When we’re in a healthy relationship, we feel inspired, joyful, and full of life. But when a relationship has soured, we become negative, resentful, and angry. Unfortunately, many people who realize they’re in an unhealthy relationship can’t figure out where or when things began to unravel. Sometimes, these relationships date back to early childhood, as in the case of parents and longtime friends. But no matter when the relationship began, these toxic connections generally share a common trait: a difficulty with establishing healthy boundaries.
Think about it: do you have a friend or relative whom you can’t say no to – even when you want to? Or someone who knows how to “push your buttons”? Within a few minutes of being with this person, you’re blowing up at her? Or how about the friend who makes offensive comments, but instead of telling him how you really feel, you simply stuff the emotions deep inside, never to see the light of day?
Shadow is the obstruction of light. Shadows appear to me to be of supreme importance in perspective, because, without them opaque and solid bodies will be ill defined; that which is contained within their outlines and their boundaries themselves will be ill-understood unless they are shown against a background of a different tone from themselves.
In applying Leonardo’s insight to relationships, think of those shadows as the emotions that rule your negative relationships, never allowing your true self to emerge. To prevent “ill-defined” relationships from taking over your life, we must look more deeply at our emotional shadows, because only then can we find that “different tone” – our authentic selves – to contrast with our familiar, albeit ineffective, coping strategies. In the case of relationships, two common emotions that prevent us from establishing healthy boundaries are fear and anger.
Fear and Anger: Friend or Foe?
Of course, in an evolutionary context these emotions had value: if a saber-toothed tiger was chasing you, then fear would certainly be a valuable emotion to tap into. But when your sister says something you don’t like, and you retreat in fear, this emotional reaction can do more harm than good.
Fear and anger are emotions that can result in healthy emotional guidance… or can hinder progress in relationships. For instance, when you become angry as the result of earlier wounds, or if you tend to brood over your anger, you will find this emotion to be counterproductive.
Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.
For example, let’s say that your spouse speaks to you in a condescending tone one evening, and you explode. There’s a good chance that this singular event didn’t lead to the blow-up. Instead it was a build up of all of the other emotional wounds inflicted by your partner (or perhaps even from other people) that led you to feel that you’d had enough. And though the anger may feel cathartic in the moment, it doesn’t lead to lasting improvement in the relationship. In fact, your outbursts could be viewed as a sign of weakness by others.
On the other hand, you may not be the type to lash out in anger: when someone crosses an emotional boundary with you, you simply tamp down the emotions. This is a fear-based reaction. If you suppress those emotions regularly, you may reach the point where you aren’t even aware that someone has crossed a boundary. Or, you may be aware of it and simply continue to fester with resentment instead of acknowledging your uncomfortable feelings.
The reasons you may react by lashing out or repressing your emotions most likely stem from earlier adaptations that served you well. If, for example, your much bigger, older father angered you as a child, swallowing your emotions and pretending nothing was wrong may have been a reasonable approach at the time. Unfortunately, many of us carry those same “survival” strategies throughout our lives, and these instinctual reactions as an adult are ineffective at best and hurtful at worst, as you have diminished your ability to nurture authentic relationships.
If you’re currently in a relationship where you can’t speak up, you will never be able to reach your full potential with the other person for fear of disappointing or angering him or her. And in the case of lashing out, you prevent yourself from being able to connect comfortably with the other person.
Sadly, neither reaction – blowing up or repressing your feelings – serves you well.
But, does that mean anger and fear are never helpful? No.
When these emotions are an alert to you, the red flag that guides you emotionally, then fear and anger can be constructive. In this context, your emotions are informative rather than destructive, and they signal that a line has been crossed.
It is then that you have the opportunity to choose a response that honors yourself and the other person in the relationship.
Toward Lasting Change
How, then, do you move into this healthier space? First, you need to work through where you are. Ask yourself, Is this a knee-jerk reaction? Or, Is this a healthy, limit-setting anger or fear?
With this in mind, become more cognizant of what you can and can’t control. We give lip service to “letting go”, but few of us actually release the grip we have on people and situations that we want to change. Though you may wish it were otherwise, you can’t force others to change. Only that person can change himself or herself.
Fortunately, if the other person seeks personal growth, then there is potential for the two of you to grow – both as individuals and together – in a positive way. But you must remember that the other person makes decisions for himself or herself… and you must do the same. Your only job is to follow your path, and make decisions about relationships based on your own internal compass. That means that you choose the degree of involvement you have in a relationship. You decide how frequently you see someone and how intimate you want to be.
Making these decisions also means adjusting your expectations accordingly. When you know and understand the other person’s limitations and weaknesses, you know exactly what you can expect in the relationship or interaction. You can monitor your response accordingly. You no longer need to rely on someone who you know is irresponsible… trust someone who you know does not live in integrity… or give of yourself completely to someone who is guarded and secretive.
Does that mean you need to put an end to certain relationship? Not necessarily, though you do need to protect yourself emotionally and more carefully than you have in the past. With boundaries, you protect yourself from hurt, disappointment, and the need to sacrifice your own authenticity.
A New Approach
An extremely effective way to set boundaries in relationships is to employ the sovereignty approach. This is a skill that everyone can use, because everyone has emotional wounding. With this approach, you transcend the wounds and create a resource in how you interact with yourself and others.
To develop the sovereignty approach, you begin by recognizing your wounds. As you notice these painful feelings, it is important not to judge or suppress them. With greater awareness, you begin to recognize your own personal boundaries, and rather than being reactive to another’s words and behaviors, you start responding from your core values.
At first, using this approach can be scary, because you realize that you are no longer a hapless actor in life, saying the lines and acting the way others expect. No, you now consciously choose your role in the relationship – and that includes whether the relationship will continue or not.
With practice in the sovereignty approach, you will find yourself aware of the relational triggers . . . but you won’t feel the need to suppress your emotions or lash out. Now, you know your boundaries, and you aren’t afraid to establish them with the other person. However, you are able to set those boundaries with compassion and resolve, instead of anger or fear.
Over time, you will find that your wounds are healed to the point that that your former triggers don’t even upset you anymore – because you simply note the interaction without the emotional reaction or response.
Boundaries with Balance
Sound too good to be true? It’s not, because when you’re not so reactive, you are able to consciously make decisions about what kind of relationship you want with the other person. You will also become more aware of your own reactions and interactions in each relationship. And when that happens, you will feel a sense of personal empowerment like no other.
I have developed a guided meditation to show you how to develop your boundaries using the sovereignty approach. This will assist you in being consciously aware of the feelings in your body… the anger… the fear… the pain and then developing the strong boundaries you desire. You see, feeling that discomfort will actually move you toward a place where those feelings begin to subside. And as you begin to allow yourself to process those emotions at the subconscious, body-centered level, you’ll notice something startling: your reactions to others change. Subtly at first, but in a more pronounced way as you develop your own sovereignty.
Now, when you encounter someone who used to be able to send you into a tailspin, you’ll find that you are unwilling to let others control and direct you, and you’ll revel in the knowledge that you were as much of a player in this drama as the other person was.
All the world’s a stage, and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.
― Seán O’Casey
The day that you begin to shift in your response – from a fear- or anger-based reactive stance to a sovereign one – is the day that the drama subsides. And a healthier, more fulfilling, more balanced “Act Two” can begin in your life.
You can find the guided meditation to assist you in developing strong boundaries here.