Shrink Rap: DMZ and Emotional Boundaries

Emotional boundaries can be almost friendly, like the boundary between Canada and the United States. Or they can be heavily defended, like the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. It all depends on who you are sharing your emotional boundary with–friends or phone solicitors, parents or siblings, your boyfriend or girlfriend, or that obnoxious tipsy person at a party who thinks you’re cute.

But what is certain is this: Healthy emotional boundaries are necessary for healthy relationships and for understanding the reactions and emotions of other people.

Maybe you remember way back to junior high school, having to read a poem by Robert Frost called “Mending Walls.” Maybe you don’t remember because you were asleep. In it, Frost’s tight-lipped neighbor says (not once, but twice): “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Shrink Rap: DMZs and Emotional Boundaries  1/22/2012

When establishing healthy emotional boundaries, think fences.

Good fences don’t need to be fortress-tall, strung with razor wire. But they need to be obvious and they need to be respected–in that way of respecting friendly, but emphatic, white picket fences. Everybody needs an autonomous emotional space where they feel safe.

When I think of such a safe emotional space, I picture a garden surrounded by a vine-draped coyote fence. I picture a place where I can enjoy my own thoughts, chirping away like birds without the fear of prowling cats or kids with BB guns. This is a garden where I can enjoy the fragrance and colors of what I have chosen to plant–even if somebody else might call them weeds. It’s a place where I can sunbathe in a patch of grass without being afraid that someone will spy on or make fun of me.

A parent who reads a child’s diary, someone who betrays a friend’s secret, a spouse who exploits a partner’s fear of growing old–all of these people have invaded another’s safe emotional garden. When emotional boundaries are breached, the target usually feels fear or anger. They usually lose a sense of trust and begin the work of building stronger, higher, more impenetrable emotional walls. Fortified walls work. Unfortunately, they also keep out people who can be trusted, people who are safe to let inside.

For parents, healthy emotional boundaries allow children to be responsible for their own successes or failures. Parents who take credit for a child’s success or who take a child’s failures personally have invaded that child’s emotional boundary.

Healthy emotional boundaries allow friends to be comfortable being themselves, to not be coerced into doing something or into not doing something. A friend who pressures another friend to take drugs or engage in unwanted sex has not only invaded that friend’s emotional boundary, but also raped and pillaged the safe emotional garden inside.

For spouses and partners, healthy emotional boundaries allow each person in the relationship to feel autonomous while engaging in a life filled with intimacy. A spouse or partner who is controlling or manipulative or insensitive takes up most of the metaphorical bed and hogs the figurative covers. Who can dream of a safe emotionally safe garden while clinging to the edge of a mattress and shivering uncontrollably?

I wonder if Frost ever wrote a poem about that (or if Mrs. Frost did).

Whether or not you like “Mending Walls,” Frost’s neighbor was right. “Good fences make good neighbors.” Sometimes, in emotionally dangerous situations, healthy emotional boundaries resemble demilitarized zones. Luckily, that is not often the case.

Whether they are stone, adobe, hedges or picket fences, good boundaries always make for healthy relationships.

And, please, find Frost’s poem. Reread it. Now that you’re not in junior high, you might feel how wise and wonderful it is.

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