I used to think of my boundaries as just some metaphorical description for my ability to stand up for myself, my willpower, or how strong I was against other people’s desires. An allusive concept, it was a way to determine whether a person has a backbone or not. As a “people pleaser”, a “good girl” or even a “doormat”, I have in the past been someone who just couldn’t say no, who was subservient…someone who swallowed their own needs, wants and desires for the demands of others.
Sometimes the world feels like a competition, and the one with the weakest boundaries loses every time. Maybe it’s for love, maybe for approval or attention…or maybe it’s fear of punishment or abandonment. But whatever it is, I’ve been in situations where I’ve felt less than, powerless, where I’ve somehow taken a backseat in my own life.
I’ve often heard of boundaries as a more linear term, like a fence, a very distinct line in the sand. You say yes when you mean yes, and no when you mean no. Otherwise, either you have no personal boundaries or someone else has crossed a line. I knew on some intellectual level that it was a sign of confidence and self-worth, but still the questions remained…what the hell IS a boundary??? And how do I get one???
In The Language of Emotions, Karla McLaren explains how anger is the body’s way of telling us a boundary has been crossed. Feeling quite a bit of anger lately, I understood that I was letting my boundaries down, but I still felt something missing…until I read her definition of boundaries…
Then I had a major “Aha” moment!
McLaren had a simple exercise in the book that helps you define your boundary. She said to stand up and stretch your arms out to the sides, stretch them out in front of you, behind you, lift them straight up above your head. Your boundary is the perimeter of where your fingertips reach. It’s an arm’s length all around your body and below your feet. It’s basically an oval shape surrounding you, like an egg…and you are the yolk in the middle. Imagine that perimeter as a brightly colored light. That is your boundary!
I’ve always been aware of personal space, but for some reason, I never quite put two and two together…THAT was my boundary. Your boundary is the outer limits of the space in the world that you occupy at any given moment. It does not stop at your skin. You have a life force, an energy, that radiates within that space and it’s yours…you own it.
Some call it a space bubble, your aura, your sixth sense or psychic shield, but it is your personal space, and your boundary surrounds it. When I’m in a good mood, I’ve often referred to being in my happy bubble. Whatever you call it, you own it and have the right to define it and protect it.
While social and cultural influences help shape one’s personal space, there is also a biological component to shaping our space bubble. Ralph Adolphs, a social neuroscientist from the California Institute of Technology, has done extensive research on the amygdala and its involvement with social behavior. An individual’s personal space starts to form around the age of 3-4 and is fixed by the time of adolescence. Adolphs and his colleagues, in an article published in Nature Journal, determined that the amygdala, the part of the brain that registers fear, helps to regulate interpersonal distance between humans, thus producing an emotional reaction when one’s space is invaded.
Our personal space is also our proprioceptive territory. We are aided by our proprioceptors, sensors in the body that determine the body’s position and the way it moves through space. They are found in the eyes, inner ears, muscles, joints and tendons. The body, brain and nervous system are constantly mapping out our position in the world, almost like a GPS. While some are used to regulate the workings of the inner body, and to help maintain balance and movement, there are exteroceptors that monitor stimuli outside the body (through touch, vibration, temperature, sound and vision).
Your proprioceptive boundaries fluctuate depending on where you are and what you are doing, and will expand to encompass any objects in your environment. For instance, if you are driving, your proprioceptive territory can actually expand to encompass the car. Or if you are working with a tool, like a hammer, your proprioceptive territory will expand to include it as if it were an extension of your arm.
But as far as our boundaries and personal space are concerned, a healthy boundary is the space we occupy an arm’s length around us. We don’t often recognize it because we don’t consciously inhabit our bodies. We are in our heads, in our thoughts, floating just outside of our bodies. We are constantly distracted by the demands of life. To do it justice, we need to start learning to focus and ground ourselves in our bodies.
Challenge for the week: Get to know your boundaries!
Although you may not be able to see it, you do have a boundary all around you. Unless you are operating from a focused center in your body, you will not be able to fully inhabit your personal space.
Here is an adaptation of McLaren’s exercise to help you get to know your boundary. You can do this anywhere, standing or sitting, but it’s more powerful to stand up if you can.
Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Exhale. Relax and let it all go. Feel your feet firmly rooted to the ground, and know you are safe and supported by the earth. Then open your eyes and start stretching. Open your arms to the side, circle them up and down, above your head, as if you are making snow angels in the air. Then stretch out to the sides and twist around you back and forth. Your fingertips are grazing the edge of your boundary. Have fun playing in your bubble. Swing your leg out in front of you, behind you, and to the side. Then the other one. Really get a sense of occupying this space.
Then stand with your arms by your sides and close your eyes again. This time, feel the energy in your space. Imagine where the boundary is and visualize it as a bright color or a light or a shell, anything that can help you delineate and distinguish where your personal space ends. Sometimes I imagine being in one of those big human hamster balls!
The more you can do this and really get a sense of your boundary, the more it is being reinforced. Your awareness is strengthening your proprioceptors to feel your personal space. Then you won’t have to wave your arms around like a crazy person when you’re in public, haha! If you are feeling at all vulnerable or threatened, you can activate your boundary by visualizing it.
The more you can stand firmly in your space bubble, the more you will gain a sense of personal power and confidence. You will be better equipped to know what’s right for you and to make decisions accordingly.
Here’s wishing you a great week! Please feel free to leave any comments or questions below.