Wellness

A Word Imagined

A Word Imaginedby Jennifer Christian, LPC and Dr. Jeff M. Christian

Words of hate tear at the fabric of our society; words of kindness mend.

Imagine.

Imagine life without unkind words. Imagine comments sections on your favorite website that only allow constructive criticism, words meant to further the conversation rather than out-shout those who disagree.

Today, online words of hate, abuse, fear, and violence are rampant. The intensity of negativity overwhelms us, a tsunami of words altering our lives without us realizing their enormous power. This new world often feels devoid of kindness. Few of us would choose to pass on this world to the next generations, so we begin this project in the hopes that we can change the future by changing the present.

We have power to create a better world.

Imagine.

Imagine a world that offers encouragement. Imagine a world where people matter. Too often, though, we feel helpless in even thinking about making a change. Where should we begin?

Well, we have some ideas.

Start with some simple things. Appreciation and gratitude, for instance, are powerful tools that can help rebuild this world. Every word of kindness heals, builds resilience, and draws people together.
A Word ImaginedJohn Gottman found that it takes five positive interactions to overcome one negative interaction. Relationships find balance when positive interactions outweigh the negative ones. At times we will misunderstand each other and say the wrong things. We are human, after all. However, for the health of all our relationships, we have the power to create better worlds for ourselves, as well as all of those around us. Our hope that we can do this together is reminiscent of John Lennon’s line, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

 So let’s imagine a better world. One word of kindness can create ripples of healing across our society. If we come together to dedicate building reserves of gratitude in our families, places of work, and all other communities, we can change the tide of negativity.

Here are some other practical suggestions to get us started:

  1. Get creative. We can share great ideas on how to build more positivity into our society. Join our public Facebook group, A Word Imagined, to share ideas.
  1. Remember the magic ratio of 5-to-1. Each week send five notes of encouragement, whether online or handwritten.
  1. Practice gratitude at home as a family. “Researchers found that a nourishing cycle of encouragement and appreciation provides extra incentive to maintain our relationships. In other words, when we appreciate our partners, we develop trust and respect. When we feel appreciated, we feel needed and encouraged.” (Susan Heitler)
  1. Notice the words you say to yourself. Learn how to offer yourself words of kindness and compassion: “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!” (Kim Fredrickson)

Please take a moment to share this article and this project with friends and family. Together, we can create the world we imagine.

For Further Reading:

On appreciation and gratitude:

http://www.jenniferchristiancounseling.com/mental-health/7-powerful-ways-gratitude-will-change-your-life/

On John Gottman’s five interactions:

https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-positive-perspective-dr-gottmans-magic-ratio/

On practicing gratitude at home as a family:

http://www.jenniferchristiancounseling.com/relationships/four-ways-to-build-trust-with-your-partner/?preview_id=538&preview_nonce=b7d0d3d768&post_format=standard&_thumbnail_id=542&preview=true

On Susan Heitler’s work on gratitude in marriage:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/resolution-not-conflict/201207/does-gratitude-matter-in-marriage

On Kim Fredrickson’s work on self-compassion:

http://www.jenniferchristiancounseling.com/counseling/self-compassion-is-vital-for-a-healthy-life/

The Upside of Stress

In Kelly McGonigal’s latest book,”The Upside of Stress,” she explores how things that create meaning and happiness in our lives also create stress. When we learn to change our relationship with stress, we build in possibilities for meaning and happiness. In the following video, McGonigal recommends practical ways to shift our perspective on stress:

Take some time to journal, visit with a friend, or ponder following  prompts:

  1. Discover what matters to you in life. Write about the roles, relationships, activities, and goals that are most important to you, and how you would feel if they did not exist.
  2. Discover your values. Spend 10 minutes writing about each of your top three values. Values are the things that are important to you and give meaning to the way you live and work (examples: adventure, compassion, humor, courage, and loyalty). How do your values play into your life? How can your values create some new meaning around a problem you are currently facing?
  3. Understand the drawbacks of avoiding stress. In order to avoid stress, we may turn down meaningful opportunities or give up on something important to us.

Emotional Freedom Tapping

Emotional Freedom Tapping

Emotional Freedom Tapping, or EFT, is very easy to learn, and will help you:

  • Alleviate Negative Emotions
  • Reduce Food Cravings
  • Reduce or Eliminate Pain
  • And Implement Positive Goals

Emotional Freedom Tapping, or EFT, is a form of psychological acupressure, based on the same energy meridians used in traditional acupuncture.

Simply tapping with the fingertips on the head and chest inputs kinetic energy onto specific points while you think about your specific problem – whether it is a traumatic event, an addiction, pain, or anxiety. Tapping is paired with voicing positive affirmations. This combination of tapping the energy meridians and voicing positive affirmations works to clear emotional blocks and restore your mind and body’s balance.

 

University of St. Thomas Labyrinth

A friend of mine recently recommended visiting labyrinths throughout Houston as part of my “healing space” journey. Houston has a number unique labyrinths, located all over the city and surrounding area. I visited the Labyrinth at St. Thomas University, a replica of the labyrinth in Chartres, France. I was deeply moved by the beauty and the serenity of the space. Gentle water fountains line the side the labyrinth closest to Alabama Street, quietly subduing the sound of the traffic. Children’s laughter from a nearby elementary school mixed with the sounds of the birds and trees.

St. thomas labyrinth

Every time I walk, I have a unique experience. On this occasion, I felt myself calm and become centered throughout my walking meditation. Throughout the rest of the day, I continued to reflect on the experience and carry the peace of the walk with me. The labyrinth at St. Thomas University has definitely been added to my “Houston Healing Spaces” list.

St. Thomas Labyrinth 3

Benefits of Labyrinth Walking: 

“Labyrinth walking is said to benefit participants by allowing a temporary suspension of so-called left-brain activity—logical thought, analysis, and fact-based planning—and encourage the emergence of the intuition and imaginative creativity associated with the right brain. labyrinth walking puts them in touch with simple body rhythms. Because labyrinth walking involves physical movement, participants may find themselves becoming more mindful of their breathing patterns, the repetition of their footfalls, and the reorientation of the entire body that occurs as they move through the circular turns within the labyrinth. More particularly, the overall pattern of movement in labyrinth walking—first inward toward the center of the labyrinth and then outward on the return path—holds deep symbolic meaning for many people.” (Encyclopedia.com)

St. Thomas Labyrinth 2

The Power of Gratitude

Last week, I had a dream that I was caught in a blizzard. A blanket of swirling white surrounded me. My mind raced to discover some sense of direction. I was disoriented and frightened. Paralyzed. Where was I? Where was the path home?

And, then it was as if everything went into slow motion. Time slowed down. Way down. I began to notice individual snowflakes. Unique details of one snowflake. Its beauty. As my awareness shifted toward the structure of the snowflakes, I noticed my body beginning to relax. My mind settled. Gently. Slowly. I began to see areas of empty space open between each of the flakes. The spaces grew wider. The snowflakes began to lessen. I saw more clearly. The intensity of the blizzard that had seemed so overwhelming now calmed. Though still surrounded by the snow, I no longer felt afraid.

Since this dream, I have thought how much everyday life can at times feels like a blizzard. Time speeds up without warning. Daily tasks swirl around me: work tasks, family expectations, holiday chores, friendships, household duties, volunteering, etc. But then other things compound what might already be a blinding blizzard of activity. Thoughts, feelings, regrets from the past and “what ifs” of the future can surface to cloud my vision even more. My mind begins to race.

Where am I? Where is the path home?

Then I notice. Awareness. Gratitude.

  • The smell of the crisp autumn morning air
  • Listening to the laughter of my children as they watch silly videos
  • Seeing my husband’s eyes gently crinkle as he pushes the plate in my direction to let me have the last bite
  • Gently holding the hand of a dear friend who is grieving
  • Tasting a hot, gooey chocolate chip cookie
  • Feeling the sensation of a long hot shower after a satisfying day

Power of Gratitude

Take a deep breath. This is your life. Notice. Search. Find the moments of beauty sprinkled like beautiful snowflakes in the midst of the flurry of tasks and worries.

Time slows. Mind gently settles. I am still surrounded, but I am not afraid.

The power of gratitude.

Jennifer Christian CounselingJennifer Christian, M.A., LPC

Writing Your Own Self-Care List

Today during my routine morning walk I began to ponder the many self-care skills that I use regularly. Over the years, I have learned that I feel better when I make time to:

  • Walk
  • Eat right
  • Nap
  • Practice gratitude
  • Practice prayerful meditation
  • Practice yoga
  • Have fun
  • Plan enjoyable activities
  • Spend time with friends

This may seem like a no brainer to some people, but personally it has been an evolution of self-acceptance and self-compassion. Healthy habits that are so natural for me today were nonexistent several years ago.

I remember the first time I received a self-care list. It was about 10 years ago. I was fatigued, stressed out, and pushing myself harder and harder to be perfect. I could not go on this way much longer. I was at a breaking point. I found Nancy, a therapist who began to help me process how I found myself at this point and how to move forward. During one session, she gave me a self-care handout that addressed physical, emotional, and spiritual health. I had never seen anything like it. What a radical concept!

As a child, I received a version of a “Christian” message that I should always sacrifice my own needs on behalf of others. Somewhere along the way I learned that my needs were not only unimportant, but that it was selfish for me to express my needs. I was told that whenever I felt empty and exhausted I should pray harder and God would provide. But years and years of emptying myself for others wore away at my physical and emotional health. Moreover, there was not enough of me to go around, and my children and husband sometimes got the short end of the stick. This approach was not sustainable.

When Nancy handed me the self-care list, I began a journey of learning self-care and boundaries. In the beginning, I carried the list with me wherever I went, especially when I found myself around difficult people who suck the life out of me, treat me like I do not matter, or that they should always come first. I needed a reminder that it is okay to respond to myself with care. At one point I even carried my self-care list to a challenging family gathering in another state. I referred to the list several times as a support to say “no” when needed, or to allow myself rest when I was tired. I began to experience a positive difference.

“When you doubt your own importance, you’re allowing the manipulations of difficult people to gain a foothold. However, when you understand that your time, money, dignity and needs are vital to your well-being, it’s easier to tune out people who want to break your boundaries.” (Margarita Tartakovsky, 5 Ways to Maintain Boundaries with Difficult People)

Now I practice responding to myself in the same way that I want to respond to others: with love, compassion, kindness, gratitude, acceptance, and gentleness. I continue to learn what it is to be a compassionate and loving person every time I practice compassion and love with myself. I am a recovering perfectionist, so I often have to start my compassionate practice over again daily.

“Rest and self-care are so important. When you take time to replenish your spirit, it allows you to serve others from the overflow. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.” (Eleanor Brownn, Self-Care is Not Selfish)

Rest and Self-CareI write about my own personal journey because I know many who find self-care challenging. You may have received the message that your needs are unimportant, or that you are selfish when you take care and nourish yourself. If self-care is a radical concept, or if you feel like there is not enough of you to go around, you are not alone. You can start with baby steps, adding one or two things and noticing differences in how you feel. If you feel overwhelmed, Jennifer Louden’s article, “Minimum Self-Care Requirements” is a great place to start. Be gentle with yourself. There is no hurry and no right way to do this.

For me, it has been almost ten years, and I am still experimenting and learning, even adapting Nancy’s original list. I feel excited just thinking about the adaptations you will make as you begin to explore and create your own list:

Nancy’s Adapted Self-Care List

Physical Health:

  • Breathe
  • Eat (mostly) healthy foods in moderation
  • Exercise regularly
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Get adequate sleep
  • Practice good hygiene (bathe, brush teeth, etc.)
  • Obtain medical care, as needed

Emotional Health

  • Nurture yourself regularly
  • Use compassionate self-talk
  • Learn and use relaxation techniques
  • Use healthy boundaries
  • Express your feelings appropriately
  • Identify your feelings
  • Share them directly with someone who will treat you with care
  • Talk to a friend
  • Journal
  • Use ventilation techniques (punch a pillow, throw ice, etc.)
  • Allow yourself (& others) to make mistakes
  • Respond to your negative self-talk with self-compassion
  • Ask for what you want
  • Say “no” when you need to
  • Use “I feel …” statements to express your emotions
  • Avoid being passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive. Be Assertive.
  • Spend time with people who make you feel good about yourself
  • Accept compliments without discounting (just say “thank you”)
  • Make time to laugh & play!

Spiritual Health

  • Make a daily gratitude list
  • Open yourself to the beauty of nature
  • Continue to learn something new
  • Be open to different points of view
  • Engage in activities that connect you with God and others

Jennifer Christian CounselingJennifer Christian, M.A., LPC

 

Trust is Built One Marble at a Time

“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:

Fitting in:

  • don’t make waves
  • don’t rock the boat
  • bear with
  • defer to
  • play the game

Invisible:

  • inperceivable
  • unnoticeable
  • ill-defined
  • unapparent
  • unreal

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.

Destructive Relationships

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:

Jennifer Christian CounselingJennifer Christian, M.A., LPC

 

Nature. Beauty. Gratitude

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.

 

Change Your Relationship with Shame and Guilt

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.

 

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.

Jennifer Christian CounselingJennifer Christian, M.A., LPC

 

 

Wonder Woman Learns Healthy Boundaries

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.

Psychological Boundaries

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.

Rigid Boundaries

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.

In a recent TED talk, Jeff Christian (who also happens to be my husband) shares his experience of building up walls, and how he learned to open to the people he cares about.

Diffuse Boundaries

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
  • Fun

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

Boundary Exercise

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:

Boundary Exercise

  1. Imagine you can see your psychological boundaries like a protective barrier around you. I like to think of a clear plexiglas wall around me.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?)
  4. 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.
  5. 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!

More Boundaries

In future posts, I will continue to explore healthy practices and obstacles to creating boundaries: