I am excited to do something a little different this week. Kim Fredrickson, counselor and author of the book, Give Yourself a Break: Turning Your Inner Critic into a Compassionate Friend, has graciously contributed a guest post about the how to develop greater compassion with our own selves. Her message has been both inspirational and healing for me personally and to many throughout the world. Thank you, Kim, for blessing us with your generous contribution:
Self-Compassion is Vital for a Healthy Life
Life can be rough without the comfort, balance and guidance of a self-compassionate friend on the inside. Lack of self-compassion affects our relationships and our well being in profoundly negative ways. What a difference it makes to go through life with a kind friend on the inside rather than an internal critic or bully!
So What Exactly is Self-Compassion?
It is the idea that we can be kind to ourselves when we fail and treat ourselves with the caring support we would give another who is struggling. Out of self-compassion flow self-care and protection from harm.
Self-compassion is a balance of truth (Yes, I made a mistake) with grace (I have worth and value, and I will address mistakes directly).
Grace and truth together mean you acknowledge what happened without either minimizing it or making it more than it was, and at the same time apply compassion to yourself. Self-compassion helps us handle our humanness and the situations we are in with empathy, concern, understanding and kindness.
Self-compassion is a gentle way we relate to ourselves both when we’re struggling and when things are going well. It’s like treating yourself as you would a friend who is struggling, learning something new, scared or confused.
Many Positives Result from Self-Compassion
Treating ourselves with compassion produces benefits to ourselves as well as our relationships. Many experience an increase in emotional resiliency, self-worth and contentment; reduced stress and healthier relationships
When we come into relationships being our own compassionate friend, we become better friends, spouses, parents, bosses, co-workers, etc. We handle disappointments more smoothly and we won’t require the other person to have the perfect response in order for us to be ok.
Lack of Self-Compassion Costs Us
Lack of self-compassion is linked to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, lack of resilience, inability to forgive oneself, problems in relationships, vulnerability to the opinions of others, difficulty letting go of mistakes, and problems recovering from painful experiences.
As you can imagine, walking around with an inner critic who is negatively evaluating you for the mistakes you’ve made in the past, how you are goofing up in the present, and how you’ll likely mess up in the future is quite depressing, and produces a lot of anxiety.
Not only is having a bully in your head depressing, it can also feel hopeless…like there’s nothing you can do to change this negative self-talk. Most likely you’ve already tried positive thinking, trying to quiet your internal bully and telling yourself the truth…often without much success. Most people work very hard to combat this inner critic, but feel so defeated.
The missing link is not having a compassionate relationship with yourself. Self-compassion helps to soothe those dark places, brings truth and grace to the heart, and brings hope and a way to get better. We are with ourselves 100 percent of the time. The way you interact with yourself has a greater impact on you than any interactions you have with others.
Many people struggle with depression and anxiety for lots of reasons. Self-compassion helps prevent depression and anxiety, as well as reduce its effects. Imagine how you would feel if you had a compassionate friend on the inside who empathized with you, helped you take good care of yourself, and showed you how to be kind to yourself?
When our shortcomings and mistakes are met with compassion and understanding, we will have more energy and space inside to forgive ourselves, find solutions and repair relationships. When our shortcomings and mistakes are met with self-judgment and condemnation, we experience a lack of hope and begin to shut down emotionally.
Someone who practices self-compassion might say something to themselves when they make mistakes, goof up or regret their actions:
Yes, I wish I’d acted differently. I’m using this experience for good in order to grow and learn. I can grant myself grace while still doing what is necessary to right this situation. I’m not perfect, and I don’t need to be. I am loveable and acceptable even when I make mistakes. I will take a look at what made me vulnerable to act in this way, and take steps to learn from this experience and repair any damage I have done. I can be a good friend to myself while handling this situation.
Reasons Why You May Not Have Learned Self-Compassion
Most people struggle with negative self-talk and lack of self-compassion, so realize you are in good company. There are really good reasons why you did not learn how to be compassionate with yourself:
- History of Being Criticized
Repeated criticism creates a challenge because we may have internalized and accepted critical messages we heard growing up. This critical and harsh way of being dealt with then becomes our model for how to deal with ourselves when we make mistakes or struggle.
- A Bully on the Inside
A part of us has taken on a “bully” stance toward our mistakes, weaknesses, and areas of struggle. It is very important to realize that the “bully” inside is actually trying to help in the only way it knows how. These harsh good intentions attempt to keep us out of trouble, help us perform well, and not be lazy, to name a few. These harsh strategies developed when we were young and often carry into adulthood. How wonderful it is now, to learn new ways to motivate ourselves tin ways that are healthy, not harmful.
- Didn’t Learn Healthy Motivations for Change
We may not have been taught a different motivation to change besides being hard on ourselves. Believe it or not, there are other positive reasons that can motivate us to grow and change:
- Wanting to be the most honorable and caring person possible
- Not wanting to hurt others
- Wanting to be as spiritually, relationally, and emotionally healthy as possible
- Wanting to be a safe and trustworthy person in our relationships
- Wanting to grow in order to fulfill our potential
Note that these reasons are in direct contrast to trying to change because we see ourselves as bad, a loser, or a misfit.
- Didn’t Experience Compassion
If we weren’t treated with compassion or watched others treat themselves with compassion we won’t know how to treat ourselves that way instinctually. You’re not supposed to know how to do this if you haven’t been taught.
Don’t get down on yourself for not knowing how to respond to your humanness with compassion. It’s not too late to learn! Here’s a compassionate way to talk you to yourself right now:
Yes, I do tend to be really hard on myself. I say horrible things to myself to try to get myself to do the right thing. Sometimes, I even punish myself on purpose for being such a mess-up. I didn’t realize until now that I can relate to myself in a different way. I actually feel some compassion for that small bullying part of me that had to develop to keep me out of trouble. Although I can’t even imagine trying to motivate myself to change because of positive reasons, I am starting to believe maybe it’s possible. I guess it makes sense that if I never had a model of how to be both truthful and compassionate with myself at the same time, I wouldn’t know how to do it. I have some hope that I can learn a different way.
It’s Not Too Late To Learn!
- Realize it is a process
Considering treating yourself with compassion is a first great step.
- Notice the way you talk to yourself
We can’t change what we aren’t aware of. You may be surprised by how much time you spend saying negative things to yourself.
- Say STOP to negative self-talk
Say “No” when you begin to say something mean to yourself… “I’m not going to talk to myself like that anymore” is a great step, even if you don’t know a compassionate thing to say in its place.
- Ask yourself…what would the kindest person I know say to me about the mistake I made, or the thing I regret? Say this to yourself.
- Get help knowing what to say and do
Read about self-compassion and start to treat yourself differently a little bit at a time. My book, Give Yourself a Break: Turning Your Inner Critic into a Compassionate Friend is filled with stories about different scenarios we can all relate to. I share lots of examples of what it sounds like to use grace-filled compassionate language with yourself…kind of like having a self-compassion coach alongside you.
- Take care of yourself
Make time to do things that are calming and soothing for you…relaxation, reading, walking in nature, doing your favorite hobby, time with affirming friends…whatever you have noticed brings you encouragement and comfort.
Kim Fredrickson, MS, MFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFC 22635) Kim recently closed her 30-year counseling practice due to serious health issues. Despite this sudden change in her health, Kim remains optimistic, hopeful, and positive.
Kim is the author of Give Yourself a Break: Turning Your Inner Critic into a Compassionate Friend. She enjoys sharing about the transforming power of self-compassion integrated with faith. Connect with Kim on Facebook, Twitter, and her blog, Self-Compassion for Real Life http://www.kimfredrickson.com/blog/
Mark Williams, a professor at Oxford University, offers a collection of free audio meditations. All of the meditations are taken from the book he wrote in collaboration with Danny Penman: Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World.
I have used a number of these meditations with my own clients over the years. Many have commented on how the practice helps to calm their racing minds and feel more centered in the present moment.
Free Audio Mindfulness Meditations by Mark Williams
“Friends can help each other. A true friend is someone who lets you have total freedom to be yourself, and especially to feel. Or, not feel. Whatever you happen to be feeling at the moment is fine with them. That’s what real love amounts to: letting a person be what he really is.” Jim Morrison
My life has been a constant stream of transitions. I have lived in more places than I can count. I do not even know where I went to kindergarten. By the time I landed in college, I could list numerous towns and cities in seven separate states as well as Kenya, East Africa. I was ecstatic and relieved when I finally celebrated a major milestone of living four entire years in the same location during college.
The concept of developing close friendships was a mystery to me. I was perpetually the new kid on the block. The only tools I knew to navigate constant transition were either fit in or stay as invisible as possible. If you have ever seen The Princess Diaries, I was much like the main character, Mia, at the beginning of the movie, doing my best to hide so that I could protect myself from unpredictability. But in order to do this you have to master some pretty uncomfortable skills. When you look up related synonyms to “fitting in” and being “invisible” this is what pops up:
- don’t make waves
- don’t rock the boat
- bear with
- defer to
- play the game
Ouch. Not a very whole-hearted approach to living life. Over the years, the exhausting effort to fit in and remain invisible made it challenging and even made it seem dangerous to learn the skills related to authenticity and risking intimate relationships.
I craved deeper connection, but was unsure how to go about making friends. Thankfully, meaningful friendships did happen organically over the years, but I wondered if I was missing something. I could not figure out how to be friends with everyone and still be myself. In the search for friendship, there were times I ended up hurt and confused… times when I tried to open up and be myself, but instead ended up as material for someone’s gossip.
Time For Some Boundary Work
Then, I had a daughter.
As Reese began to navigate the friend arena, her challenges gave me extra incentive to learn more about how to create deep meaningful friendships. In my search for understanding, I began to notice the important connection between relationships and boundaries.
When Reese was in fourth grade she went through a period of several painful months with one particular girl. I will call her Cindy. Reese wanted to be friends with everyone, and Cindy was no exception. Each time they got together to play, Cindy would ask Reese personal questions like: “What boys do you like?” or “What do you think about the new girl in class?” and Reese would tell Cindy all of her “secrets.” Each time Reese confided intimate details, Cindy would turn around and tell the kids at school. This happened on several occasions. Reese would end up devastated and confused about friendship, and she began to wonder if she could trust anyone.
As a mother, it hurt to see my daughter hurting. I wanted to offer some insight that could help her be her unique, authentic self while also providing protection from continued exposure to harm.
Gratefully at the time I was listening to Brené Brown’s “ITIWJM (I Thought It Was Just Me) Read-Along” podcast. In one of the podcasts, Brené explored the idea that connection is something that is built over time. She used the metaphor of “Marble Jar Friends” to explain how family and friends earn the right to be in meaningful relationships.
What is a Marble Jar?
Some teachers use a marble jar with their class as an incentive for good behavior. When the class behaves and works hard, the teacher adds a marble to the jar. When the class misbehaves, the teacher removes a marble. When the marble jar fills to the top, it is time to celebrate! The kids win something special like a pizza or ice cream party.
Likewise, when you meet someone for the first time, you start off with an “empty marble jar.” You do not have any experiences together. You cannot know whether or not this person will be trustworthy and treat you with care. As you spend time together, you begin to “collect” experiences. With each positive interaction, marbles are added to the jar. For each negative interaction, marbles are taken away. When you have a hefty marble jar of shared experiences with someone, you have a good sense that it is okay to be yourself with this person.
“Whenever someone supports you, or is kind to you, or sticks up for you, or honors what you share with them as private, you put marbles in the jar. When people are mean, or disrespectful, or share your secrets, marbles come out… Trust is built one marble at a time.” Brené Brown
Room for Forgiveness
Another thing I like about the metaphor of the marble jar is that it leaves room for mistakes. All relationships are imperfect. We will occasionally mess up and experience misunderstandings. I do not have to cut off every single person in my life to protect myself from hurt. When I have a hefty marble jar of shared experience with someone, but then experience conflict, I might take out a marble or two. However, there are still plenty of marbles left to indicate that this person is worth giving a second chance.
But… if you only take “marbles” out of the jar and continually experience harmful interactions, this person is treating your relationship as disposable and will not treat you with care. If you are vulnerable and open in this relationship, you will be exposed to harm.
“The bottom line: if the friendship feels good, it is good. But if a person tries to control you, criticizes you, abuses your generosity, or brings unwanted danger, drama, or negative influences into your life, it’s time to take a hard look at the value of the friendship. A good friendship does not require you to act against your own values, always agree with the other person, or disregard your own needs.” (helpguide.org)
The marble jar illustration helped Reese to understand that she would be exposed to harm if she continued to confide in Cindy. She also learned that she does not need to close herself off from everyone. Over a period of time, friendships built on trust can be a place to express your own unique, authentic self.
I Cannot Be Friends with Everyone
I learned from experience that it is not possible to be friends with everyone and still be myself. The truth is, everyone cannot be my friend, and that is okay. Meaningful friendships are precious and rare.
The best part of going through this with my daughter is what I learned about myself. I realized I already know how to have wonderful friends… friends that like me for me. And, it is okay to be me. I can relax and give myself permission to enjoy those precious relationships and not worry about the unrealistic expectation of trying to fit in and please everyone.
Marble Jar Boundary Exercise
Remember every relationship starts off as an empty “marble jar.” The following questions from helpguide.org are helpful in determining when to add marbles and when to take them away. When you have a hefty marble jar of shared experiences with someone, you will have a good sense that it is okay to be yourself in this relationship.
- Do I feel better after spending time with this person?
- Do I feel free to be myself around this person?
- Do I feel safe, or do I feel like I have to watch what I say and do?
- Is the person supportive of me? Does he or she treat me with respect?
- Is this a person I feel that I could trust?
Brene Brown’s TED talk on Vulnerability is another excellent resource for building deeper, meaningful connections in your relationships:
A daily gratitude practice has a powerful impact on mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. People who practice gratitude notice many benefits:
- Stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure
- Higher levels of positive emotions
- More joy, optimism, and happiness
- Act with more generosity and compassion
- Feel less lonely and isolated
- And, gratitude is an integral part of healthy relationships
Louie Schwartzberg’s TED talk, “Nature. Beauty. Gratitude,” combines stunning time-lapse photography with powerful words from Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast.
What is EMDR?
The mind can often heal itself naturally, in the same way as the body does. Much of this natural coping mechanism occurs during sleep, particularly during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Francine Shapiro developed Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) in 1987, utilizing this natural process in order to successfully treat Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Since then, EMDR has been used to effectively treat a wide range of mental health problems.
What happens when you are traumatized?
Most of the time, your body routinely manages new information and experiences without you being aware of it. However, when something out of the ordinary occurs and you are traumatized by an overwhelming event (e.g. a car accident) or by being repeatedly subjected to distress (e.g. childhood neglect), your natural coping mechanism can become overloaded. This overloading can result in disturbing experiences remaining frozen in your brain or being “unprocessed”. Such unprocessed memories and feelings are stored in the limbic system of your brain in a “raw” and emotional form, rather than in a verbal “story” mode. This limbic system maintains traumatic memories in an isolated memory network that is associated with emotions and physical sensations, which are disconnected from the brain’s cortex where we use language to store memories. The limbic system’s traumatic memories can be continually triggered when you experience events similar to the difficult experiences you have been through. Often the memory itself is long forgotten, but the painful feelings such as anxiety, panic, anger or despair are continually triggered in the present. Your ability to live in the present and learn from new experiences can therefore become inhibited. EMDR helps create the connections between your brain’s memory networks, enabling your brain to process the traumatic memory in a very natural way.
What is an EMDR session like?
EMDR utilizes the natural healing ability of your body. After a thorough assessment and development of a treatment plan, you will be asked specific questions about a particular disturbing memory. Eye movements, similar to those during REM sleep, will be recreated simply by asking you to watch the therapist’s finger moving backwards and forwards across your visual field. Sometimes, a bar of moving lights or headphones is used instead. The eye movements will last for a short while and then stop. You will then be asked to report back on the experiences you have had during each of these sets of eye movements. Experiences during a session may include changes in thoughts, images and feelings.
With repeated sets of eye movements, the memory tends to change in such a way that it loses its painful intensity and simply becomes a neutral memory of an event in the past. Other associated memories may also heal at the same time. This linking of related memories can lead to a dramatic and rapid improvement in many aspects of your life.
What can EMDR be used for?
In addition to its use for the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, EMDR has been successfully used to treat:
- anxiety and panic attacks
- sleep problems
- grief and loss
- pain, including phantom limb pain performance anxiety
- feelings of worthlessness/low self-esteem
Can anyone benefit from EMDR?
EMDR can accelerate therapy by resolving the impact of your past traumas and allowing you to live more fully in the present. It is not, however, appropriate for everyone. The process is rapid, and any disturbing experiences, if they occur at all, last for a comparatively short period of time. Nevertheless, you need to be aware of, and willing to experience, the strong feelings and disturbing thoughts that sometimes occur during sessions.
How long does treatment take?
EMDR can be brief focused treatment or part of a longer psychotherapy treatment plan. EMDR can be easily integrated with other approaches in which your therapist might be trained, such as Psychodynamic psychotherapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or Cognitive Behavior Therapy. For best effects, EMDR sessions during the actual reprocessing phases of treatment usually last from 60 to 90 minutes. Positive effects have been seen after one session of EMDR.
Will I will remain in control and empowered?
During EMDR treatment, you will remain in control, fully alert and wide-awake. This is not a form of hypnosis and you can stop the process at any time. Throughout the session, the therapist will support and facilitate your own self-healing and intervene as little as possible. Reprocessing is usually experienced as something that happens spontaneously, and new connections and insights are felt to arise quite naturally from within. As a result, most people experience EMDR as being a natural and very empowering therapy.
What evidence is there that EMDR is a successful treatment?
EMDR is an innovative clinical treatment which has successfully helped over a million individuals. The validity and reliability of EMDR has been established by rigorous research. There are now over nineteen controlled studies into EMDR, making it the most thoroughly researched method used in the treatment of trauma, and The American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, Department of Defense, Veteran’s Administration, insurance companies, and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies recognize EMDR as an effective treatment for PTSD. For further information about EMDR, point your Internet browser to www.emdria.org or www.emdr.com .
Adapted from information at www.getselfhelp.co.uk and www.thetraumacentre.com
Light-Stream: The light stream is a relaxation meditation used to calm distressing sensations in the body. It is also a body scan that allows you to be compassionate and mindful of what you are experiencing and feeling in this present moment. This is an adaptation of Francine Shapiro’s original Light Stream.
Guilt vs. Shame
How can guilt become a motivator to help a person stay on task and achieve goals? In order to understand this better, it is important to shed some light on the distinction between guilt and another important emotion – shame.
In 1971, Helen Lewis, a clinical psychologist at Yale, defined the difference between these two emotions:
- “Guilt: I did that horrible thing.
- Shame: I did that horrible thing.” (Lewis, 1971)
The difference is subtle, but significant. Guilt is about my behavior. Shame is the experience that tells me that I am worthless.
According to Brené Brown’s recent TED talk, the distinction between these two emotions has a monumental impact on our well-being.
“There’s a huge difference between shame and guilt. And here’s what you need to know. Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders. And here’s what you even need to know more. Guilt, is inversely correlated with those things. The ability to hold something we’ve done or failed to do up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s adaptive.”
In other words, guilt is a resilient characteristic. It allows us to bounce back from painful circumstances and mistakes. We are able to learn from our mistakes and stay connected with the people we love. Shame, on the other hand, is like quicksand. It sinks us down into feeling helpless and powerless to change things for the better. Shame makes us want to hide. It pulls us further away from the support of others. The endless downward cycle fuels addiction, anxiety and depression.
Guilt and Self-Control
How is this distinction important when it comes to self-control?
The shame cycle is defeating. The shame cycle disconnects us from others. “I yelled at someone I love… Or, I missed that important meeting. I am worthless, so why bother? Why even try? I am unfixable. It isn’t going to matter anyway.”
A shame response leaves us with nowhere to go.
“Shame is an acutely painful emotion that is typically accompanied by a sense of shrinking or of ‘being small’ and a sense of worthlessness and powerlessness. Shame often leads to a desire to escape or hide – to sink into the floor and disappear” (Tangey and Dearing, 2003).
Conversely, a guilt response is adaptive. “I made a mistake. I yelled at the person I love… Or, I missed that important meeting. I feel terrible about it. I am sorry. I will try to do better next time.”
A guilt response connects us to all of humanity because we all make mistakes. We feel remorse, can change our course and then create something better.
“Guilt is a useful emotion. It pushes people to repair the harm they did. But feelings of shame about oneself seem to motivate people more to want to hide, escape, deny or a lot of times to blame other people” (Bernstein, 2014).
Make a Move Toward Guilt
Below are some resources that provide tools to help us break out of a shame cycle (shame resilience) into a more adaptive guilt response toward self.
- Test of Self-Conscious Affect (TOSCA) is a quick little quiz that shows whether we are more guilt-prone or shame prone.
- Shame Resilience: How can respond to ourselves when we experience shame
- Brené Brown Listening To Shame
Bernstein, E. (November 3, 2014). Guilt Versus Shame: One is Productive, the Other Isn’t, and How to Tell Them Apart. Wall Street Journal.
Brown, B. (March 2012). TED Talk. Listening to Shame. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psN1DORYYV0
Lewis, H. (1971). Shame and Guilt in Neurosis. International Universities Press.
Tangey, J., and Dearing, R. (2003). Shame and Guilt: Emotions and Social Behavior. The Guildford Press.
Be thankful that you don’t already have everything you desire.
If you did, what would there be to look forward to?
Be thankful when you don’t know something,
for it gives you the opportunity to learn.
Be thankful for the difficult times.
During those times you grow.
Be thankful for your limitations,
because they give you opportunities for improvement.
Be thankful for each new challenge,
because it will build your strength and character.
Be thankful for your mistakes.
They will teach you valuable lessons.
Be thankful when you’re tired and weary,
because it means you’ve made a difference.
It’s easy to be thankful for the good things.
A life of rich fulfillment comes to those who
are also thankful for the setbacks.
Gratitude can turn a negative into a positive.
Find a way to be thankful for your troubles,
and they can become your blessings.
Life keeps getting faster. I have so much going on with my two teenagers, my husband, work, friends, volunteering… the list just never ends. It is all good stuff. I love my life. But I have learned over the years that I cannot do it all, even though it feels like I have to learn this lesson over and over again. I am not sure how many times I have turned to my dear husband with my Wonder Woman outfit in one hand and some dark chocolate in the other: “I am so tired. I just need a break!”
Friend: “Jennifer, can you help with ___________?”
Me (As I wipe the sweat off my brow and stand in my super pose): “Sure! I would love to pitch in!”
And, then I check my calendar. Oh no! I already have sixteen other things that need to be done.
My Wonder Woman ways get me into trouble. The real problem is that the important stuff, the stuff I value and cherish, gets pushed out of the way to make room for all of the “yesses.”
- Time sprawled out on the carpet with my daughter watching silly Vines.
- Peacefully chopping vegies and other food prep for a relaxing dinner.
- A quick game of Smash Bros with my son.
- Coffee with my husband.
- Dessert with a friend.
- A good book and a cup of tea.
What Can I Do?
One of the most challenging and beneficial practices I continue to learn is setting boundaries. I need to remember I have limits and the only way to protect those limits is to learn to say “no.” When there is not enough of me to go around, it is time for some boundary work.
What Are Boundaries?
In our physical world, we have fences and walls that create clear defining lines. We can easily tell where one room ends and the other begins. We understand what belongs inside and what does not. Boundaries serve as a noticeable protective barrier that creates order.
Think about the Houston Zoo for a moment. We have a number of exotic and dangerous animals right in the middle of a densely populated area. But we are not afraid. Imagine what it would be like if the zoo walls suddenly disappeared. The result would be chaos. The people and animals would be in harms way. The walls around the zoo protect and create order for the animals and the surrounding areas. The walls inside the zoo also protect each species of animal from the other. We are able to enjoy the animals and feel safe because of boundaries.
The zoo also has a front gate. The gate opens to allow people in and out of the zoo. It shuts to prevent anything harmful entering or leaving the zoo at the wrong times.
What Do Zoo Walls Have to Do With Me?
Just like the zoo walls, you have a protective barrier around your physical body. Your skin serves as a defining barrier from the external world. Your internal cells also have membranes that protect and define each individual cell.
Like the zoo gate, you have the ability to let things in and out of your body. When a toxin enters your body, you get sick. You will get very ill if you continue to ingest the toxin. So, you “close the gate” and stop allowing it into your body. You also have the ability to let things into your body that nourish you.
Along with physical boundaries, you are also equipped with psychological boundaries. Have you ever been in a group of people when someone starts getting too close? It feels awkward. The natural reaction is for you to move to create distance. But the person may not notice and move toward you again. What is the deal? Wired within, you have a sense of appropriate distance between you and the other person. When they cross the “line” and move into your space, they have crossed your psychological boundary. Your psychological boundary lets you know where you end and where they begin.
My psychological space is my space. It is the space where I belong and it defines what is and is not my responsibility.
Some of us have very rigid psychological boundaries. If you experienced physical or emotional abuse as a child, you learned quickly to build fortress-like walls around yourself. You learned that it is not safe to let anyone into your space. Unfortunately, fortress walls do not have doors or gates to let in good things. Everything is walled off. When someone you care about tries to come close, they too may be blocked. Fortress walls are protective, but they can also be isolating.
Diffuse boundaries are permeable and barely exist. If, as a child, you were not allowed to have your own feelings, personal space, opinions, or even your own sense of self, boundaries are underdeveloped. When you have poorly defined boundaries, you may not have a clear sense of who you are, what your personal rights are, or what others rights are.
Back to the zoo example: What if the walls around the zoo suddenly disappeared? Chaos would erupt and someone would get hurt. Diffuse boundaries open us up to harm. There is no protection from being controlled and manipulated by others.
Healthy Personal Boundaries
Healthy boundaries protect your self-concept and allow you to be your own unique self. Your thoughts and feelings are separated from the thoughts and feelings of others. Healthy boundaries also include “gates” that allow you to let in good things like:
- The people you care about
- Your values and feelings
Healthy boundaries help close the gate on things that do not belong:
- A harmful relationship
- Needing to do everything that is asked of you
- Aversive words or actions
I recently discovered an exercise that helped me have a better understanding of my own personal boundaries. A great way to start this exercise is to slow things down enough to pause and think. Have you ever seen the movie, The Matrix? The main character, Neo, has the ability to perceive bullets moving at a much slower speed than reality. What if you could use your imagination and slow down the words that seem to come at you with bullet-like speed? You could give yourself time to think and choose what you want to let in and what needs to stay out:
- Imagine you can see your psychological boundaries like a protective barrier around you. I like to think of a clear plexiglas wall around me.
- Imagine a little gate or door situated in front of your heart area. I have found it useful to pretend I am holding up a stop sign in front of my heart.
- Now, as you read the following phrases, give yourself space to slow down the words, put up your imaginary stop sign, and ask yourself; “Does this fit with me? If I let it in, will it harm me? Does this fit better for someone else?
- You love to go art museums every weekend. (Does this fit for you, or not?)
- You are a kind person. (How does this fit?)
- “If you cared enough, you would volunteer for every event this year.” (This one’s tricky; you may need to pause and pull this one apart: “I care! Even if I am unable to volunteer sometimes.”)
- “If you love me, you will go to the movies with me every Friday night.” (This one is also tricky and a boundary violation. “I love you AND I am not free every Friday night.”) I will talk more about boundary violations in future posts.
- You can cry when you feel sad. (How does this fit?)
- For the phrases that fit, you can put down your stop sign and open the gate to let them in. If the phrases are harmful, you can close the door.
- Real life practice: Notice the words coming at you from the people around you this week. Slow them down and use your imaginary stop sign.
I realize this can be a challenging exercise. It is very difficult to say “no” when you fear that someone you care about might walk away or you might lose your job. But, it is also exhausting to say “yes” to everything and ignore your own limitations and needs.
My Wonder Woman outfit squeezes the energy and joy right out of me. I try to remember to pause, put up my stop sign, and access if something fits or not.
Friend: “Jennifer, can you help with ___________?”
Me: (Pause. Take a deep breath. Slow down the words) “Let me check my calendar and I will get back with you tomorrow.”
I fold up my Wonder Woman outfit and put it away… until the next time I find myself exhausted and over-taxed. Then it is time for some more boundary practice!
In future posts, I will continue to explore healthy practices and obstacles to creating boundaries:
- Boundaries in difficult relationships
- Boundaries and trust
- Boundaries around marriage
- Boundaries and work
- Boundaries and social media
- Spiritual boundaries
Parenting, care-giving, crises, and life transitions have the potential of squeezing your self-care abilities below the bare minimum, leaving you in a self-care deficit. The article, “Minimum Self-Care Requirements” discusses the practice of “minimum requirements of self-care” to sustain you through these times.
Excerpt from “Minimum Self-Care Requirements:”
Between surviving and leading a fully humming creative life lies the middle ground of determining your minimum requirements for self-care, a duded-up way of saying what you absolutely must have to stay in touch with your center. Basic needs, or minimum requirements, are different for each woman, although getting enough sleep, moving our bodies, eating fresh food, being touched, and connecting to something larger than ourselves show up pretty consistently on women’s lists — but again, not on everybody’s. It can be easy to discount the importance of these basics, because getting enough alone time or napping when you are tired just doesn’t sound as sexy as realizing some fabulous dream. Read more…
Zindel Segal’s TED talk is an excellent resource for understanding depression and the beneficial impact of a mindfulness practice. The following is an excerpt of Segal’s talk:
“When people are depressed and they are feeling sad. This is a symptom. But, when they are no longer feeling depressed, sadness can function as an important context to bring to mind judgmental, critical, and harsh ways of viewing the self that can sometimes tip people over into a new episode of depression and cause relapse… Mindfulness is the awareness that arises when we pay attention in a particular way. We are bringing our attention into the present moment and we are not judging what we notice… mindfulness enhances people’s ability to feel reward and to feel positive affect, positive emotions, in the course of their every day lives.”