Thursday, August 23, 2012
For a long time I had a hard time understanding the concept of boundaries.
A therapist introduced me to the idea of boundaries a long time ago. She said that boundaries are the psychological lines that separate you from other people, and if the boundaries between you and other people are blurry, which she said mine were, then you have trouble knowing where other people stop and you begin, knowing what their needs and problems and jobs to do in life are and what your own needs and imperatives are, separate from theirs. So you take on other people’s stuff and then struggle and suffer under the burden of it. I knew she was right about me and my blurry boundaries – what she said felt so true it was almost embarrassing – but the problem in itself somehow felt too close to me, too much a part of me with no boundaries between me and it, for me to know what to do about it.
Later, in the twelve-step program I started attending, I heard people talking about boundaries in a slightly different but related way. Those people talked about “setting boundaries” and letting other people know what their boundaries were, and sometimes setting boundaries for themselves. By then I had a better idea of what boundaries were than when my therapist introduced me to the notion, but I was still a little foggy about what they meant in my own life. My Czech boyfriend, Viktor, said to me once that he had no idea what people were talking about when they talked about boundaries and when I tried to explain boundaries to him I couldn’t.
Maybe the problem is that if you don’t have good boundaries it’s hard to get a fix on them -- that in order to understand boundaries we have to have them. But I also think that “boundaries” might be one of those pop psychology words and concepts that are a little bit squishy and blurry themselves. We may need to think about what boundaries really are in order to get somewhere with using and improving boundaries in our own lives. I know I had to.
My dictionary defines boundaries as “something that indicates bounds or limits.” After I had been working with harnessing time for a while, I realized that I was, without really thinking about it, putting boundaries around small chunks of time. It was the planning -- the knowing what I was going to do when -- that seemed to be giving me the most relief and relaxation, and the same is still true. If I don’t plan and everything is just vague and open-ended, I may get things done, I may even get everything I need to do done, but somehow I’m not totally, consciously aware of what I’m accomplishing. I feel anxious the whole time about whether I’m doing what I need to, whether there are things that I’m forgetting, and about all the things I should be doing that I’m not. And often I don’t accomplish very much. I try to do everything at once and end up doing nothing, or I can’t decide what to do and end up doing nothing. Or I may go from one task to another, touching on each one but not completing it, like a butterfly lighting on one flower and then flitting to the next flower it notices.
When I do that I feel scattered and discombobulated; I keep rehearsing all the tasks “on my plate” (I hate that expression, as if work was food that you have to eat whether you want to or not) and worrying about whether I can get them all finished when I have to. Whereas, when I know what I’m going to do and when, when there are boundaries around the tasks in my day and the time they’re going to take, I feel much better. I feel in control of my day, I feel like I’m making choices about what I do and when I do it instead of having those choices made for me by default or not made at all.
The boundaries I put around the different parts of my day are flexible – I don’t have to stick to them if I can’t or don’t want to because they’re mine. I made them and I can choose to break them if I want to. I can’t always stick to them perfectly, either; some days things just don’t work out the way I planned. But the most important thing, I’ve learned, is that I have them, these little boundaries -- that I know what they are. Instead of making me feel over-scheduled or confined, they make me feel amazingly happy, light, free. Happy because they free me of worry, guilt, and free-floating anxiety about everything outside the boundaries of where I am and what I’m doing right now.
One day, when I was feeling relaxed and noticing that the little boundaries around what I was going to do when were making me feel that way, it occurred to me that this might be how and why boundaries in general – all kinds of boundaries, personal boundaries -- work. And it occurred to me that if you have boundaries in one area of your life – boundaries around your time, say – then you may naturally start putting boundaries around other things too. And I also realized that not having very good boundaries can make you feel crazy, irritable, out of control, anxious, and depressed, and that if you are any or all of those things, you might want to look at your boundaries and see if they could use some work. In particular, I realized that often when we feel crazy busy, it has at least as much to do with boundaries as it does with what we’ve actually got on our plates (ugh).
We might need to work on our boundaries with other people (I know I did and will probably continue to keep working on them for the rest of my life). But an easier place to begin could be putting boundaries between the tasks we’ve got on our plates today (so they’re not all mushed together in one big, unmanageable, inedible mess.) I do this myself by sitting down at the beginning of every day and planning in writing what I’m going to do and when, during the day, I’m probably going to do it.