This post is not about Trump. Or Mexico. Or Brexit.
It is however about the borders (or lack of them) that affect you EVERY DAY OF YOUR LIFE, and determine
How you develop as a person.
Who and What you let into your life,
How you define and protect yourself
And ultimately, how happy and even how successful you will be.
And alarmingly, you probably AREN’T EVEN AWARE OF THEM…
How scary is that?
But you really need to be, because this is SO much bigger than Trump.
The borders I’m talking about here aren’t between nations. These borders are our psychological boundaries.
But, like the borders between nations, we’d better learn to pay attention to them, or we’ll very quickly run into trouble.
Let me start by telling you a story:
So, Picture the scene…. A teenage girl standing in a cubicle at Munich airport, deliberately separated from her family, being frisked and questioned by an unsmiling German female security guard.
I’m feeling just a bit alarmed. Trying to look chilled.
Probably not succeeding.
After a few minutes (it didn’t seem like minutes!) of checking my passport thoroughly, questioning me and (even more thoroughly) checking my clothing, I’m finally let through to join my family.
So … What made me stand out as such a threat?
Why was I seen as a potential danger?
Well, here’s the truth:
A typical teenager, I was pretty much wrapped up in my own little world: keeping up with fashion, music, being only vaguely aware of the outside world, etc, etc…. you get the picture.
But this was Munich, and this was Christmas 1972.
Only months after the Munich Olympics terrorist attack ….
and (as a fashion accessory) I was wearing a fully-loaded (fake) bullet hip belt.
Even today, decades later, I still feel ashamed owning up to this.
Psychological boundaries have a lot in common with national borders.
We need borders to keep us safe.
Not everyone who wants ‘in’ is harmless. We know this. Checks are necessary.
We need to man those borders responsibly.
Borders tell us where one ‘territory’ ends and another begins. They tell us that the customs, beliefs and laws might be different as we cross the border, and that we’d better respect that or there’ll be consequences.
Border control tells us that we don’t get in until we and our passports have been checked and we are deemed not to be a threat, and given ‘permission’ to cross over into another country.
We can’t just barge in. Trespassers will be held to account.
The same applies to our individual psychological boundaries.
I am my own ‘country’.
If I maintain my border well, I decide who and what I let into my life (and when, and under what circumstances)
A healthy psychological border is not the kind of Paul Simon ‘I am a Rock’ border wall; that defence mechanism ‘fortress deep and mighty’, built by a hurting soul to keep out love and attachment. That kind of border is impregnable. It lets nothing in, because to the one who built it everything out there is dangerous. There is no safety. No interaction.
It isn’t actually a border. It’s a prison.
A healthy border is different. It’s flexible, but there are rules.
They are consistent, and I get to make them. ( eg. If you disrespect me, I will keep you at a distance. If you respect the rules, you will be welcome). My border, and its’ rules, are there to keep me safe.
And that’s a good thing, not a selfish thing.
I do not have to please you if doing so puts me at risk. And that’s ok.
Having a psychological ‘boundary’ isn’t just about SAFETY though.
It’s also about IDENTITY.
When I leave the UK, and travel into France (for example), I know I’m not in Britain any longer. The language is different, the food is different, (the coffee is better!). The customs, practises and laws of the land are different. (Better remember to drive on the right).
When I set (or meet) a psychological boundary,
it informs me that you are not me, and I am not you.
We are separate and distinct individuals.
And that’s alright.
How does this work then?
Well, for example, you might ask me to go see a gangster movie with you, and I decline because I’m really not into gangster movies (See ‘About’!). We’re both fine with that.
So you go see the movie with someone else, and we plan something different for the two of us.
In this scenario, we are respecting each others’ boundaries, and this is how good relationships work.
But If you ask me to go see the gangster movie, and I say I’m not into them, but your reaction makes me feel guilty, or maybe I want to impress you, or fear what you’ll think of me, so I give in and go …. then I’m not manning my border well, and I’m throwing away and not respecting my self-identity – who I am.
Simple example, but you see how this works?
If you’ve read thus far, and all this sounds a bit ‘me first’ and selfish, well then maybe you do have a border issue to resolve.
Quiet people often do. I know I did!
Some indicators might include:
* Feeling guilty about putting your own needs first
*Continually questioning your own decisions and value judgments, seeking others’ validation or ‘permission’ to act on them.
*Always taking the line of least resistance in social situations.
*Having difficulty saying ‘no’ when you want to.
This is not a happy, or a healthy, place to be!
How did we get here in the first place?
Well, it seems to me that part of the cause is nature, and part is nurture.
( Isn’t that always the way! )
Let’s look at the nature bit first…
As introverts, we tend to be naturally compliant…
Being good listeners and generally ‘nice’ people tends to give us emotional rewards (praise, ‘good girl/boy’ attention), so we do it more. So people expect it. Early on, we learn to be people-pleasers. It’s then harder to lay down a boundary line by saying ‘no’, and dealing with the inevitable backlash. (And the challenge to how others perceive us)
As introverts, we tend to be conflict-averse.
It’s easier not to ‘make a fuss’, thus avoiding the drama of disagreements or the discomfort of asserting ourselves. We appear easy going, but we might be feeling inwardly very conflicted. Not engaging in disputes means we don’t gain experience at doing it well and in a non aggressive way, and so when we do explode … My, we explode!
As introverts, we tend to process slowly.
Often we land on the perfect reply to something way after the event. It takes longer to think of the why and how of saying ‘no’, so we end up allowing all sorts of things into our lives that we really don’t want there.
What about the nurture bit?
Well, that’s a bit more complicated.
It depends on whether your experience growing up was one of being affirmed and encouraged as a quiet person, of having your boundaries honoured, or of being shamed for being ‘shy’ and nervous in company.
It may be that you were pushed (rather than encouraged) to join in and play with other children before you felt comfortable.
It may be that your need of solitude and down time was disregarded, and you were told that your gut feelings about many things were ‘silly’.
None of this needed to be malicious, but the effect it had was TO MAKE YOU DISTRUST YOUR OWN FEELINGS AND DESIRES.
To feel that in some ways they weren’t valid or permissible;
That you needed to be more like others. More outgoing.
And so, you’d stifle those thoughts and feelings and preferences, which were in essence ‘the real you’.
In time, you’d even forget what they were.
They’d emerge as vague feelings of unease when someone or something threatened to stride roughshod over your personal boundaries, but the vague unease didn’t tell you anything clear or useful.
In any case, it felt too much like the social nervousness you’d spent years being schooled out of.
So, yeah, you’re going to ignore it. You’ll let all sorts of things and people into your life that that instinct tells you you don’t really want.
There’s a huge difference between moving out of your comfort zone (something we all need to do occasionally to grow), and letting unhealthy and sometimes dangerous relationships and practises into your life because you’ve been schooled out of your safety responses. We need to know the difference!
Because, potentially, this is a very dangerous place to be.
We could be laying out the welcome mat for all sorts of toxic tenants – Hello, codependency, enmeshment and abuse.
We really need as introverts to be checking our gut feelings and learning to tell the difference between ‘I really want to do this, but I’m feeling anxious’ and ‘I really don’t want to do this, but I’m feeling pressured’. The first is (natural) nerves. The second is (imposed) guilt.
If that’s been you and you recognise that : how do you get back to you?
How do you reclaim yourself? How do you build a border, and how do you man it?
These are big questions, and worthy of more than a brief blog post, but every journey begins with a small step. And life in the end is all about small steps. So here’s some starters….
EXPLORE. Know who you are. Be a detective. What do you love? What’s non negotiable to you? What would you change in all the world if you could? What are your values, beliefs, passions, ambitions? Write them down. Know them well.
OWN those qualities that make you you. They’re the building blocks that you use to build your life. You are the architect. No one else has the plan. No one else can be you. If you don’t live your life as you, the plan goes to waste.
PRACTISE building the border, on your own, in front of the mirror, with trusted friends, in therapy, whatever works for you. Learn to say ‘no’ graciously, but firmly. Justify saying ‘no’, so that you can say ‘yes’ fully to your chosen priorities.
There is only so much space and time in your life. Make sure you pack it full of the things that matter to you.
‘Til next time…