My son told me a story not too long ago about an incident he had seen on television that made an indelible impression on him. Apparently, a plane had crashed and a crowd of reporters were in the terminal talking to the family members of the passengers and trying to get more details. Amid the mass confusion and chaos a disheveled, ominous looking man approached the airline executives in attendance and in a booming voice began shouting profanities at the top of his lungs. People in the crowd immediately began to shout back and chastised him. One man, standing to the side, saw the incident and walked over to the distraught man and put his hand on his shoulder and gently asked, “What is the problem friend?” The troubled man was stunned by this response and immediately fell sobbing into this man’s arms explaining his child had been on the crashed airliner. My son related this story and we talked of the many times we all had been too quick to respond in anger, without understanding.
Most of us have a difficult time staying open hearted and present to intense feelings coming from those we love and the biggest reason for this has to do with boundaries. We all have a tendency to take what our family member or beloved is saying personally. We can’t remain objective because we are afraid what they are saying in some way reflects negatively upon us or will have some negative impact on us. So, instead of being able to stay present, listen and reach a place of understanding, we move immediately into trying to tell the other why their feelings are incorrect. We make him or her feel guilty for their feelings, or attempt to shame them through intimidation or interrogation. Very little gets accomplished in this pattern of communication and most of the time we leave the process feeling unheard and invalidated.
Boundaries play an important role in successful communication. When I understand that everything you are saying is about you and not about me, I can listen more intently. When we listen to each other without boundaries we often filter everything we are hearing through our own little red wagon of life experiences and pain. What we hear triggers feelings of fear, concerns about abandonment, blame, inadequacy and not being enough which makes listening from an objective place more difficult.. Having good boundaries makes it possible for me to hear what you are saying and take it in as your truth, whether I agree or not. For instance, Mary says to Ted, ”I feel so lonely I could just die.”
Ted responds, feeling he is responsible for Mary’s loneliness, by saying, “I don’t know how you could be lonely, I’ve been home every night for weeks!” Mary in turn withdraws feeling unheard and misunderstood.
On the other hand, if Ted had strong boundaries, he might say, “ Tell me what it’s like when you feel so lonely you could just die.”
Mary might then continue by saying, “When I was a child we moved so often I could never make permanent friends. Now my best friend is moving and it’s starting all over again. It makes me feel like I’ll never have a friend I can count on.”
This is a simple example but it illustrates what happens in communication processes much of the time simply because we don’t have good boundaries. The process of establishing good internal boundaries can begin with the simple exercise that follows. Once you feel comfortable with these boundaries, begin communicating with them in place and watch how much easier it is to listen.
Exercise Establishing Boundaries
Sit comfortably on an bed or on the carpet and delineate your boundaries by drawing a circle around you that your partner can visibly see in the carpet. Ask the following:
1. Is your boundary drawn so lightly it is hard to determine where it is –
What does that mean for you? Can others tell where your boundaries are?
Do boundaries feel uncomfortable – unfamiliar –
Talk about how not having well defined boundaries effects you and those around you.
Is your boundary right next to your body leaving you no space to feel yourself-
Do others have to get right n your face to be heard?
Did you learn as a child to draw into your self for protection?
Is your boundary huge because you think the only way to stay safe is by keeping people away?
2. Check in with your body and mind to see if you are sitting a comfortable distance apart –
not too close – not too far?
Talk about what is comfortable for each of you and adjust your positions based upon what you need, not what the other wants.
3. One at a time have one partner erase their boundary.
Talk about how it feels when you have a boundary and someone you are with does not.
Give the person with a boundary a chance to talk about their feelings and give the person without a boundary time to talk.
Then let your partner erase their boundaries and do the same.
4. One at a time have one partner move back a foot at a time and feel the responses that arise in each of you when you feel distance or removed.
Talk about how you stay connected when you are not close together and what your comfort level of distance is before you begin to feel abandoned or engulfed.
5. Talk about how your boundaries were respected or not respected as a child and how that has effected you as an adult.
6. Talk about how you feel boundaries are respected or not respected in your relationship.
Give suggestions on how you can each create more respect for your own boundaries and those of your partner.
7. Talk about the difference between healthy boundaries and walls.
© Dr. Dina Bachelor Evan 2013