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Boundaries: Does that word mean what you think it means?

Therapy speak has gotten WAY more mainstream. Maybe the pandemic, or TikTok, or (this is a fun thought) the degradation of its-a-hard-knock-life-so-we-gotta-be-tough defensiveness is to blame.

Brené Brown, is that her fault?

Like a lot of things, the existence of a whole lot of factors at once makes it difficult to answer, Why?

Familiar? In your own life you might often ask "Why am I this way?" and then identify a factor (TikTok or your third-grade teacher) "That must be it!"

Really, we're in a stew of factors and influences. The flavor of my chili? Oregano is just one factor. There's often not one responsible party.

In the same way that assigning the responsibility for the way you are on one thing is an error - so is the way these words are often getting used. As this post is being written, a therapist is sitting at a dining table at toodamnearly o'clock to release the brain weasels who are chittering about the misuse of words from their profession.

Brain weasels: Get out of my head! I present you with my weasels as I move them from within to out: some persistent thoughts on therapy speak (what was I dreaming about? Probably an unremembered factor in how this post came about).

Before we get into it: coffee.

That's better. Let's start with boundaries.


I'm sure we were throwing this word around before the Jonah Hill debacle, but wow did that bring it some attention...

Not familiar? I'm impressed! Usually, I think I live under a rock, but... that's way cool.

Familiar? Unfortunately, me too.

We're going to fast-forward and not explain the Jonah thing, except to note that (for anyone who happens to have a particularly cool rock that keeps pop culture out of their marvelous cave) involved is the use of the word "boundaries" and then BAM! All my feeds were flooded with babble about boundaries, power and control, and therapy speak.

What we're going to talk about today is one thing:

What is a boundary?

A fence is a boundary. A wall is a boundary. The children's story "the three little pigs" is an awesome illustration of boundaries. The pigs build houses to keep out the big-bad-wolf, of reeds, wood, and brick. The solidness of those walls vary in their effectiveness, keeping the wolf out and them in.

What are brick walls and fences? They're barriers or limits to keep things out and in. Our skin? A boundary.

What are brick walls and fences not? Moral superiority.

How does this translate to human relationships? Your boundaries do not make you a better, or worse, person. They may contribute to you being a more or less tired person. Relationship boundaries are simply your choices on what you do, and don't, let in.

What should your boundaries be?

Well, my fellow human who would like a FREAKING MAP for this business of being alive (me too sometimes), I uh... can't tell you that.

There's a bunch of cutesy memes that float through my feeds that say something like "If it costs you your peace, it's too expensive." which seems straightforward enough, but that's a rule that might work for one person (or more likely, a whole lotta people) and not for you. Or it does work for you, but may not for other people.

Peace might not be the wall you want to build. Maybe for you, peace needs one of those flexible open-link fences. You might be the keeper of an aggressive brain-bird, who's got some fights to pick. Some fights? Worth picking. Look at him go, off to start something! Have fun storming the castle! Peace may not be the priority of the moment.

To know what boundaries work for you, you need to be clear on your personal values. Personal values are the qualities that matter for you to feel engaged in your life.

Check in with yourself. Ask: What matters most in this moment? For the person who doesn't want to let go of their peace, an invite to a large loud lively family gathering may be a hard pass. Hard pass? Hard boundary.

That's a quality of boundaries worth mentioning: you (like the three little pigs) are the builder/owner of your own walls and fences. Are they hard and solid? Or more flexible? It's okay to have some "absolutely not" in your life.

It's also worth noticing, when you're building those walls, how they're working. We need walls. They keep us safe. There's a note on my dry-erase board that reads, "Just say NO to taking on more volunteer roles" (like damn does my inner pick-me wants to sign up for things and is not-so-great at building hard boundaries). The idea here is that I value having time to give myself and my family. To be honest, like the three pigs, it would be more effective if that wall was a little firmer. It's a bit more like a picket fence. Working on it.

Sometimes we build walls to keep us safe and peaceful, to limit disruption. Let's go back to peace and the dinner party. Maybe you built a boundary for peace and safety and you're not going to dinner parties with your wild-ass-family. Fair enough. You might miss them. The question to ask is, is your reason for building a wall consistent with what matters to you?

Missing someone (or a group) is natural, and not a great reason for putting yourself in disruptive or unsafe situations. Different than missing them is the incongruence when you're not doing a thing based on some value, but it's not really your value. Maybe you took life advice from that (previously mentioned) meme. It's okay to choose to be with your wild-ass-family if that, in fact, is what matters to you.

Boundaries are what? Not good or bad. Not a universal set of rules that everyone should use.

They are what keep things in and out, for yourself. Sometimes a group, or unit of people, has boundaries. For there to be a boundary for a group it needs communication and consent. They might be very firm, like a house of bricks. They might be less, like my time boundary (geez, stop signing up for stuff!) picket fence.

I've had my coffee and the weasels have quieted.

Some other misused words I'd like to get into: acceptance, authenticity, differentiation, diversity, leadership, masking. How interesting that these internal processes are also organizational processes. Just noticing. Other suggestions welcome!

Contrary to what you might infer from this post, I'm glad that our internal processes (the subject of therapy speak) are more prevalent in mainstream conversations. In many ways it can help our relationships and mental health to talk about them!

It's also okay to know if you're misusing a word. When we're learning a language, we're not yet fluent.

Among the list of misused words, there's also that s-word, but that one tends to bring up some uncomfortable squishy-wonky feelings and may be relegated to a time boundary of only in the Empathy Beyond Belief training. With my weasels quiet for the moment and my cat, Fish, encroaching (does that word mean what I think it means?) on my keyboard: I sign off.

Thanks for spending time with my brain weasels. Sometimes they're entertaining.

Before you move on, check in (with yourself). Take a moment to notice what your own weasels (or whatever metaphor for your thoughts you prefer) are doing. There's your mind, doing mind stuff.

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