lining a labyrinth, to live more freely and authentically.

After all, as Ram Dass said, “We’re all just walking each other home.”


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