If you listen to any kind of psychological advice show – from Dr. Phil to Dr. Drew – you’ll hear the therapist talking about “healthy boundaries”. A boundary is a marker, a dividing line. It tells me where my property stops and yours starts. Psychologically, it tells me when something is okay with me and when it’s not.
A boundary is a kind of defense: it’s a way for me to take care of myself. Taken too far, however, it can be a way for me to not let anyone in to my world. People who have been hurt deeply often carry wounds that keep their boundaries very strong: “I’ll never let anyone hurt me again.”
Rigid boundaries may keep us from getting hurt, but they also keep us from getting love. We want to let more love in, but we’re too afraid, so we keep people at a distance, never letting anyone get too close. Holding onto rigid boundaries for a long time makes us into bitter, cynical, isolated elders.
Flexible boundaries let some people in, but not everyone. Flexible boundaries let us decide, in the moment, what we are able and willing to accept. Today I may be able to let my best friend vent for an hour about what her girlfriend did last night. Tomorrow, I may only be able to tolerate listening for a few minutes. People with flexible boundaries usually take good care of themselves and have strong, long-lasting friendships.
Wimpy boundaries are too weak. We want to stand up for ourselves, but, we don’t. My Grandma in Ohio used to call it “not having a backbone”. People with wimpy boundaries are often seen as easy to manipulate (lend you money, drive you to the airport at 3AM) because it’s hard for them to say “no.” They are also known as “people-pleasers” who are terrified of any type of conflict or disagreement.
If your boundaries are flexible: hooray for you! You’re probably enjoying yourself, have plenty of friends and feel pretty good about your life. But, if your boundaries are rigid or wimpy, what can you do?
If your boundaries are rigid, notice how fearful you are and how you keep people at a distance. Your rigidity was probably once a good thing: it kept you safe in unsafe times. However, what once was your friend has now become a problem: you’ve outgrown it.
Ask yourself: When did I start to be so rigid? What was going on in my life back then? You became this rigid person so you could feel safe. The good news: there are other ways to feel safe. Try this exercise:
Find a picture of yourself at the age that you were the most frightened (it’s usually childhood). Take that picture out and start to talk to this scared little child. Find out what terrified them. Let this child speak to you. You are carrying this child around with you and it is their fear that has kept your rigid boundaries in place. Begin to tell this child that they are safe, that you – the big, strong adult – will take care of them from now on. As your frightened inner child feels more safe, the rigid boundaries begin to come down.
And what if your boundaries are too wimpy? Somewhere in your early life you were taught that you had no right to have needs or want things. You believed this and let this become your credo…up until now. Most wimpy people have a lot of unexpressed anger and are afraid that if they let it out, it will overwhelm them and they’ll become evil, vengeful people.
They won’t. But that’s the fear.
Find a picture of yourself at the age when you started to become a wimp and talk to this child. Tell them that they have a right to say “no”, to be angry and that it’s safe to begin to let that anger out. Listen to their anger: it’s in there and it needs to come out! Once your child starts to express their anger, the wimpyness will begin to melt and boundaries become stronger, more useful and flexible.
Try it and let me know how it works for you.