When my daughter was a baby, we lived in a part of Africa where malarial mosquitoes, poisonous snakes and scorpions all posed a danger. At night, I put her in a cradle surrounded by protective netting, and if she made a sound, I got up right away to check. Without elders to feed, love and watch over her, she would not have survived. As is true for all mammals, separation = danger at that early age. We rely on our family, pack or herd to keep us safe.
As we grow, our competence increases, and we test the limits of our power. We want to be loved and accepted by others, but we also start to define our unique self by (1) asking for what we want, (2) saying “no” to things we can’t tolerate, and (3) getting angry when we don’t feel respected. Our first attempts are pretty clumsy (think of the toddler who says no to almost everything) but over time we learn to skillfully balance our own needs with the expectations around us. We maintain our boundaries by fluidly assessing what is happening inside and around us, calculating likely outcomes and determining which course of action is right in any given situation. If our caregivers, teachers and friends are able to create a satisfactory balance for themselves, then they help us to fine-tune this ability and avoid hurt. If not, we grow up favouring our own needs over others, or pleasing others at our own expense.
Like many other baby boomers, I was raised to say “no” to myself rather than disappoint others. I still run into situations where my knee-jerk reaction is to protect someone’s feelings and avoid speaking a truth, but I’m now very aware of the damage that can be done if I follow this impulse. When politeness trumps self-respect, good health and mutually satisfying relationships, then the right course of action is obvious. But what of small, everyday decisions, when the outcome is not so clear? Do I tell my brother that his teasing is offensive, or shake my head and put up with it? If a colleague rubs me the wrong way, do I let her know that she is out of line, or swallow my annoyance? Checking in with “gut feelings” is an important step in deciding whether to speak up or let something go. Feelings of hurt, anger or anxiety indicate that something about this situation is not okay, and that speaking honestly is warranted.
It takes practice to tune in to these inner sensations, and to put a voice to them. There are exercises that allow us to connect with the body’s wisdom, and then use it to make boundary decisions that keep ourselves and our relationships healthy. Once we’ve tuned in, we must also choose the right words or action to take, and this requires preparation and planning. In the long run, taking the time to improve our boundary skills reaps big rewards. We become clearer in communicating with others; we spend more time in good relationships; and we feel stronger and more solid.
For more information on body sensations, boundaries and communication, contact Stephanie at 250-937-1223 (Parksville), 250-616-0502 (Nanaimo) or www.spetercounselling.ca