You hear a lot of talk about boundaries. These mysterious dividing lines between ourselves and others that somehow, if properly maintained, keep us and our relationships healthy. But what are boundaries really? And how can one measure them? How do you know when they are "right"?
There is a great little book that a former supervisor introduced me to many years ago as a young clinician. It's How to Be and Adult by David Richo. This slim volume, only 122 pages, tells the straight story of what interferes with our ability to mature into well-grounded and autonomous humans. The chapter on boundaries is particularly useful. Richo says "Your personal boundaries protect the inner core of your identity and your right to choices". In other words, when you are not maintaining appropriate boundaries you start to lose who you truly are and your ability to feel that you have choices. This does not enhance relationships but instead breeds resentment as we feel ourselves losing ourselves and losing the sense of having options. We begin to feel manipulated by people and situations and naturally respond on some level, conscious or unconscious, with anger or despair.
It brings to mind the old adage "good fences make good neighbors". Any of you who have read my blogs or worked with me knows that I am passionate about connection. I am not the sort of person who feels that we need to learn to be alone. I truly believe that humans are designed to be interconnected. But that does not mean a lack of boundaries. In fact, not having good boundaries is putting your relationships at risk.
Conversely people who have good boundaries have a sense of mutuality that comes from appreciating that both people in the relationship have needs and that truly loving someone is honoring what is best from them while not sacrificing what is also best for yourself. As Richo says, they are able to "be in-touch and intact". When this process runs afoul you often see people trying to control or manipulate each other, or feeling that they must subjugate themselves to the needs of the other despite feeling over-run. When you "don't let go of what doesn't work" and it feels like "[you] can't let go of what could work" your boundaries are out of balance. "Co-dependency is unconditional love for someone else that has turned against the self". (Richo)
Rico's book contains a clever list of symptoms of good versus not-so-good boundaries. I am not going to quote all of them here but have selected a few that I think are especially salient:
Not Enough Boundaries Healthy Boundaries
You feel unclear about your preferences You feel clear on preferences and act on that
You are so focused on surviving that you You recognize when you are happy/unhappy
often don't know how you are feeling
You do more and more for less and less You do more when/if that gets you more
You are satisfied if you are coping/surviving You are only satisfied if you are thriving
You let other people's minimal improvement You are encouraged by sincere and ongoing improvement
maintain your stalemate
You act out of compliance and compromise You act out of agreement and negotiation
You are enmeshed in a drama and it feels like You are always aware of your choices and feel free to act
you have no control over how it unfolds based on them
Healthy boundaries, like most relationship skills, are passed down from parents to their children. Many of us did not get blessed with the lessons of good boundaries. We either over-restrict and fail to allow others into our inner lives, fearing their influence and potential loss of autonomy, or we have permeable boundaries that fail to keep our authentic self safe and are too yielding to the needs of others.
Therapy is a great way to work on boundaries and, like most skills in life (driving a car, baking a cake, etc.) they can be learned. If you notice that your boundaries could use some help I hope you consider therapy. I have seen it help many people lead happier, more comfortable and more fulfilled lives.
We've all been there. Someone cuts you off in traffic, or your spouse pushes a particular button, or your child whines for just a few minutes too long and...wham! You have devolved into a stress-ball and can no longer stay calm and act rationally. You yell, or snipe, or attack, or shut down. In short, you have "flipped your lid". The "smart parts" of your brain have been hijacked by the emotional center and you now cannot access the higher areas of your brain that normally allow us to be rational and reasonable people.
As the "hand model" of the brain to the left illustrates, our brain is made up of lots of different parts. If your hand is clenched in a fist the fingers that are visible will represent your higher cortical areas such as the frontal lobe. This is, as I like to refer to it, the "Spock center". It's the part of the brain that can help us not intentionally ram the car in front of us when they cut us off in traffic. It helps us to inhibit responses and respond rationally and calmly.
Sadly that part of the brain gets disconnected under high levels of stress. Yes, folks, just when we need it most our higher cortical areas literally go "off-line". So who is running the show at that point? You guessed it, our emotional center. The limbic system, represented in our hand model by the thumb, is now in charge. Which is why when we are highly triggered we tend to say and do things we regret later, when our higher cortical areas come back online and assess the damage.
Under normal circumstance when we are not too stressed out our limbic system is still active and reacting but the cerebral cortex is "wrapped" around it (as in the illustration of the fist) so that it "hugs" the emotional center and keeps it relatively quiet. There are literally bundles of nerves that carry information from our frontal lobe to our limbic systems when things are running smoothly. This keeps us from killing people whenever we get slightly stressed out. Normally this system works well enough to keep most of us out of trouble most of the time. However, when the stress gets too high, those fibers stop carrying information from the cortex (as in the illustration with the hand extended upwards) and the limbic system has free reign. It's like letting your 3 year old drive the car on the freeway. Not such a good idea and we should not be surprised when there is a multi-car pile-up!
So, what can one do in this situation? Well, here is what most of us try, which incidentally doesn't work: we try to talk rationally to the other person. We try to explain or rationalize or educate them out of their feelings. The problem here is that we are talking from our cerebral cortex and their cerebral cortex is not operational. So it can't hear us. And the limbic system doesn't speak that language. In fact it doesn't really understand language. It's much more influenced by things like tone and volume of voice, gestures and facial expressions. So if you can see that someone has flipped their lid, the best thing you can do is to show that person that you understand how they feel. This is creating a connection between your limbic system/emotional center and theirs. So if my friend is frustrated with me and I show her that I understand that feeling through my facial expressions, voice and gestures our brains are now connected. At that point I have the opportunity to influence her brain because we have an "open channel" between the two systems. So I can now start to offer calming words, sounds and gestures (such as smiling, gentle touching, quiet and low tones of voice) that will start to calm down her nervous system. As her limbic system begins to get more calm her cerebral cortex will come back on-line and now I can communicate with her logical brain from my logical brain.
Notice that this strategy is about how to manage another person when they come unglued. That's because the fastest and most efficient way for a human brain to get calm is to use another human brain. If we have to calm ourselves it takes more oxygen and glucose (the power sources for our brains) so it's more resource-intense. We can, of course, calm ourselves if we have to. Other people are not always available. But the optimal way to handle a flipped lid is to have another person who can connect to our brains and calm us down. Humans are, after all, pack animals and we derive numerous benefits from living in groups.
So next time you flip your lid, or observe one of your pack flip theirs, remember to get the emotional connection established FIRST and then, only after the emotional intensity has dissipated, try to connect to the logical parts.
For more information on interpersonal neurobiology and the science of our connection to others see the work of Dan Siegel, MD, and Stan Tatkin, PsyD. Or stay tuned for more blog posts on this website.
Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.