Wednesday 4 January 2017

What My Mantra Means to Me: Healthy Boundaries

In a recent post I mentioned the mantra I’ve employed for the past couple of years, and chosen to carry forward into the coming year.

Well boundaried. Well focused. Well challenged. Well loved.

But what does it mean? The resonances have changed over the past two years, and will likely continue to change. But what does my mantra mean to me right now? Of the four statements, “well boundaried” is perhaps the least obvious, and I will devote this post to exploring its relevance.

I don’t think I had ever heard of the word “boundary” in a psychological context before meeting Fran in May 2011. I can’t recall precisely when or how it came up: most likely from us discussing the various therapies Fran had undergone or was undergoing. Or perhaps one of the online meditation classes we took together.

However it entered my vocabulary, it took a long time for me to see the concept of boundaries as healthy. To me, it implied an unhealthy erecting of barriers between me and the world, at a time in my life when I was learning to open up. It suggested precisely the restrictive concepts and practices I had been dismantling over the previous couple of years: in particular, the “Inner Circle vs. Rest of the World” model I’d employed most of my adult life.

My Inner Circle model had kept those closest to me within a high wall of my own devising. Inside, I felt safe, but it kept me from apprehending the World Outside, or acknowledging those who dwelt there as more than part of the scenery. Policing the walls was exhausting, and one day I realised almost none of my Inner Circle still resided there. My Walled City had become a ghost town.

My response was to dismantle the city; take down the walls; dissolve the Circle. (I have described this previously.) Like Titus Groan in Peake’s fantasy series, I left Gormenghast and set out into the Wide World. It was scary, yet intoxicating. I was open to every new experience; each new encounter. I forged new connections; found new friends—including, in time, Fran. I had found my new world view, unfettered by artificial boundaries and boxes. I had swapped the Walled City for the Wilderness.

Three books which I read or re-read around this time echo the transition. Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—which I first read at university—with its road trip Chautauquas and its blend of scientific and philosophic/metaphysical world views. A gift from a friend, The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen expressed most clearly and cleanly for me the shedding of modern boundaries, as the author leaves behind his city existence to trek in the Himalayas. Henry David Thoreau’s The Maine Woods also spoke to me of Nature and Wilderness: a particular American Wilderness, immersing me in the geography and history of Maine, and giving me insight into Fran’s own wilderness experience.

I finally went to the backwoods of Maine for a year and lived in a camp on 189 acres with no running water and no electricity—an attempt to find my baseline, fight my demons and find the night, or die.
Fran Houston, Lessons of the Night

I began to see things were not so simple, and that a completely unboundaried existence was not merely unhealthy but dangerous. This was something I was learning first-hand with Fran. It had always been—and remains—a fundamental of our friendship that I will never ignore a call from her; be that by email, instant message, text, or phone call. Day or night. 24/7/365. With very few exceptions—and always by prior arrangement—if her call comes through I will pick up.

However, I learned it’s ok—indeed it’s healthy—for my response sometimes to be “Can’t chat right now. I’ll get back to you.” At times, I am busy and cannot be disturbed—in a meeting at work, for example; with someone else; or simply meeting my own need for space. Recognising our boundaries means Fran need never worry she is going to upset or disturb me: if she wants or needs me she can reach out knowing I will not ignore her. But she also knows I will take responsibility for managing my end of things. Fran handles her end on the same basis. It is simple, it is healthy, and it works.

For me, boundaries relate most often to how, where, and with whom I spend my time and energy. This was very much the case when Fran and I were writing our book. It took four years to bring High Tide, Low Tide to publication, but it would have taken a lot longer had I not defined and protected my “writing time.” This mostly fell between 8 and 10 p.m., after my Skype call with Fran and before I settled to write my diary for the day.

The boundaries were not rigid: many times I chose to set them aside in order to spend time with friends, or because of other commitments. But it was important for me to have defined the boundaries and to feel justified in enforcing them when necessary. This did not—and does not—come easy to me. It is very much a work in progress, which is why I place it first in my personal mantra.

“Well boundaried” also applies to my personal relationships. For many years, I held tightly to each and every close personal relationship (or, rather, to what they represented for me), in many cases long after the relationship itself had changed beyond recognition, or faded altogether. In the same way I kept my “Special People” safe in the Walled City, I kept my relationships frozen; preserved; mummified. That is no way to honour anyone.

When I left the City and set out on my grand wilderness adventure, I left the effigies of dead relationships behind me. (An echo here of Lady Cora and Lady Clarice, abandoned to die in their chamber within Gormenghast Castle.) Relics were no longer any use to me. I wanted living exchanges. I wanted dynamic relationships.

This meant setting aside lists and categories. It meant not labelling people (“Special People,” “Friends,” “Colleagues,” “Neighbours” etc), and opening my heart to experiencing people for who they are, and my relationships for whatever they might be in the moment. It meant letting go of prior expectations of what a “friendship” (for example) should or needed to be.

Not all relationships are healthy, however. I have had to acknowledge the concept of toxic relationships: not as a label of judgement/blame, but as a valuable descriptor. This has been hard, not least because I have far more examples of me being toxic to others than of others being toxic to me.

I find I have dismantled the rigidly boundaried Walled City only to discover—over there, in the distance—a region labelled “Do Not Enter” on the map. Beyond its borders dwell all those I must never again attempt to contact, because I am toxic to their wellbeing. There are more of these than you might imagine. I have always found it easier to permanently end relationships than deal with the realities of their changing.

The first appearance of such a Perilous Realm, in my literary life at least, is a poem of mine dating from 1984:

And through my lands you softly came; exploring scenes
you’d once conceived as if amazed at what a little time
had wrought: found shadows cast about my heart by
trees formidable. I wished you would by some
judicial felling let the summer in, but I lay
impotent as mountains and could only watch you turn
dismayed, a little disillusioned,
to some fresher view.
From: “What Happened to the Lovetrees?”

In different guise, the realm appears in a short story of mine titled Poser V1.0. The Tolkien references are deliberate.

One part of her realm she had not revisited, though she could not fully purge it from her mind. It was a region like none other in her demesne: a region mazed in enchantments. Protected from invasion and escape by a forest of thorns, their savage spears sheathed in clouds of crimson flowers. Within the bounds of that little realm a man languished endlessly, lost in the bitterness of unsatiated lust.

This is not healthy boundarying, it is wall building born out of fear. A recent conversation with Fran touched on this. We were talking about how she manages to release her hold on difficult, even toxic, relationships without forever banishing the other person to the Forbidden Zone. I have seen this in practice several times over the course of our friendship.

Fran: This is why I don’t give up on people.
Martin: I have learned to let go.
Fran: Giving up is different than letting go.
Martin: I was just pondering that. I’m not sure. Maybe.
Fran: Giving up implies hopeless. Letting go implies openness. Open handedness.
Martin: Closing the door, vs leaving it open?
Fran: Yes.
Martin: It’s not always healthy to leave the door open (that’s what I'm thinking, anyway, about me and my relationships.)
Fran: It’s ok to close the door but not the heart.

I still have work to do in this area. It is the primary relationship challenge for me for the year ahead.

There are many other aspects of being “Well boundaried,” including its relevance to codependency and self-care. I may return to the topic another time. If you are interested in the subject, I recommend the work of Brené Brown, including this video in which she discusses boundaries, empathy, and compassion.



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