This is part 2 of a three part post. Here’s a link to part 1.
While my physical boundary protects me externally, I also need a boundary that delineates my thoughts and feelings from yours. This is the internal boundary.
Inside the internal boundary is a peaceful, safe space. Mine is the deck of a ship on a glassy ocean, with my wife Mari next to me. I smell the ocean. I see the peaceful water and an occasional seagull floating by. I hear the flapping of sails and the creaking of wood. I can feel the support and warmth of the lounge in which I’m reclining. I feel the warmth of Mari’s hand in mine. Here I am safe. Nothing can get to me. With practice, I’ve been able to get to this place remarkably quickly.
My boundary is a force field. I imagine that it creates waves in the atmosphere around me, and I can reach out a finger and touch it, “Zzzzzttt”. Yours will be different – you just have to imagine something that feels right. Mari has a set of hula hoops that spin up around her. Just make sure there’s room for something to get through so you don’t end up with a wall.
When someone speaks to me, my internal boundary keeps me safe from their words. It’s like an inspection station – as I hear those words I’m constantly asking, “is this true for me?” Pia proposes that there are three answers: yes, no, and “I’m not sure.” If the answer is yes, I take the words in and have feelings about them. I let the words touch me. I may even change my mind about something as a result. This is part of my continuing development as a human.
If the answer is no, I don’t take them in. I don’t have feelings about them. I imagine them going “plink, plink” off my boundary and just sliding off. There’s something about that visualization that really helps me – I suppose I’m so focused on “plink, plink” that I don’t have time to have feelings about the words.
If the answer is, “I’m not sure,” I say something like, “I’ll have to think about that and get back to you in a few days.” And that’s a promise that I must honor if I am to remain trustworthy.
Can you see the difference between this and a wall? A healthy internal boundary is strong, and at the same time, it’s porous. Using a wall only makes sense when you’re trapped in a situation with an abusive person and you have no way to flee.
One downside of “plink, plink” is that, like all of us, I have blind spots. I find it helpful to imagine grabbing those “plinked” words before they completely disappear and queuing them up for awhile. That way I can look for patterns, “Wait, I’ve heard this from several people. Maybe I have a blind spot. I should talk to a trusted friend about this instead of just ignoring it.”
Boundaries are a daily practice, and I sometimes get caught with my guard down. Recently Terry Real gave me some advice for this situation. I now visualize a way of getting something OUT of my boundary if it got in by accident. I imagine a vacuum cleaner sucking the ick out of my safe space. Like “plink, plink”, this helps let those feelings go when they are from words that I’ve realized aren’t true for me. And on my worst days, I don’t do any of this stuff and I’m just damned hard to be around. As time goes on I’m having less of those days 🙂
Okay, so that’s the protection bit. Now let’s talk about containment, which is just as important.
Containment is all about being thoughtful. It’s an inspection station for my outgoing words. As I’ve become more mindful, I find myself slowing down a little. In my head, I’ll play the words I’d like to say and imagine how the recipient will experience them, given what I know of her reality. And if I think it’ll be hurtful, I’ll back up and play some different words. With difficult topics, I find myself doing this many times before I find the right words to convey my meaning. Once I think the words won’t be hurtful, I’ll share them. This thoughtfulness has increased the harmony in my relationships.
Even on my best days, others may still feel hurt when they hear my words. I can never know the entirety of another’s reality. Even with a healthy containment boundary, there will be situations where my words are interpreted by the other as hurtful. And there are plenty of times when, in the heat of the moment, I forget entirely to follow this process (I’m “boundaryless” in those moments). The delightful thing is, relationships cycle in and out of harmony all the time, and I have learned an effective repair process. I’ll write about that in a future article.
And finally, part 3, the sexual boundary.
This material on boundaries comes from Pia Mellody’s work. Please support her efforts at The Meadows by purchasing her audio CD on the topic. She provides a lot of examples that will help you get your head around these ideas.