What is your default boundary response?
Boundaries can be thought of as occurring along a continuum, with each end representing an extreme but automatic boundary response that we have aquired through our developmental conditioning--often we will get our default response from one or both of our parents. We then activate our default boundary position (like a reflex) when our autonomy is threatened, and we will either put ourself first (rigid default) or others first (diffuse reflex).
The problem is that these default positions do not meet our adult boundary needs a large majority of the time because they are too extreme, like black and white thinking. Thus we need to develop more than a default boundary response. Enter "middle boundaries".
Middle boundaries promote better health but require considerably more effort, awareness and self regulation, to find and maintain. Consider math a good analogy for this work: most people can figure out adding and subtracting on their own, naturally and without pedagogy, simply through experience. But algebra is something that generally requires instruction and support to execute when needed. Middle boundaries are like algebra.
Now dont let math anxiety turn you off of middle boundaries! Boundaries are part of our natural psychology and everyone can learn to have healthy ones, you just need a teacher. Consider the learning process kind of like learning to ride a bike; you have to learn several distinct processes and then do them all simultaneously, so it just takes practice to get the coordination down. And, once you learn the process, you will always be able to do it, just like riding a bike!
But first, the basics: it helps to know your boundary default position, see below and reflect on what feels most natural to you as a first response to being stressed by a situation.
Diffuse: On one end of the continuum, boundaries are passive, offering little protection from stressors. APPROPRIATE IF: captivity or autonomy-limiting situation. STANCE: flexibility, caring for others. LACK: self responsibility, assertiveness. DEFENSES : often use internalizing defenses i.e. people pleasers, rescuers/martyrs, and/or stonewallers FEELING TRENDS: sadness, loneliness, self pity.
Rigid : On the other end, boundaries are impenetrable, offering no room for stress but also no room for anyone but the self. APPROPRIATE IF: toxic relationship, abuse, cutoffs. STANCE: assertive, self-responsibility LACK: flexibility, caregiving, vulnerability. DEFENSES: often use projection type defenses i.e. blamers, abandoners, and/or computers. FEELING TRENDS: anger, resentment, isolation.
As you can see, what boundary default is most dominant in our family of origin predicts a lot about how we feel in that family and how we defend ourselves when we feel stressed. Now that you have a better grasp on what the ends of the continuum represents, let's talk about the middle.
Healthy : In the middle, boundaries are a good mix of assertiveness and flexibility, self care and other care, compromise NOT competition for resources, vulnerability but also responsibility for the self. Clearly a complex process--Visualize a knob to turn your boundaries UP (more Rigid) or DOWN (more Diffuse) to achieve just the right balance for you and the given situation.
Similarly to a greyscale exercise for painters, the two ends are mixed together in ever-changing amounts to produce new shades of "middle" (or grey). Note that the middle is vast, full of options, while the ends are limited in their range. So in a way, if we can avoid black or white thinking, we can automatically do better with setting out boundaries in the middle. Start fixing your boundaries by noting when you are stuck with only all or nothing ideas, and then asking yourself "Am I being rigid or difuse in my ideas right now?"
DIFFUSE HEALTHY FIX: move toward healthy boundaries--turn the dial UP on being more self responsible and assertive, caring for your needs first then others, being clear about your position. It is not me or them, it is us!
RIGID HEALTHY FIX: Move toward healthy boundaries by turning down assertiveness, and increasing flexibility to existing boundaries, softening toward others, opening up about worries, allowing yourself to care about the needs of everyone in the room. Inclusivity and empathy are key!
WHAT IF I DO BOTH? Then you are YO-YOing between ends. This most often happens because either you were taught both reflexes or have grown tired of the limitations and outcomes of your default boundaries so you are trying the other one out (a type of learning through the tension of opposites) . What this means practically speaking is you are overshooting the middle, making an over-correction if you will.
YO_YO FIX: In order to reach the middle and avoid over-correcting, we must make SMALL ADJUSTMENTS to our initial response idea. Try identifying your "knee-jerk" reaction, then identify a few boundaries you could set that are just a few turns of the know from your initial idea.
R E F L E C T I O N Q U E S T I O N S:
1. What is my default boundary position? Do I yo-yo?
2. Is it hard for me to be assertive? Why, why not?
3. Is it hard for me to be vulnerable? Why, why not?
4. What sort of boundaries did my family have?
5. What might I try next to make a boundary I have more healthy?
MANTRA: I know where I end and another begins.