Content warning: This article discusses sensitive material pertaining to sexual violence.
Ana and Jeff met for the first time at one of my workshops in New York. They described their spontaneous chemistry as love at first sight. It was as if they were destined to be together.
As their connection strengthened, Ana came closer to having to face her past. Hidden inside her emotional closet was a traumatic event that she felt had been safely tucked away and forgotten about. As Ana fell deeper in love with Jeff she realized she had to tell him that she had been raped in her past and struggled with trusting men.
Jeff was an attractive, handsome man with an athletic build. As Jeff fell deeper in love with Ana he had to come closer to facing his toxic relationship with his mother. He needed to learn to set stronger emotional boundaries with her so he could fully let Ana in.
I had worked with Ana privately before she met Jeff. Ana was feeling more and more like a fraud in her career and in working on herself in personal transformation courses. She desperately tried to hide her emotional scars, and disguise the pain of her past through trying to please others rather than put herself first. Ana couldn’t shake the voice deep inside that told her “you’re worthless”.
Meanwhile, Jeff fought his incessant fears that he was never good enough. The toxic influence in Jeff’s past appeared through his relationship with an overbearing mother who kept involving herself in his life. As a result he struggled in his relationships with women. He avoided intimacy with previous partners through having affairs that would ultimately lead to the end of these relationships. Jeff also felt like a fraud when it came to intimacy. A part of him felt like he was “play acting” in his previous relationships with women. He found with Ana things were different. He felt like he could be himself but didn’t know how. He desperately wanted this relationship to work and vowed to stop his destructive pattern of cheating.
Only months after they started dating, Ana and Jeff sensed something was wrong. Jeff felt ready to make a deeper commitment. But the more he tried to show he loved Ana, the more controlling and anxious she seemed to him. In contrast Ana was becoming frustrated with Jeff as his eyes started to wander onto other women when they were together. She was ready to end the entire relationship as her anger at him grew.
What are emotional boundaries?
When I began working with Ana and Jeff I decided to employ a new technique I was developing at the time. I called it Boundaries Kung Fu. This would become the core of what would later evolve into my Yogaboxing workout system. The technique involved using the hands as a communication device, akin to sign language. Only, there was no structured vocabulary to learn and no specific memorization needed to understand the pushing gestures with the hands. There was just the idea that emotions can be expressed more clearly through body movements than through mental thoughts. Thus my concept grew into an opportunity to use Chi Gong based hand movements as the most effective way to create a physicalized barrier of psychological safety around the body. This barrier is often referred to as an emotional boundary.
Emotional boundaries help us define our personal space that we can defend safely and feel a sense of individuation. Boundaries help to protect us from becoming too involved in the external affairs of others and empower us to say “no” to things we don’t want so we can say “yes” to the things we really want. Boundaries also empower us to let go of any guilt for standing up for ourselves against the shame placed on us by others who may try to make us feel small.
Boundaries help us experience our own internal thoughts, feelings and emotions separately from others so we can understand more about ourselves. Boundaries are an essential part of the development of an intrinsic sense of self as an autonomous being that is worthy and deserving.
Having a strong sense of autonomy allows us to create a world that reflects our individual values, sense of purpose and supports operating with a vision of our highest ideals.
Ana and Jeff struggled with their individual connection to autonomy. Like many, they focused their attention on trying to control external people and events rather than valuing their internal process. This was at the heart of their feelings of unworthiness, fraudulence and helplessness.
I designed Boundaries Kung Fu as a way to have a clearly defined experience of our own safe and sacred space where nothing is allowed inside unless it is first given permission to enter. This emotional self-defense technique allows us to take control of our internal and external experiences so we can choose what to take in that can nourish us, and what to reject that is toxic.
After successfully using Boundaries Kung Fu and Yogaboxing with Ana and Jeff over 6 months the couple became engaged and eventually married. Ana was able to not only heal her trauma memories around her rape but she was able to let go of the core belief that she was worthless. She soon lost any feelings of being a fraud. Jeff was able to learn how to set strong boundaries with women, including his mother. He was able to feel more comfortable being himself around Ana when it came to compassionately challenging her and emotionally holding her. He also lost any feelings of fraudulence in himself and started to feel more like a man around Ana. Jeff’s eyes stopped wandering, and Ana started to deepen in her trust of him.
So what happened?
The secret to boundaries and specifically to why Boundaries Kung Fu and Yogaboxing work is the simple idea of engaging the body over the mind in establishing a sense of safety.
Think about this example:
Imagine one quiet evening when you’re lounging in your favorite place in your home and suddenly there’s a power cut and all the lights go out. There’s no electricity in your entire home and the room is pitch black. What’s the first thing you would think you do? Most likely, you would maneuver your way to find an exit so you can locate a source of light somewhere. Because the room is so dark, this is not an easy task.
As you maneuver your way through the dark room it is instinctive to extend your hands out in front of you and use your palms and fingertips to feel and sense your way through the space. This feeling and sensing experience is called a “felt sense” and it is neurobiologically designed to bypass your thinking mind and access your body’s internal, non-thinking process called instincts. In this case your felt sense is replacing your eyes because you cannot see anything, but you can instinctively sense your way through space. This is how your brain is wired to use other senses when your primary sense of vision is suddenly unavailable. As such your hands act as antennae to help you navigate a path to safety.
This same “felt sense” concept applies to using Yogaboxing techniques and Boundaries Kung Fu. Extending your hands out in front of you to physicalize a safe, emotional boundary instinctively silences anxiety in your mind and helps you focus on a specific goal of pushing away and saying “no” to what you don’t want or “yes” to what you do want. In trauma terms Pat Ogden, founder of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, refers to this as mobilizing active defenses. Meaning, as you establish an emotional perimeter around you, your hands help you establish your own sense of psychological safety as you feel more connected with your body’s ability to defend itself against possible emotional encroachment.
Finding their superpowers
Working on their boundaries both individually and together Ana and Jeff were able to experience a sense of what psychologist Robert Kegan calls self-authorship. This is where you are able to essentially become the master of your own internal experience and have the power to coordinate your sense of intrinsic values, sense of purpose and self-beliefs into an authentic narrative reflecting more of who you really are. This is important in being able to take ownership of your superpowers and it involves a powerful combination of feeling autonomous, worthy, and deserving of what you want.
This is where saying “no” to what you don’t want makes it easier for you to say “yes” to what you do want. The difference is autonomy and self-authorship. These empower you to operate at your highest level and inside of your highest good. This is what it means to own your superpowers.
For Ana this meant saying “no” to her rapist and physically fighting back and finding her way to safety by doing what Bessel van der Kolk coined as “taking effective action”. Ana physicalized her defensive actions through boxing movements where she used her hands as a way to express her anger and thereby protect herself from the perpetrator. Once she experienced this healthy channelling of anger her people pleasing instincts weakened as did her connection with feeling like a fraud.
Likewise, Jeff worked through his anger at his mother and realized how he felt trapped in guilt in relating to her. Once he established his boundaries and pushed this guilt outside and far away he was able to feel more authentic and act more consistently with what he believed. This ended his feelings that he was “play acting” when he was with Ana. Rather than feel compelled to run away from his feelings like he had in the past, Jeff was able to speak with Ana more openly about his vulnerable emotions and this helped him trust her more and himself more.
The last I heard from Ana and Jeff they were planning for the birth of their first child.
How are your boundaries?
Here are a few questions to consider in addressing your own emotional boundaries.
- Where do I agree to do things that I really don’t want to do?
- What do I let happen around me that I’m sick of tolerating?
- Where am I holding back on speaking about myself and putting myself forward for something I really want?
- What am I tired of dealing with and people-pleasing instead of being more “boundaried”?
- What am I taking personally that was meant to be feedback about my performance or something I did?
- Where do I let someone take me for granted and I didn’t speak up about it?
- What conversations have I had recently where I left feeling badly about myself?
As you answer these consider how you can let go of what others think about you, and only focus on what you can control, like what you want and what you deserve. This means letting go of what is outside of your control like other people’s reactions, judgements or opinions about you that you simply have no control over.
This idea is central to strengthening your sense of autonomy and developing a connection with self-authorship. It initially challenges people’s views like Ana and Jeff who once believed they could control others’ reactions and opinions and therefore control how people behaved. But cognitive psychology indicates this is not the case. Believing this is what often leads to work-related burnout, anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges, not to mention relationship sabotage.
By replacing the word “control” with “influence” makes emotional boundaries easier to understand. What you can do is influence people’s perspectives about you by monitoring your behavior towards them. This area is called locus of control where you can only truly control that which is internal to you (like your own thoughts, feelings and behaviors). Locus of control is the main cognitive tool that is the foundation of emotional boundaries. You cannot as easily control what is external to you (like other people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors) although you can wield influence. Stephen Covey develops this theme in his best-selling work on Circles of Influence in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Circles of influence
In Covey’s methods is the simplest concept that highlights an important lesson in management and leadership, in relationships and in self-help. As Ana and Jeff were successful in applying their emotional boundaries to their relationship, Circles of Influence mirrors how we can all be successful by focusing more on what we can control than on what we cannot control.
To highlight this valuable tool consider drawing two concentric circles on a blank sheet of paper. Draw one larger circle and one smaller circle inside the larger circle.
The larger circle represents issues you are concerned about, care about or that you currently find stressful that you have no control over. Covey calls this a Circle of Concern. The smaller circle inside the larger circle is what Covey calls Circle of Influence. These are issues that you can take direct action toward changing where you have more input and influence.
Immediately in doing this exercise and looking at these two concentric circles you can get the gist of what Covey is saying. Issues that you’re concerned about and have no control over are typically going to outnumber the issues that you can truly influence. However, as your influence grows your smaller inner circle grows also. This means you’ve put your time and energy into focusing on those issues you can directly influence and you’ve benefited from the positive results and so has everyone else around you. People start to trust you more and value your input as you’ve listened well and successfully implemented feedback from others. This is how Ana and Jeff were able to transform their relationship from near breaking point, to marriage and having a child.
They began asking questions rather than making accusations. They listened to each other and valued each other’s feedback. Trust grew, fear dropped and they felt happier with each other as a result.
Here’s Covey’s next valuable point. People who are reactive focus much of their time and energy on trying to control issues they’re most worried about in their larger Circle of Concern. Remember, this larger circle represents issues that are simply out of your control that you cannot do anything directly to change. This nearly ended Ana and Jeff’s relationship when it first began as they were both focused more on trying to change each other than focusing on what they could change inside themselves.
The moral of the story? Emotional boundaries and Circles of Influence are critical to you being successful at anything you do. When you practice the valuable skill of focusing your time and energy in saying “no” to issues you cannot control and “yes” to actions and behaviors directly in your control you won’t flounder in a sea of overwork, people pleasing and fear about the future. Instead you’ll expand your influence, bring people closer to you, have more energy available to enjoy your work and relationships and improve your resilience overall.
This piece originally appeared on Composure, and was published here with permission.
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