You have a boundary. We all do. Unlike a fence between neighbors that visually defines a boundary, your boundary is energetic. You feel it when someone stands too close to you and you feel a desire to step away. You can also feel it when someone is too far away and you want to draw nearer. Boundaries are an experience inside you. Your boundary is your internal experience of your brain, nervous system, and body responding to your external environment to keep you safe and comfortable. Just like good fences make good neighbors, knowing how to set boundaries makes for good relationships.
This blog is the first in a series explaining how Integrative Body Psychotherapy (IBP) works with your internal experience of boundaries. To a large extent, your experience of your personal boundaries are a product of your earliest attachment experiences, and to a lesser extent, your culture.
To develop a healthy sense of self, every infant and young child needs enough closeness to feel a bond and enough breathing room to experience themselves as separate and autonomous. The experiences of closeness and breathing room you grew up with become your longings as an adult in an intimate relationship. Some long for closeness, others require more space. Neither is wrong or bad, but many couples unconsciously struggle to find a happy balance.
My series about energetic boundaries begins with Lisa and Sean. Lisa and Sean are a fictional couple I’ve invented to illustrate how an early attachment injury becomes a longing for closeness, which in turn, develops into a boundary challenge in an intimate relationship. I want to emphasize that although I’m describing Lisa as having more of a need for closeness, and Sean a need for breathing room, the opposite could be true. I see just as many men who yearn for closeness while their partner requires more breathing room.
The people I write about as examples in my articles are fictional characters. They are drawn from a combination of the many different psychological dynamics I observe in my work with my clients, but any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. The more I work and teach others about their body-mind dynamics, the more I realize we humans are more alike than we are different.
Your Boundary is An Inside Experience
Lisa was challenged in her relationship with Sean. She desperately loved him and wanted him close to her all of the time. By the time she came in to see me, they were arguing. Sean was feeling resentful because he felt she always wanted him around. Sean told her he loved her but felt suffocated. He wanted to feel like he could spend time on his own or with friends. He complained that she needed to hear that he loved her “24 hours a day.” Lisa was distraught. She couldn’t seem to get enough from Sean. “I feel like he’ll leave me if I don’t figure this out” she cried.
I suspected that Lisa and Sean were having a problem with boundaries in their relationship. Whenever I hear “I want to be close to him or her all of the time”, while the other partner feels “suffocated”, I’m pretty sure the couples’ challenge has something to do with how each partner is experiencing their energetic boundary.
What is an Energetic Boundary?
An energetic boundary is an experience. When you feel comfort and safety inside, it’s because your energetic desires for closeness and space are just right. Like anything energetic, your feelings of safety and comfort can ebb and flow depending upon who you’re with and where you are.
In Lisa and Sean’s case, my intuition told me that Lisa didn’t feel comfort and safety unless Sean was close to her. I sensed that she experienced overwhelming longings for closeness. When Sean wasn’t nearby or paying attention to her, she felt a great deal of anxiety. When I asked her how she dealt with any separation from Sean, she admitted to having a couple of glasses of wine to take the edge off.
Early Attachment Injuries Lead to Boundary Challenges
Lisa’s longings for closeness in her intimate relationship with Sean originate in her early bond with her mother. To help her understand her longings, I suggested we try a simple boundary exercise. I handed her a piece of chalk and asked her to draw a personal space around herself. She drew a small space that gave her about 12 inches all around her except she left the front of her space open. When I inquired about this opening, she explained that she didn’t want to block me out because then she’d be all alone.
I told her that the chalk line wasn’t meant to separate her from me or anyone else. It was simply to show me where I could physically be in relationship with her while still respecting her desire to remain in connection and to also allow her to have enough space to breathe and be herself. This allowed her to use the chalk to close the space in front of her.
Then I picked up a cushion I call the “mother pillow”. The mother pillow is for the second part of this boundary exercise. I asked her to imagine that the pillow was her mother. Immediately, I could see that she was holding her breath. So, I asked what she was feeling inside. “I want her closer,” she said longingly, her body leaning forward and her eyes pleading.
“I can see how much you want your mother to be close to you, and I’m wondering how it would feel for you to set a boundary with your mom,” I gently replied. “Try saying ‘Mom, this is my space and you can only come in if I invite you.’ “I can’t say that to my Mom,” tears were sliding down her cheeks, “it might hurt her and keep her away.”
I suggested she take a couple of deep breaths to calm, soothe and anchor herself. With the breath, she visibly became more solid and present. With a little coaching and encouragement, she was able to say the words and set her boundary with her “mom”. As soon as she established her boundary, I remarked upon the energetic change in her. She was sitting up straighter, no longer collapsed in a longing stance. Her face, while still showing concern, had softened. I reflected that maybe setting a boundary wasn’t such a crisis. After all, “Mom” was still here, and Lisa was feeling a little more comfort and safety within her boundary.
It Can Be Terrifying to Set a Boundary
For people like Lisa who feel their longings for closeness so intensely, setting a boundary can be terrifying. They often fear losing the person they love. They worry about expressing their desire for space because it may disappoint their loved one or cause them to go away.
I asked Lisa to take a few more deep, full breaths. This was so she could feel her space as her own. The color was returning to her face. “Now I’d like you to feel what happens inside and to tell me when you notice a shift”, I said. I began moving the mother pillow closer to her, while saying “Lisa, I just want to be close to you.” Lisa reached out, grabbed “Mom”, and held her close. Tears flowed once again as she held ‘Mom” and rocked her.
I acknowledged what looked like Lisa’s sadness and her longing for her mother. She nodded and explained that her mom worked a lot when Lisa was young and it often seemed like she was tired and overwhelmed. She elaborated “My father worked hard too, and I felt like I shouldn’t bother them.” “It must have felt very lonely for you,” I replied. “Yes, it was” she replied. She brightened when she added that at least she had her dog Remy to play with. “He was my love,” she sighed.
I gently took the mother pillow out of her hands. Then I asked Lisa to notice when she felt another shift inside. As ‘Mom” moved over Lisa’s boundary line, she blurted “Right there, something tightened in my chest. I can feel her going away, and I don’t want her to go. It’s the same feeling I get when Sean isn’t present with me or leaves the house. And I feel it until he’s back.”
Connect Inside With Your Core Self First Before Setting a Boundary
I pointed out to Lisa that her early longings for closeness were not allowing her to develop a healthy sense of herself as separate and autonomous. It appeared that she had not developed enough of an early bond with her parents so that she could feel safe, comfortable, and confident to forge an internal world of her own making. This early emotional injury kept her feeling small and defenseless and looking for someone to shield and protect her. Unknowingly, she was continuing to act this attachment theme out in her intimate relationship with Sean.
This early attachment pattern is very common. Even when parents have the best intentions, they can’t always be available when the child needs the bond. As parents become more preoccupied with making a living and providing for the child (all with the most positive of intentions of getting the child into the best schools and neighborhoods), the child’s internal experience can be one of yearning for more closeness with the parent.
As Lisa and I processed this exercise, she understood for the first time that these longings were old feelings and had become a pattern she played out with Sean and with the other relationships in her life. We talked about how she could begin to tune into and nurture herself. That way, she wasn’t so dependent upon others, especially Sean, to fulfill her overwhelming needs for closeness. I taught her some breathing exercises and gave her some other self-attunement tools so that she could feel a sense of empowerment and support from within.
We continued working on this dynamic in our weekly sessions. It wasn’t long before Lisa was reporting that she felt more stable inside. Rather than feeling like she was pestering Sean, she was more assertive and playful. She revealed that he seemed more interested in being with her. And then a funny thing happened…a couple of months into Lisa’s weekly therapy, she laughed and said, “Now I feel this weird pressure inside, and want to push Sean away sometimes. What’s that about?!?”
To be continued in my next article, How to Set Boundaries for Breathing Room and Space, featuring more on the dynamic nature of energetic boundaries.