Boundaries: The Key to My Emotional Safety
I recall being handed a book called “Boundaries” on the first day of my undergraduate internship. My supervisor told me I needed to read the book and have a clear understanding of what was expected of me while working with the clients and the staff at the Women and Children’s Center for Residential Addiction Services. Being green behind the ears and not knowing what was ahead of me, I wondered how important boundaries could actually be and what use they would be to me during my time in this community placement. I really wanted to be helpful. I hoped to make connections, to give support, to give new ideas for the clientele to find what they needed to improve their lives.
During the first few weeks of my internship, I remember sharing pictures from a trip I took to Arizona with my new boyfriend at the time. I just figured, they talked to me about their lives, I can share about mine too! I was almost desperate to relate to this group of people. I was sure we had plenty in common, if only I opened up and shared about myself. I remember one woman commenting on my boyfriend being attractive, which actually made me feel unsure and uneasy. I recall another woman mumbling something under her breath about my privilege in getting to take a nice vacation like that, which made me feel misunderstood. I also remember one woman who had previously been friendly with me, become very reserved and somewhat hostile toward me. When I inquired, she told me it was because she was envious of me and that she wished she had the means and opportunity to go to school and to travel. This, I recall made me feel guilty and ashamed. All this negativity coming from my desire to share and connect to these women actually created a burden for them and for me. I didn’t know it before this experience but I didn’t really want people to have an opinion on my boyfriend’s appearance. I didn’t want anyone to think of me as privileged or take me out of context as a person. I certainly never wanted someone else to feel shame or envy when comparing my seemingly fortunate life to their seemingly disadvantaged life.
It took a lot of time and a lot of failure for me to learn that certain rules were put in place for the emotional safety of the residents and for me and the other staff members. I have come to learn that boundaries are not just good for me to have in a professional setting but in my private life as well. When I am struggling with an emotional pain or difficulty, it is important for me to know who I can feel safe talking with rather than spouting my story to anyone and everyone who will listen. Does this mean I am a guarded or inauthentic person? No, it most certainly does not. Although the notion of boundaries might invoke imagery of fences, walls, or barriers, it is truly about creating a safe space. It might seem like a defensive stance, but it actually offers a structure that invites clarity and shared understanding.
What do my boundaries look like today? Many days it doesn’t look like I make a distinction between one group of people or the next because there typically are not big issues that I am struggling with from day to day. I might share the same story with my colleague, my husband, and my kids because it has no bearing on my sense of emotional safety. When it comes to the tough stuff though, I share my heartache, my shame, and my fears with those I trust the most. Those few people in my life who will listen to me without judgement, allow me to feel exactly how I feel. They help to lift me up and out of the dark places when I need them, reminding me of who I am and what I am capable of doing. If the extent of my pain is too great for my loved ones to bear, I would need to seek external help, like that of a professional. I am open to sharing a filtered version of my difficulties with a wider range of people in my life. And an even more watered down version for those I don’t know well. I choose a different level of sharing with my coworkers as they most likely care about my well being and emotional health, however, my sharing could become misconstrued and the waters can become murky. I need to feel a sense of stability and security in my job so I limit my sharing in this setting well. I am authentic in who I am and what I share with the world, but my emotional safety is sacred to me and having these set boundaries protects me from fears of being judged or misunderstood. They also protect my children from worrying about their mom’s stability. Kids know when things aren’t quite right with mom or dad so it’s okay to share a certain extent with them depending on their ages. This is a tricky area though depending on the situation and the depth of the emotions. Children do not need to be burdened by their parent’s emotional uncertainty. With regards to the positives, I am certainly open to sharing my greatest joys and accomplishments with those I am closest, although this circle is wider than the few I share the tough stuff with. The level of detail and depth I am willing to share depends on the connection I have and therefore the safety I feel.
In a nutshell, the guidance I have to offer on the subject of boundaries:
Find your safe person or people to bare your soul when you need the support. If you are having marital problems, speak with a trusted friend rather than your spouse’s friend, or rather than your employer. If you are suffering from the loss of a loved one, seek the comfort of a spiritual leader or a compassionate friend rather than your young child or the neighbor as she comes over to borrow a cup of sugar. If you are struggling with something that requires more support than what your loved ones can offer, seek professional support. Boundaries are not meant to keep us closed off, they are meant to keep us safe and to keep other people safe as well. Your emotional security is worth your careful consideration. Be kind to yourself, you deserve it.