Life keeps getting faster. I have so much going on with my two teenagers, my husband, work, friends, volunteering… the list just never ends. It is all good stuff. I love my life. But I have learned over the years that I cannot do it all, even though it feels like I have to learn this lesson over and over again. I am not sure how many times I have turned to my dear husband with my Wonder Woman outfit in one hand and some dark chocolate in the other: “I am so tired. I just need a break!”
Friend: “Jennifer, can you help with ___________?”
Me (As I wipe the sweat off my brow and stand in my super pose): “Sure! I would love to pitch in!”
And, then I check my calendar. Oh no! I already have sixteen other things that need to be done.
My Wonder Woman ways get me into trouble. The real problem is that the important stuff, the stuff I value and cherish, gets pushed out of the way to make room for all of the “yesses.”
- Time sprawled out on the carpet with my daughter watching silly Vines.
- Peacefully chopping vegies and other food prep for a relaxing dinner.
- A quick game of Smash Bros with my son.
- Coffee with my husband.
- Dessert with a friend.
- A good book and a cup of tea.
What Can I Do?
One of the most challenging and beneficial practices I continue to learn is setting boundaries. I need to remember I have limits and the only way to protect those limits is to learn to say “no.” When there is not enough of me to go around, it is time for some boundary work.
What Are Boundaries?
In our physical world, we have fences and walls that create clear defining lines. We can easily tell where one room ends and the other begins. We understand what belongs inside and what does not. Boundaries serve as a noticeable protective barrier that creates order.
Think about the Houston Zoo for a moment. We have a number of exotic and dangerous animals right in the middle of a densely populated area. But we are not afraid. Imagine what it would be like if the zoo walls suddenly disappeared. The result would be chaos. The people and animals would be in harms way. The walls around the zoo protect and create order for the animals and the surrounding areas. The walls inside the zoo also protect each species of animal from the other. We are able to enjoy the animals and feel safe because of boundaries.
The zoo also has a front gate. The gate opens to allow people in and out of the zoo. It shuts to prevent anything harmful entering or leaving the zoo at the wrong times.
What Do Zoo Walls Have to Do With Me?
Just like the zoo walls, you have a protective barrier around your physical body. Your skin serves as a defining barrier from the external world. Your internal cells also have membranes that protect and define each individual cell.
Like the zoo gate, you have the ability to let things in and out of your body. When a toxin enters your body, you get sick. You will get very ill if you continue to ingest the toxin. So, you “close the gate” and stop allowing it into your body. You also have the ability to let things into your body that nourish you.
Along with physical boundaries, you are also equipped with psychological boundaries. Have you ever been in a group of people when someone starts getting too close? It feels awkward. The natural reaction is for you to move to create distance. But the person may not notice and move toward you again. What is the deal? Wired within, you have a sense of appropriate distance between you and the other person. When they cross the “line” and move into your space, they have crossed your psychological boundary. Your psychological boundary lets you know where you end and where they begin.
My psychological space is my space. It is the space where I belong and it defines what is and is not my responsibility.
Some of us have very rigid psychological boundaries. If you experienced physical or emotional abuse as a child, you learned quickly to build fortress-like walls around yourself. You learned that it is not safe to let anyone into your space. Unfortunately, fortress walls do not have doors or gates to let in good things. Everything is walled off. When someone you care about tries to come close, they too may be blocked. Fortress walls are protective, but they can also be isolating.
Diffuse boundaries are permeable and barely exist. If, as a child, you were not allowed to have your own feelings, personal space, opinions, or even your own sense of self, boundaries are underdeveloped. When you have poorly defined boundaries, you may not have a clear sense of who you are, what your personal rights are, or what others rights are.
Back to the zoo example: What if the walls around the zoo suddenly disappeared? Chaos would erupt and someone would get hurt. Diffuse boundaries open us up to harm. There is no protection from being controlled and manipulated by others.
Healthy Personal Boundaries
Healthy boundaries protect your self-concept and allow you to be your own unique self. Your thoughts and feelings are separated from the thoughts and feelings of others. Healthy boundaries also include “gates” that allow you to let in good things like:
- The people you care about
- Your values and feelings
Healthy boundaries help close the gate on things that do not belong:
- A harmful relationship
- Needing to do everything that is asked of you
- Aversive words or actions
I recently discovered an exercise that helped me have a better understanding of my own personal boundaries. A great way to start this exercise is to slow things down enough to pause and think. Have you ever seen the movie, The Matrix? The main character, Neo, has the ability to perceive bullets moving at a much slower speed than reality. What if you could use your imagination and slow down the words that seem to come at you with bullet-like speed? You could give yourself time to think and choose what you want to let in and what needs to stay out:
- Imagine you can see your psychological boundaries like a protective barrier around you. I like to think of a clear plexiglas wall around me.
- Imagine a little gate or door situated in front of your heart area. I have found it useful to pretend I am holding up a stop sign in front of my heart.
- Now, as you read the following phrases, give yourself space to slow down the words, put up your imaginary stop sign, and ask yourself; “Does this fit with me? If I let it in, will it harm me? Does this fit better for someone else?
- You love to go art museums every weekend. (Does this fit for you, or not?)
- You are a kind person. (How does this fit?)
- “If you cared enough, you would volunteer for every event this year.” (This one’s tricky; you may need to pause and pull this one apart: “I care! Even if I am unable to volunteer sometimes.”)
- “If you love me, you will go to the movies with me every Friday night.” (This one is also tricky and a boundary violation. “I love you AND I am not free every Friday night.”) I will talk more about boundary violations in future posts.
- You can cry when you feel sad. (How does this fit?)
- For the phrases that fit, you can put down your stop sign and open the gate to let them in. If the phrases are harmful, you can close the door.
- Real life practice: Notice the words coming at you from the people around you this week. Slow them down and use your imaginary stop sign.
I realize this can be a challenging exercise. It is very difficult to say “no” when you fear that someone you care about might walk away or you might lose your job. But, it is also exhausting to say “yes” to everything and ignore your own limitations and needs.
My Wonder Woman outfit squeezes the energy and joy right out of me. I try to remember to pause, put up my stop sign, and access if something fits or not.
Friend: “Jennifer, can you help with ___________?”
Me: (Pause. Take a deep breath. Slow down the words) “Let me check my calendar and I will get back with you tomorrow.”
I fold up my Wonder Woman outfit and put it away… until the next time I find myself exhausted and over-taxed. Then it is time for some more boundary practice!
In future posts, I will continue to explore healthy practices and obstacles to creating boundaries:
- Boundaries in difficult relationships
- Boundaries and trust
- Boundaries around marriage
- Boundaries and work
- Boundaries and social media
- Spiritual boundaries