What does it mean to have boundaries? This is a question I’ve been asked many times by clients and I often stumbled with the answer. I love the analogy found in the book, Boundaries: when to say yes, how to say no to take control of your life. The analogy essentially goes like this: Imagine you live in a neighborhood with neighbors on both sides. Your lawn goes right up to the neighbors lawn and there is no fence separating it. You set your sprinkler up to run during the night. After several days, you notice the area on your neighbor’s side of the lawn growing lush and green. Your own property at the property’s edge appears to be dying. You turn the water on the sprinkler to observe what’s happening. You see that somehow, the sprinkler twisted and is spraying all the water on your neighbor’s side of the boundary line.
What do you do now? Do you leave it? After all, you’ve been providing your neighbor’s lawn with nourishment for a few days. Is it wrong to stop now? Must you inform the neighbor that you will be turning the sprinkler back to your own yard, which you hope to save from withering away?
You decide to fix the sprinkler and turn it to your yard. You go inside. The next day your neighbor approaches you.
“I’m going to put your sprinkler on my yard again. It was really helping it green up.” He says.
What would you do? He was used to you watering his lawn (caring for his needs at the expense of your own). Was it rude to suddenly stop? Consider what your neighbor has lost during the time you were providing for him. He didn’t learn to care for his own lawn and now seems dependent on you. He’s been robbed of self-sufficiency by you inadvertently providing for him rather than yourself.
What if your neighbor said instead that he was now directing all his sprinklers to your own yard to green it up. You realize this would likely give twice as much water to that spot compared to the rest of the lawn. The over-watering could weaken the roots of the lawn, eventually destroying it. What’s the right response? After all, he is just trying to help you out, right?
Consider this: Sometimes, we realize we began to care more about others needs and wants rather than our own. After a period of time, we may realize people start to take from us to provide for themselves without getting our consent. Some people may decide they know what’s best for us and give us things we don’t need or want in our life and we feel helpless to say no. We feel rude if we turn them down. We feel we are inconsiderate if we stop providing for others even when we are dying on the inside when we do so.
What’s the solution? In the analogy, a fence might help to help clarify the boundary of the yard and even stop the sprinkler from watering outside of your property. We can then define the property line with our neighbor of where his property ends and ours begins. We let him know his plan to water your lawn will not work for you and if he plans to make any changes to the watering that could potentially impact both of you, he will need your permission. You explain that his current plan will simply not work for you. No more explanation or justification needed.
Author Anne Katherine’s book, Boundaries: where you end and I begin, says it all right in the title. A boundary in self and relationships is knowing where you end and others begin. From now on, when clients ask me what a boundary is, I will tell them this.
Our boundaries need to defined clearly so you, and others, know when there is a potential violation of those boundaries. When someone intrudes them the first time, we can evaluate where they have intruded upon obvious boundaries or violated ones they should have reasonably known about. If they did, perhaps this is not someone we need in our lives at all. If they didn’t or couldn’t have known about the boundary, or we have just discovered the need for such a boundary in our life, we need to respect ourselves and others enough to inform them of the boundary. The reason for the boundary is not necessary to explain. Simply that it is one. What does that look like?
“I do not appreciate when you….”
“I will not tolerate/It’s not okay with me….”
“I’m unable to provide you with…”
And the absolute, definitive, and best response when explaining a boundary?
"No" is a full sentence. When someone has violated your boundary, a simple "no" is all you must say.
Once we learn to assert our boundaries, we are in control of what we experience in our life. We experience more feelings of safety in our relationships and feel less resentment for those who might take advantage of our lack of boundaries. We know how much of our selves to share, when and with whom. Just like strong fences make good neighbors, so do strong, clear, personal boundaries make for better relationships and lives.
Cloud, H., & Townsend, J. S. (2017). Boundaries: when to say yes, how to say no to take control of your life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Katherine, A. (2000). Boundaries: where you end and I begin. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Happy, Sad, Mad, Glad. We chuckle at the simplicity of these four emotions. We often consider such a basic list to be elementary in our human understanding of the many emotions. There are lists upon lists of vocabulary in most languages to describe the nuances of our emotional states.
As it turns out, it really IS so simple as the basic four. When psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett studied emotion, what she found is that we over complicate them. Across cultures, the only emotional states that absolutely exist for everyone, is: Pleasantness (such as being happy), unpleasantness (such as being sad), Aroused (such as being Mad) and Calm (such as being “glad”). Each culture individual breaks these down in to multiple description words for each category. One culture may not necessarily have a word for an emotion that is considered universal by another culture. Not only may they not have a word for it, but it can be argued that they don’t recognize it as an emotion at all!
What’s more, our emotions aren’t a result of something happening outside of ourselves. Nope. Our emotions are actually a result of something happening internally. So when we say our boss “made us mad.” That isn’t the case. Our emotions are actually just giving us a readout from our brain of the experiences our body is having. So, if our boss puts us down in front of a coworker, our cognitive interpretation of that event may be that we won’t be respected by others or that our job is at risk. These thoughts may lead our heart to pound and our face get hot. We may feel our fists clenching or jaw tightening. Our brain does a quick survey of it’s sensory inputs and reports back: We are aroused, and it’s not pleasant.
Yet another person may interpret this experience completely differently. They may think, “my boss doesn’t have very good social skills” or “maybe he’s going through a rough time.” As a result of interpreting this experience differently there is not the physiological response leading to the same emotional readout. This person may experience some unpleasantness related to the situation, but overall a sense of calm.
If our interpretations can vary so widely depending on a variety of factors, we can’t possibly say our boss was the cause of anything direct.
When you do have a strong emotional response, what is your brain wanting you to do with this information? That, it doesn’t know. It has done its job to send us the report. It’s encased in that thick skull of ours. It doesn't’ know beyond anything beyond what the senses have told it and it certainly doesn’t know what the best response is to the discomfort.
What we do then, requires a higher level of thinking. So what are the choices?
It’s important to note that sitting with it does not mean fueling it. You are not adding thoughts such as, “my boss always does this to me!” Instead, you are just embracing the emotion, “This does not feel good.” It’s also critical you not judge it. “Why do I let my boss get to me like this?” Your brain did it’s job in giving you its full report. Just appreciate it did its job and let it be, knowing the intensity will pass.
It was late at night in November 2014, when my life suddenly, unexpectedly and radically changed. I'd been praying for nearly two days non stop in my mind and heart. What was causing me so much emotional angst? I had been part of the same religion since the day I was born (you could argue it had been chosen for me generations before my birth). Nearly all of my friends, family and community subscribed to this religion and its belief system. This religion had imparted all I "knew" about the meaning of life and death. I never had to give much more thought to those existential questions humans are uniquely known to ask.
But a series of unconnected events in my life over a couple of years led to my increasing frustration with this prescribed system I had been given. Personal, internal battles and an increase in religious study brought me to this breaking point on this cold, November night. With tears streaming down my face I begged God for the answers I needed. Once again, nothing came. Until it did. I felt a sudden overwhelming sense of peace and heard my internal wisdom say to me, "it's okay to let it go." The relief I felt was incomparable. I knew this was the best decision for me as sure as I had known anything else in my life. I felt a smile come across my face and peace come to my heart. I could let go of my inner turmoil and seek my own path. I believed I had the strength within to do so. I gave myself permission to do so.
Unfortunately, the morning didn't bring so much clarity. My mind was suddenly ready to ask the natural follow up questions "but if not this, then what?"
Then came the feeling of free-falling. And then....
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published her theory on the five stages of grief in 1969. The theory was related to the emotional process people experience when being told of their terminal illness and impending death. Though on that November night, I was physically alive and well, a death did occur. A death of everything I had once held dear, and everything I thought I "knew,” and the me I had been. The losses kept coming in the months that followed: loss of some friend and family relationships, loss of respect of others, loss of a sense of community that I could lean on during my grief. What type of casserole do neighbors bring when you lose your faith? And I’m pretty sure Hallmark doesn’t make a card for such losses. Not that I told many people for awhile, anyway. However, the people I did share it with did not handle it well. People I loved and respected, and had thought loved and respected me, suddenly feared me, guilted me, patronized me and even abandoned me.
For a period of time after my faith loss, I was in a mental fog. Everything had changed, even though nothing had changed. Many times my emotions were numb, yet my thoughts ping-ponged through my mind. "What do I believe now? Who am I really? What is the meaning of any of this? Who can I trust? Where can I turn for support?” I was living in a reality that felt foreign to me. My brain struggled to keep up with the rapid-fire changes ignited by unraveling beliefs. It was like I had tugged gently at a loose string on a crocheted blanket, only to have it fall in a tangle of yarn at my feet. I desperately tried to squish the yarn back into it's once useful shape, all the while knowing it would never be the same again.
Bargaining came at various stages over my grieving period. I read everything I could about my religion. I studied more and prayed more. I learned far more about the doctrine and history of my lifelong religion in the months following that night then I had learned in a lifetime of faith-filled study of scripture and Sunday school curriculum. It was as if I needed to explore every path of the rabbit-hole, no matter the depths it took me. I needed to know if there was anything left for me and figure out where it and I all went wrong. The more I explored the more I realized I hadn't gone wrong. I was simply seeing things in new ways, and learning why things I'd never known, would not have been taught to me. I even explored whether I could hold on to some parts of my religion and still respect myself. That answer differs for everyone...
After the hope of bargaining would fade, the depression would inevitably creep in. The hopelessness was deep. I hadn't expected this loss in my life. I hadn't been prepared for it. I hadn't sought it. Let me say that again: I HAD NOT SOUGHT IT. But here it was. And it felt so unfair. What made the depression worse was when loved ones suggested my feelings of depression were a manifestation that god was telling me I was wrong. They assumed I was misled by the dark side or my worldly ways.
Some people couldn't understand why I couldn't see the values I wanted to live were in their church. Their assumptions of my lack of effort to come to a thoughtful, purposeful decision, and to follow my moral compass, left me feeling further isolated and misunderstood while in the depths of my depression. Did my loved ones not know me at all?
All this above, THIS is why people who leave a religion are angry with it. I was angry at a religious institution: One who certainly couldn’t care less whether I was angry at it! I was angry at my parents for not allowing other free thought (in my youth) and for leaving out so many doctrinal and historical details that would have mattered to me! I was angry at people who I perceived thought less of me, angry at those who purposefully distanced themselves from me and judged me, angry at the God I had once worshiped for being so complicated, and angry at myself for being so angry.
Relationships were strained during my anger. Majorly. My anger naturally triggered others' anger when I lashed out. They still believed in their religion, of course, and felt my attempts to share my feelings meant I wanted them to leave the religion too. Or, that I thought they were stupid for staying in despite the flaws and issues in the doctrine and leaders. I didn’t want people to leave their religion nearly as much as I wanted them to think well of me despite my leaving.
Still, what I failed to recognize is the grief in others my change elicited. I didn’t give their grief proper space. To be honest, maybe I didn’t want to give them space because I didn’t feel they were giving that same space to me. It turns out, when individuals are each grieving, and yet see the reasons for that grief so differently, it makes it pretty difficult to support each other through that grief. Then, after several months, I realized I was paying less attention to the anger. I was feeling less intensity when I felt the anger. The anger finally began to fade.
I thought the angry phase would never end. There were times I felt stuck in it. There are times I still go back to it. That's how grief works, after all. It's not a neatly packaged set of emotions. It's messy, complicated, and individualized.
Throughout my life, I worked hard to please my parents, my religion, and my culture. I never felt I sufficiently pleased any of them. Once grief began to resolve, for the first time ever I began to feel a new sense of self-acceptance. I felt peace. I felt able to explore spirituality in a way I never felt able to before. I found a deeper appreciation for the fragility of life and for human's capacity for emotional growth. I listened to a lot of philosophers and began to build a framework for the meaning of life and death. We humans really like to understand that stuff.
I accepted, too, though to a lesser degree, an appreciation for my life's path up to this point. I'm a caring, empathetic, equality-driven individual and I am proud of that fact. Ironically, it was growing up in my religion that fostered some of those aspects of myself, and yet it was because of those aspects of myself that I could not stay in my religion.
"it is, what it is."
I'm not sure who I would or could have been without growing up in that particular religion, because you don't get a do-over in life to find out. I didn't get to "Choose Your Own Adventure" before. But I do now. So I'll start now. I rarely now wish to undo what had been done. I just want to make the best of it from here on out and process what to keep and what to discard. I don’t even think I’ve changed that much...but... my parents may have a different opinion on that….
Finding meaning in the loss is one of the most powerful ways to recover from a loss. The meaning I found was personal happiness, authenticity and an ability to appreciate life in the here and now. No more waiting for perfection to come in a future life. I’m a messy, complicated, vulnerable, deeply loving person who is perfectly imperfect. Being able to let go of pre-chosen ideals for myself, my family, and my life allowed me to for the first time ever to figure out what my own ideals were. I no longer look forward to the peace of an afterlife, but instead fully appreciate the peaceful moments we can create for ourselves. I could live in the here and now, and be content to not be sure what's next. An even bigger point of meaning was to understand and support others going through the pain of a faith transition. There's nothing more validating than to be understood by someone who has been through the same thing you have. I now have the opportunity to be that person for others. I’ve been a therapist for several years and now becoming a Faith Crisis Counselor means a lot to me.
My family feared I would lose my morals and values through this process. I get it. Even I know some people who have left their religion whom, without that anchor, have outwardly seemed lost. I understand now that my family didn't want that for me. My values did change. I shed away the values of organized religion and found one guiding principle to follow throughout my life, one principle to impart on my children above all others:
Treat others how you would want to be treated. The golden rule. Maxim of Reciprocity. A rule that has stretched across time, religions and cultures.
So many people within my former religion, as well as those outside of it have demonstrated the value of this principle to me since and even despite my faith transition. For that, I am forever grateful.
Author: Anna Whisler, LCSW
Anna Whisler is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Northern, Utah. She is a therapist and co-owner of Family Solutions Counseling and a former member of the LDS religion. Anna provides counseling to and respects people of all spiritual and religious beliefs and backgrounds, but considers herself uniquely qualified to understand individuals experiencing a transition in their faith. If pressed, she would most closely identify as a humanist but now thinks it irrelevant to label something so fluid and evolving as one's personal, spiritual beliefs.
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