“If we don’t know what we feel, we can’t know who we are. If we don’t know who we are, we cannot tell someone else who we are. We will be false selves.”
Most of our problems in life have to do with relationships, and the source of these problems in relationships are most likely tied to boundary issues. We will continue to have problems in relationships if we do not establish healthy boundaries for ourselves. Learning about boundaries and learning how to practice healthy boundaries takes time. We will always have to pay attention to them in order to maintain them; otherwise, we may revert back into old boundary habits. They are not established automatically.
Boundaries tell us what is our business and what is not our business. It is our business what we think of ourselves and what we think of other people, but it is none of our business what others think of us (unless we have violated their boundaries and owe them amends). Many of us allow our lives to be manipulated by the fear of what others think of us.
This fear of what others think of us is an indication that we have created false selves. These false selves are the people we were led to believe others would accept and nurture. If anyone appears not to like us or accept us, we we feel threatened because we fear rejection. We fear rejection because we’ve been rejected. We were rejected and our feelings were shamed during our development years. We were shaped by those no-talk rules in our non-nurturing, dysfunctional family: “It’s not OK to say that.” Dad’s drunk and the child says, “Dad’s drunk!” “No, Dad’s not drunk, Dad’s sick.” “Well, he fell down and passed out on the bathroom floor!” “He likes to take a nap about this time of the evening, and that’s just the way it is. He’s not drunk and your father’s not an alcoholic.”
In other words, we didn’t see what we saw, we didn’t hear what we heard, and what we thought was going on, was not what was going on. Those are crazy-making messages for a child and contribute to the creation of a false self.
The child says, “I’m tired of Dad not being here because he works all the time. It makes me angry.” “Shame on your for feeling that.” “Well, OK, Mom, what feeling would you like me to have?” “You should feel grateful.” “Oh, OK, I’ll be grateful that Dad’s never here because he works all the time and drinks the rest of the time.”
The child is made to believe that Dad is working so much and working so hard because of the family’s needs-that’s what makes him drink too much. “OK, now I’m supposed to feel grateful that he works, and guilty because it makes him drink, and ashamed because I feel angry, and rejected because what I think is going on is not what’s really going on.”
The little four or five-year-old is learning how to create a false self. When he’s grown, his feel hit the floor every morning and it’s “HEYYYYY, Mister False Self is here. How are you?” “Just fine, no problems at all.” “How ’bout some feelings?” “No, thank you. All that stuff is too confusing for me.”
We become who we think we are supposed to be and shame the person we really are. We live out our lives from behind those masks. Then, we go find another false self to have a relationship with. We are incapable of having an intimate relationship with another person who is real. We are threatened by the prospects of intimacy. Our relationship is like two pieces of a puzzle. We find a perfect fit and it feels close because we fit so well. We’re in LOVE. But there is no real intimacy. We’re really “in sick” or “in heat.” Together we seem to make one whole unit. But two half-people won’t make a full person. After a while the heat dies down between these two false selves, and she turns to him and says, “Well how do you feel?” And he says, “Well, I think…” “No, I didn’t ask what you thought, I asked how you felt.” “It doesn’t matter how I feel.” Well, I don’t think you love me.” “Of course I love you, I’m here, aren’t I? I haven’t left yet, have I?” Eventually this couple may end up in counseling on their way to the divorce court. The counselor may ask, “Tell me about yourself, Mr. Jones. Who are you?” “I work down at the mill over there, and I build these little widgets, and that’s what I’ve done for the last twenty years, and I’ll be retiring next year, and that’s what I do.” “No, no, Mr Jones. I asked who you are. You told me what you do.“”What do you mean, ‘who am I?'” “What do you like?” “What’s to like? You work, you pay bills, you sleep, you eat, you go back to work again.” “What do you do for fun?” “I’m fifty five years old. Fun is for kids. We don’t do fun.” “What was the last thing you and your wife did for fun?” “It was probably the year before we got married when we went to…”
Neither one of them can tell what they feel, think, want, or who they are. Their identities have been defined by this enmeshed, sick relationship they’ve been in for twenty years. All he knows is that he is sick and tired of her trying to fix him since the day they got married.
“I thought I was gonna, you know, get married and have a wife, and she’d have a husband. I didn’t know I was gonna be a project. And I can’t seem to get it right now matter what, so I don’t even try anymore.”
The more he retreats, the more frustrated she gets and that harder she tried to bring them closer by trying to be who and what he wants. Eventually, she gets so frustrated that she gives up and retreats also. Sometimes she’ll retreat to an affair, but eventually to a place of indifference toward him in order to avoid the pain associated with the relationship.
These situations involve boundaries. If we don’t know what we feel, we can’t know who we are. If we don’t know who we are, we cannot tell someone else who we are. We will be false selves.
Here, then, are some of the reasons we need healthy boundaries.
Healthy boundaries define who we are.
Healthy boundaries can help us to know who we are. They can help us to have a better sense of our separateness from others: where we end and others begin. Knowing who we are helps us to maintain a sense of reality. We will know who we are and are not, what we believe and don’t believe, what we think, feel, like and want.
Linda came in for counseling one day exasperated over her new-found revelation, “I just realized that I don’t know what I like to eat. I have been buying food and cooking all of these years out of habit, and I’ve suddenly realized I don’t even like the things I’ve been cooking and eating. I buy things in large volume just to save money, and I eat things I don’t like, thinking it is the frugal thing to do. I know I don’t like what Ive been eating, but I don’t know what I do like.”
Knowing who we are, what we believe, what we think, feel, like, and want means that people can no longer walk in and out of our lives at will-using and abusing us.
Complete the sentences below describing, as much as you can, some of the most basic things you know about yourself-thoughts, beliefs, opinions, likes, dislikes, wants, etc. Add to this list as you think of things in the future. Make up your own sentences.
I am a…(in relationship to others; for example, mother, father, brother, sister, etc.)
I am a…(things you do; for example, coach, painter, photographer, hunter, swimmer, teacher, student, writer, dreamer, etc.)
I am…(attributes and faults; for example, kind, helpful, selfish, stingy, pretty, ugly, stubborn, a push-over, etc.)
My best friend is…
The things I like are…
My favorite food is…
My favorite restaurant is…
My favorite color is…
My favorite clothes are…
My favorite TV choices are…
The things (or people) I hate are…
I believe God…
Healthy boundaries define who we are in relationship to others.
Healthy boundaries are intended to help us have good relationships. Some relationships are of our choosing and some are not. Often times we are stuck with relationships that are not of our choosing whether we like it or not. Some teenagers feel like they are stuck with their parents. You may be stuck with people you don’t like on the job, in the neighborhood, or in your religious group. Boundaries that define who we are help us to maintain our sanity in these unpleasant relationships. They help us to know what the extents and limits are with those with whom we are connected-how to let in what is good and keep out what is bad.