Let’s move on to the next core area of emotional maturity: boundaries. (See Issue 15 for the nature and characteristics of a child and the corresponding five core areas of developmental immaturity) Children are born naturally open and porous, like sponges, absorbing everything around them. They have no boundary system and need their parents to protect them physically, emotionally and spiritually.
A child who has been protected growing up and who has experienced safety in their environment will, under normal circumstances, be able to protect themselves appropriately both internally and externally. An FA can make positive choices for themselves and use discretion in all situations. They have a sense of who and what is safe, and there is an “invisible circle” around them, protecting their external and internal space. They have a keen sense of where they end and where the other person begins. An FA can listen to others, filter out information they hear, and discern what applies to them and what belongs to the other person. They are naturally using what we call “talking and listening boundaries.”
When there is wounding in this core area of vulnerability, a child will learn that the world is not a safe place, that people cannot be trusted, and will use walls instead of boundaries to protect themselves. As in all the five core issues, where there is wounding and inadequate nurturing and protection, the child’s relational trauma will show up when there is a situational or relational trigger. Based on the inner child’s perceived threat to her safety, she will either go behind a wall or use no boundaries at all, trusting situations or people that are currently unsafe. The adult in the situation regresses to a state of “arrested development” as the inner child takes over and reacts from its underdeveloped vantage point. The goal of recovery is twofold: firstly, for the adult to learn how to use functional boundaries in the present; and secondly, to reparent the inner child by helping her feel safe and protected.
A healthy boundary is not a wall. It’s more like a gate with a door that opens and closes. Functional Boundaries are flexible and can change as situations change. Pia Mellody uses the analogy of using your catcher’s mitt before having a conversation, especially one that can be triggering. Visualize putting it on and catching the ball while the other person is talking. With listening boundaries, we stop, listen, and think about what we are hearing, then take in what is true for us while leaving out what isn’t. Being open and willing to take in what others are saying while maintaining your own truth takes a lot of commitment and practice, but the payoff of holding others to a boundary is one where you get to have your own thoughts in your mind instead of others people’s voices taking over.
In a talking boundary, we share a piece of data, our thoughts on what happened, and specify if we thought up a mental interpretation (in Pia Mellody’s lexicon this is called “making up” something) about what we heard or saw, then follow up on what we’re feeling and a request for the future. Here’s an example of what this looks like:
Data: “When I heard the front door slam shut…”
Thought: “I interpreted (made up) that you were very angry.”
My thoughts about that are: “People live here, and you must not scare us like that.”
Feeling: “That caused me to feel anger and fear.”
Request: “My request is that from now on you contain your anger.”
Following through with this boundary format may sound scripted and unnatural at first, but as you practice, you’ll get the hang of knowing your thoughts about what happened and sharing respectfully while keeping the focus on yourself. It will eventually become second nature as you learn to express yourself with containment and respect. Using this boundary system will empower you to protect yourself in all areas, giving you the feeling of being safe and that you matter enough to be protected.
The safer we feel, the easier it will be to give our inner child the safety she needs. Take your triggers and use them as opportunities to heal your inner child. When you find yourself in a situation where you are hiding behind a wall or, in the other extreme, boundary-less, here’s a reparenting strategy you can use. Find a calm place, ground yourself by breathing and feeling the support of the earth beneath you. Close your eyes, and ask yourself, “How old do I feel now?” Go with whatever age comes up. Trust that sense. In your mind’s eye, find her. Get as clear a picture as you can. See her face, the color of her hair, her expression, clothing, or any other details that emerge. Once again, introduce yourself as her older self, and that you came to protect her and give her what she needs. Let her know you see her fear, and it’s okay to feel. Using curiosity, hear her out. Reassure her with the skills you have from your FA today. You can offer to take her home with you, as you are now responsible for her. Check in with her, see her response to you. Put her in your heart and keep her there. The more you bring her into your life, noticing when she’s getting triggered, the more healing you’ll find.
When we’re wounded and feeling violated, boundaries becomes paramount and life-saving. It’s how we find our way back home, taking us back to the person we were originally meant to be.