Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash
I don’t know if I have ever shared this with you, but I actually love a good boundary.
Yes, for those who know about my rejection of being controlled by others, that may cause you to pause, so let me clarify.
Boundaries aren’t about controlling others.
Boundaries, at least the healthy kind, are about communicating expectations around engagement with others (and sometimes yourself). Healthy boundaries aren’t about punishing someone or “enacting a consequence.” While they may very well be the outcome of an action or behavior, what they are doing is creating the amount of distance that is needed for felt safety. When we have that safe space where our amygdala isn’t fired up and our biological survival system is experiencing calm, it creates the capacity for compassion.
Boundaries are also about expressing a need. Even if we don’t fully understand what the person’s need is when they say they will not be able to engage, when we respect and support their boundary-setting, we communicate to them that their needs are important. Why is that significant?
Because in many spaces of our American culture, we have forgotten about the affirmation of dignity that is communicated through the practice of ensuring consent. There seems to be this strange entitlement of ownership (perhaps infused by the history of slavery) when there is a hierarchy in place within relationships. It is common to hear phrases like “I will HAVE them do this” or “we can MAKE them do that” when discussing people, especially in the workplace. These types of statements imply that we control other people and that it is okay if we are in a position of authority.
That’s problematic. And also false.
I’ve discussed this BEFORE, and this practice of imposing our will on someone else is so pervasive that it seems like a shock to many to even consider that it is not healthy for anyone in the equation to be satisfied with the imposition of will. When we impose, we suppress the humanity of the other person and declare through our actions that they are worth less than us.
Sit with that for a minute.
Believing that we should exert control over others communicates that we believe we have more worth than them.
That’s not okay.
That’s not life-affirming.
That’s not the truth.
And if we’ve been functioning on either side of this dynamic, the introduction of boundaries might feel jarring because it disrupts the strategies that were in place for getting things done. So why would we put boundaries in place?
Why be disruptive?
The practice of boundary-setting is essential, even in the face of disrupting the current system, and centers around the concept of strategies. From the moment we are born, our brain creates strategies for survival and functioning. The things we try to get our needs met are either affirmed or dismissed by our primary caregivers, which creates our understanding of our value, impact, and voice. If what is reinforced is that our voice has no worth in communicating our needs, we will find other ways to communicate. Remember that ALL BEHAVIOR IS COMMUNICATION. Those behaviors often come into conflict with the strategies that others have put into place for their comfort and felt-safety (read: systems) and what we tend to see is a fear response of suppression.
How does this intersect with Grace?
The person who dismissed or ignored the expressed need does so because of their own fragile understanding of healthy boundaries. Instead of understanding that the behavior expresses a need, it is translated as a challenge to the ordering of whatever system or narrative will keep them in a position of perceived control. That challenge can often feel like a threat, which leads to an automatic fear-based reaction and a grasp for more control in the situation.
I say this not to excuse controlling or suppressive behavior – there is no excuse for it. I share this as a perspective to propose that we can extend Grace to those who engage in this behavior by understanding that there is an underlying need expressed by their reaction.
But we still apply the boundary.
Even if that boundary is shaking their foundation of control, we have every right and reason to establish a clear point where we will not engage in their power and control games or suppression of our person. We can extend Grace to them by not dehumanizing them in our boundary-setting but instead gain perspective and strength from the practice of standing in the truth of who we are. As we set healthy boundaries, we communicate things like:
- I will not support your narrative that I am worth less than you or that my needs are unimportant.
- I will not continue to engage in dialogue that dehumanizes me.
- I have internal wisdom that has value.
- I am not an object or something that you can control.
When we apply Grace, the messages communicated by our boundaries are based not on fear or anger. Instead, they are rooted in the truth of who we truly are – a human being worthy of respect.
Again, Grace doesn’t mean we are okay with harmful or dehumanizing behaviors. Grace means we understand the why and realize that it doesn’t reflect the truth of our value, so we can create space in the dynamic and disengage from the false narrative.
What if a person can’t disengage?
Sometimes, the level of power and control exerted in the dynamic is abusive. In those situations, setting a boundary can be very difficult and dangerous. I am not an expert on how to leave domestic and abusive relationships (even though I have left some), so please hear me clearly; I know there are circumstances where boundary-setting might result in more harm or even death. We cannot set healthy boundaries while we are trapped. We can build our support systems and make a plan for getting to safety, but the practices I mentioned above are not effective when there is no relief from abuse and oppression.
Only when there is safety and distance from the threat can we enact those boundaries that help us to engage in healing and reacclimating to expressing our whole selves.
In the meantime, our practice of Grace is to extend it to ourselves. This means accepting that our protracted ability to function in our full and authentic self is not a true measure of who we are in this world but, instead, a falsely imposed narrative. Accepting our limits when we are in crisis or survival is an expression of creating space for what will become the foundation of healthy boundary-setting when the time is right.
This was posted by a high-school chum of mine as something she has recently added to her email signature in her higher-education position, and I wanted to share it with you as a potential practice that you might start with in this journey of healthy boundary setting:
“Please know that I honor your boundaries and wellbeing; should you receive an email from me during your personal time of caretaking or rest, please feel empowered to wait to respond until you’re next working or in front of a computer. Prioritize joy and wellbeing where you can, and know I will do the same.”
May we all empower and be empowered to extend this level of Grace to ourselves and others.