Some months ago, I realised that I had very little idea what boundaries are. Because apparently I’m incapable of processing things privately, I decided to research the matter and write a blog post about it, which I did. I learned a lot, despite the fact that I essentially only read one article. And, even more excitingly, I didn’t just forget about it the moment I’d written the post!
If you’ve read my Voyage on the Good Ship Self-Help series at all, you’ll know I’m working really hard on myself, trying to find ways of coping with the overwhelmingly negative feelings that come with having a chronic illness, and of occasionally being happy. Everything I’ve read suggests that having helpful boundaries is crucial to this, which is one reason why I’ve been giving them quite a bit of thought recently. (The other reason is that it’s really interesting and I like learning things.)
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found there to be big gaps between learning something in my brain, then learning it in my heart, and finally putting it into practice and living as though it’s true. But since I’m all about changing my life in tangible ways at the moment, I’m sort of in the habit. All right, I haven’t remembered to think about boundaries every time something relevant happens, but several times I have, so I’m pleased with myself.
And not only have I remembered to put my learning into practice, but doing so has in fact increased my knowledge, which is even more exciting! It’s almost as though doing a thing teaches you as many – and different – things as reading about it does! Yes, all right, that’s obvious, but a lot of my learning these days is academic in the sense of reading about things which don’t directly relate to me and my life, like history and science. So sometimes I forget that experience is a super valuable way of learning.
Anyhow, enough of that. Apparently it’s a sign of having poor boundaries if you overshare online, to which I say pfffff. Here, every random person who ever happens to click on my blog, read about the two deeply intimate things I’ve learned about me and my boundaries in the last three months.
The first thing is that the simple act of thinking about a problem or situation with boudaries in mind can change my whole perspective on it. If I’m upset or angry and ask myself, “Is this a situation where I feel that my boundaries have been violated?” it’s proved surprisingly easy for me to give an answer. And if the answer is “yes”, my feelings can change in a moment.
For example, a few weeks ago a person said something ignorant and rather cruel to me about chronic illness. I felt angry, distressed, hurt and helpless, quite acutely so. A couple of hours later, I remembered my work on boundaries and the moment I thought about them in connection with this incident, my whole perspective switched. I realised that what she’d said didn’t have to matter to me. She didn’t know me, she clearly knew nothing about chronic illness, and she apparently didn’t care very much. The fact that she did a shitty thing didn’t mean I had to feel bad. I was still angry that she’d said it and hurt that she hadn’t cared enough to think about what she said, but the distress and helplessness were gone.
I want to emphasise that I’m not saying that we can or should “rise above” every nasty, crappy, thoughtless, cruel thing that’s said or done to us. Sometimes we just can’t: we’re too tired; too many people have been like that recently; we’re depressed; they hit one of our vulnerable spots; they have power over us; they’re abusing us; it’s just too big a thing to be able to push away the feelings; a thousand other reasons. And that’s all right. It’s part of being human.
I guess what I’m saying here instead, is that I don’t always have to suffer the deep pain and distress that cruelty can bring. Sometimes I will, but sometimes I can reduce my own hurt by reminding myself that one person’s crappiness doesn’t have to become a part of me. Sometimes I can shut it out; I can sever the cruelty-pain link that they’ve forged between us. And that is a very good thing.
The second thing I’ve learned is that I have a tendency to react as though things were intended to hurt me personally. Even when it never occurred to me to think, even for a moment, that they were. I do very much believe that unhealthy behaviours tend to be rooted in coping and surivival. After thinking about why I might have developed a habit of reacting in this way I believe it has indeed been about staying safe. I never knew how to read people, how to know whether they had good intentions, how they meant things, why they did things. I can’t just look in someone’s eyes and know they’re telling the truth, and all too often it turned out that they weren’t. If I assumed everything was intended to hurt me, I would be able to protect myself.
These days I still don’t know how to read people, and I certainly don’t always understand their motivations, but I’m much better at discerning between good and bad intentions, and at gauging people by their behaviour rather than trying to assess their words. What I hadn’t realised was how much this reaction of assuming that people’s intentions were harmful had carried on in my behaviour despite me myself having changed.
To take an example, I have a carer, A, who is careless in her work, and it has a big impact on me when I have to go round after her and fix what she’s done badly. And because of the impact, I tend to feel very distressed and angry when it happens (which is often). Like, really distressed and really angry. I wondered more than once why I would always get so disproportionately upset and I’d try to talk myself out of it, but it didn’t work.
Then, a few weeks ago, it suddenly occurred to me to think about it in terms of boundaries and, lo and behold! I realised I was reacting as though A was doing things carelessly with the express intention of upsetting me. She wasn’t, obviously, and I never thought she was. Yet emotionally, I was reacting as though that was what was happening. As with my previous example, the moment I realised this, my distress and anger were immediately abated. Yes, it’s annoying, and it still has an impact on me because of the energy it takes to fix (in fact, I’ve started inspecting her work before she leaves and making her fix it, a much better solution). But the helpless, almost desperate, distress was gone.
No doubt all of this will lead to further discoveries about myself, though I think it’s quite enough to be going on with. Next time, I intend to do some more reading about boundaries, and perhaps learn what sort of things are helpful and unhelpful when it comes to creating them.