Excellent Boundaries

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An "Excellent Boundaries" Teaching Tool

As I continue to practice Dialogical skills with my partner, and as I continue to teach these skills to more and more couples, individuals and groups, I get new ideas that are "outside the envelope." I have found myself recently being drawn to the subject of "how does one approach Dialogue." I am aware that the situation within which dialogue takes place, which has in its center something almost holy, is pretty far from where our normal experiences in daily life take us.

Not too long ago, I was asked during a class, "How do you know that you have a great relationship?" I found myself mentioning four attributes – one was "excellent boundaries." Someone then asked, "How would you recognize excellent boundaries? What are their indicators?" I thought about that for several weeks. I came up with a list.

I have found this list quite provocative. My thinking is that when someone is bothered by an item, they may take it that they have some learning ahead of them about boundaries. People who have taken boundary classes suggest that the list is of dialogical or perhaps spiritual boundaries.

The following are six sentences – stated as absolutes. They seem useful for teaching. I think that a person with excellent boundaries will quickly recognize each sentence as containing an important piece of "truth." I have included a little discussion with each.

1) All people make sense all the time.
Here, I define "sense" as congruence, as consistence, with the impulses, learnings, history, experiences that a person carries. To make sense is to be in congruence with your own beliefs, theories, history, experiences, and definitions. When I say, "I make sense," I am letting you know I am congruent with my entire history – to date.

I note that the term "make sense", has been used in two greatly divergent ways. The most common use refers to "common standard" of behavior, and to point out that people are not consistent with that "standard." It is also used as a form of punishment for non-conformity. An example of this is, "The shootings at Columbine High School don’t make sense." "That is a senseless act." I think this use of the term "sense" is highly symbiotic. The perpetrators committed those acts because it made sense to them.

The second use of the term is close to validation. We recognize that people make sense. We bear witness to their sense. I think the emphasis is on the word "recognize" as opposed to "judge." I am moving away from the formulation that says "You make sense to me…" That phrase often suggests judging. I prefer the phrases "I see your sense" or "I don’t yet see your sense." These tend to imply an awareness that the sender makes sense, whether it is seen or not. I call this a pre-validating posture.

A corollary of this first boundary rule is "No one ever does anything odd. If you think it ‘odd’, it is a measure of how uninformed you are. If you were informed, you wouldn’t think it odd."

2) No one can make anyone feel anything.  
Emotions are primarily chemical events within the body. Thoughts or images within that old Neo-Cortex trigger emotional events, and those events in turn shift the thinking and Memory State of the cortex. As such, emotions cannot be "caused" by others, who have no control of another person’s cortex! "You made me feel…." Is a common sentence, leading to confusion. You cannot make a person feel safe, scared, hurt, etc. However, you can do the things that tend to trigger those feelings. The wisdom is that feelings always make sense within the person who feels.

3) When 2 are agreeing, at least 1 is probably withholding – lying.
We are such an agreeable culture, or I rather think we are such a conforming culture. You may be pretty sure when two people are agreeing, that they are not agreeing. I think that if both were to share all the details of "why" they are agreeing, they would discover that their differences are great.

Frequently one person thinks agreement is present, while the other knows agreement is not present. I call this type of withholding a form of deceit. A corollary is the definition of a lie: "To knowing leave a person in a state of misunderstanding about something you know to be important to them." The tough form of this rule, that some people prefer and a seventy-year-old couple gave me, is "When two people are agreeing, at least one is a liar."

4) No one can make anyone do anything.  
To understand this one well, read William Glasser’s book, Choice Theory : A New Psychology of Personal Freedom . In it, he uses an example to point to the cultural fallacy of control. When a door bell rings and we answer it. We think the bell made us answer it. The psychic situation is more like this. The bell rings, we sense it. We process this awareness with sometimes hundreds of shifts of the cortex. The last state in our processing is the decision to answer the doorbell. All the bell does is give us data. Similarly when partner/father/boss says, "Do this," we hear it, we process it, and we determine whether we are going to do it. Human behavior is internally determined. In many situations people are unconscious of this choosing process. This rule even holds in the extremely problematical situation of abusive behavior.

5) All people require intimacy from others.  
People are not designed to live alone. Healthy development of our brains require not only interactions with others, but certain types of interactions. The same is true in maintaining a healthy brain. We are designed for connection, for attention and for adequate space within that connection. The experiencing of the need for intimacy is the emotional state commonly called loneliness. If a person does not feel lonely it is either because they are getting enough intimacy or because recently they have experienced too much of the wrong types of interactions – overwhelming ones. As Imago Therapists, we are probably well aware of the requirement for connectivity, but this rule on the wall has often surfaced beliefs of shame about needing attention, etc.

6) All people are born unique geniuses.  
I had to pick this one up from readings of other cultures around the world. I find it very successful for teaching healthy interactions The idea is that each of us carries a vast potential for something, some behavior, some expressive activity that is utterly self-rewarding, while at the same time a contribution to the community. When we do that thing, or even come close, we feel a deep sense of meaning and we will work at it assiduously without recompense. We do it not need to earn money, but because it is who we are. This is our unique genius. One definition of health is "living in alignment with the purpose of your own genius."

In a relationship, family, etc. one can either help bring forth a person’s genius, or attempt to ignore / suppress it. The idea runs right in the face of the philosophical theory of "tabula rasa" – the idea that a child is born completely blank and ready to be written on by the culture. To me the question is not whether you are a genius or not, but what is your genius. My experience is that couples who have dialogued for years increasingly get glimpses of the genius in their partner and start encouraging it to be expressed more.


Excellent Boundaries — 6 Comments

  1. Thank you for breaking it down and providing the links!
    "I think my Lizard is more scared of me when I don't stand up, than scared of other people."
    ^‚Äč I think that sentence will be a useful reminder, to help me redirect my fear energy into self-responsibility. I had a decent talk with my friend and we agreed on some level to taking a timeout. thanks again.

  2. I realize that I just painted a dark portrait of my friend in order to gain sympathy from you. He has good qualites about him too, and he is only acting in congruence with what makes sense to him. I think I'm caught between viewing this as an opportunity to better myself and my friendship with him, and just wanting it all to go away. I think the dialogical, responsible thing to do would be to try to work with him. I think I still have a hard time standing up for myself, and I'm not used to having a friend that challenges my boundaries. Would I be doing a disservice to myself by divorcing him and taking the easy way out? I guess I'm not sure where to draw the line at what I can handle.

    • Well, tis a fun set of questions. Not sure what you mean by "divorcing a friend," but I'll assume you use the phrase to mean "cutting off the relationship." Got a lot of thoughts. Enjoy.

      • I think that during the early stages of relationships, say ages 14 thru 25, people go through a lot of trials with each other.  They probably identify weakness in themselves and in their partners and do some easy learning and cleaning up.  I recall this as "cleaning up the underbrush," the more simple problems and lacks of skills.  During this time they will move from partner to partner, practicing and improving their skills.  Of course this means they have to enter into new relationships and end old ones along the way.  Nothing wrong with this, that I can see. 
      • In the process people do a bit of matching up and thus finding people who are more or less equally crazy.   Even having the same kind of problems or reciprocal kinds of problems. 
      • Pushing each other's buttons is completely normal and desirable.  All about locating the wounds each of you carry and starting the process of healing
      • Painting a "dark portrait" is normal behavior when we are angry.  Anger, the emotion of boundaries and of frustration, seems to easily be accompanied by painting the other person as "bad" – partially so I don't have to notice how "bad" I am. When you paint him "bad," I reflect that you are probably pissed off, and then I look for data about what he does and what you do about it. Boundaries
      • Yup, one does get caught in the spot between staying and working, or running away.  There's another choice, just giving up and going along – no working.  See my Map of Relationships.   
      • I like him being a "proclaimed dick."  Makes for excitement and growth for everyone.  
      • Standing up for yourself is a whole issue of Boundaries.  I think my Lizard is more scared of me when I don't stand up, than scared of other people.  Read  Boundaries and remember to have available them Alligators
      • He sounds like he is Clinging, so you better learn about that, too. 

      Good luck. 

  3. Dear Al, 
    What are your thoughts on divorcing a friend? I am still a novice when it comes to boundary skills and I became friends with someone who seems to have the same trouble. We both push each other's buttons. I initially approached him about collaborating on music, but our social interactions have revealed some frightening behavior. Before our most recent practice, he got drunk and came to my workplace to talk to me, which I wasnt happy about. He proceeded to blackout through the rest of our band practice, in a belligerent fashion. He called me two days later to ask if we had fun, cuz he didnt remember anything. He's a self-proclaimed "dick" and likes to rile people up. I do not wish to work with him. He frightens my lizard. I think I am responsible for approaching him and getting things started. What ideas might you have about how I can go about responsibly distancing myself from him? I suppose I'm afraid he'll stalk me and harrass me if I just cut things off right away. I think he's aware that I'm still working on my boundary skills… I keep thinking of the movie Cape Fear. Any thoughts you may have would be helpful, thank you.

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