Emotional Boundaries: The Invisible Fences of Our Lives
When my little Yorkie came to live with us I was an inexperienced pet owner, so I researched the various options to train her and keep her safe. She was a free-spirited little thing, slipping out the door and instigating a chase at every opportunity. I ran all over the neighborhood after her, through gardens and gazebos, fence openings and garage openings, across streets and into traffic, to her complete exhilaration and my complete exhaustion. I had thought it was difficult keeping my toddlers from wandering away, but that was nothing compared to this!
One of the products I researched to prevent this mayhem was the Invisible Fence designed to construct a boundary around the yard which, if crossed, causes a brief shock to the dog via a device attached to a collar. With careful training, the dog learns the boundaries of the yard and is kept safely within those boundaries.
Physical boundaries are an important safety feature for dogs, and of course, for children. We enforce physical boundaries to keep our children safely in and danger out. "Lock the door," "Don't leave the yard," "Say No," and "Don't go into the street" are just a few of our boundary admonitions. But, what of emotional boundaries? Do we create, fortify and safeguard emotional boundaries to protect our children and ourselves as passionately as we do physical boundaries? How can we do this and when should we start?
First, we must lay the foundation. We must instill and nurture emotional health and self-worth in our children from infancy through loving physical touch, kind words, the investment of time, and by mending hurt feelings when we've inflicted shame through scolding and disapproval. Nurturing self-worth in our children is the greatest defense we can construct to ward off those who would attempt to violate emotional boundaries.
This is not a matter of idealizing our children, creating egomaniacs who think they are innately superior to others, but a deliberate effort at loving them for who they are (not what we may want or need them to be), expressing respect for them as human beings through our words and actions, acknowledging their feelings and encouraging them to share those feelings with us, praising their abilities while praising the abilities of others, as well, and guiding them according to their natural talents and individuality. Equipped with a strong, stable, secure sense of self, children can be resistant to the trauma of, and resilient in the face of being bullied, teased, disappointed, found lacking, or even falling short of their own expectations.
Let me offer up some examples:
A child who feels loved even when she makes mistakes, and learns to love herself without the compulsion to be perfect does not become an adult target for an abusive predator who would manipulate her into believing he's the only one who could love someone as undeserving as her, and then keep her chained to needing him by continual affirmation of her weaknesses and his strengths.
A child who has been treated with respect in word and deed, learns to respect herself. As an adult she simply does not accept behavior that implies she is deserving of disrespect, that disrespect is reflective of who she is, or that she is somehow responsible for provoking a display of disrespect.
A child who has received parental love, nurturing and appropriate touch does not scavenge as an adult for a bastardized version of love usually disguised as sex and offered by impostors who are unable to feel real love, because she can identify the difference between authentic love and love fantasy.
A child with a strong sense of self grows into an adult who trusts her instincts when she feels something in the picture isn't right, no matter how pretty the picture appears.
A child with a strong sense of self does not need others to admire her, nor be the source of her self esteem. Hence, as an adult she can ward off pretenders that flatter with intent to manipulate.
Simply put: children who are emotionally healthy do not become adults who are emotionally unhealthy.
I recently read a blog in which the female writer feels SHE is "bad" because her parents physically abused her as a child. She was also molested as a child. As a youth she became sexually promiscuous craving the father love she never experienced. Now, as an adult, it is clear by what she writes that she is willing to shoulder the blame for her parents' pernicious behavior and accept self condemnation. This poor woman has no emotional boundaries for they've all been violated, first and foremost by those she should have been able to trust. As an emotional product of abusive parents who did not honor their responsibility to love her, respect her and safeguard her, she has no authentic sense of self.
Another young woman whose co-dependent mother manipulated her into writing notes of apology whenever she displayed the courage to speak out against her father's narcissistic injustices (HE was ALWAYS right), grew up not only believing her feelings weren't as important as her father's, not only that her feelings didn't matter, but that she should apologize for her feelings. She was taught to disable her invisible fence, subsequently married a narcissist, and never paid attention to her internal alarms, her sadness and sense of violation until she was in the throws of depression.
Still another young woman was chastised by a parent for not hugging someone she didn't feel affection for. What did this chastisement teach her? What did it do to her emotional boundaries? What path might this set her on? Kudos to her for the strength to resist manipulation. A hug is a spontaneous gesture of affection and should never be forced, neither a kiss on the cheek, nor a kiss on the lips, nor a display of passion. Emotional boundaries! They are our right!
This Valentine's Day as we consider all things related to love, let's inventory the protective boundaries we've secured for our family, consider our aptitude at building invisible fences, ask ourselves if they're in need of repair or renovation, and renew our commitment to ensuring that those we love (including ourselves) have theirs firmly in place.
It's worth our best efforts.