The Importance of Mental and Emotional Boundaries In Recovery From Illness
Updated: Oct 31, 2021
In this Healing Chronic Illness blog series, author, Gupta Program Coach and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome survivor Jen Evans shares insights from the recovery journey
Boundaries seem to be all around us. Stop and look at these dividing lines in the world we live in - the lines between countries, counties, town and countryside. The dividing lines between classes, races, religions. This is where one thing ends, and another begins.
But where are these boundaries within ourselves, and between us as individuals? I often say, us humans are a bundle of paradoxes. We are completely unique, and at the same time we are connected, part of a whole, undivided and all looking for exactly the same thing (love).
So when we are looking at personal boundaries, it can feel paradoxical to define the dividing lines between ourselves, and the world and other people. How can I be unique and independent and protected, as well as connected, surrendered and trusting of others?
I admit, I did not find this easy to figure out for myself. I spent the majority of my healing journey from Chronic Fatigue, IBS, depression, anxiety and addiction without boundaries. I thought I had them, but looking back on myself and how I felt and acted, I really didn't. I learnt about them and thought about them in theory, but enacting them was something I had no experience of and no healthy examples of in my immediate family or friendship group.
When I learnt what a boundary was and that there are different types of boundaries, I also felt unsafe to have them. I feared (and experienced) anger and rejection from others. I feared isolation and being misunderstood and misrepresented. It felt easier to just go along with what others wanted and what I felt others expected of me.
But this lack of boundaries kept putting me back in the same old position - exhaustion, defeat, anger, resentment, and with no safe space or time to deeply engage with my commitment to my recovery journey.
What changed for me was a shift in perspective. At first I made some physical boundaries with people and situations that I knew did not serve me. These were incredibly difficult to make and included cutting off contact with a few family members and saying no to social gatherings taking place in crowded places. I had believed that once I created these boundaries, I would feel safer and less triggered and therefore heal faster.
In some ways these boundaries did bring me a lot of relief and a new sense of space. However, they were only part of the puzzle. What I hadn’t realised was that I needed a different type of boundary to really feel safe and open up new levels of healing. These were ‘psychic boundaries’.
I think of ‘psychic boundaries’ as mental and emotional boundaries. I now sense these inside and around my body. For most of my life these were completely unknown to me. The shift in perspective that changed everything for me was realising that I had always been absorbing everyone else's emotions, words, beliefs, behaviours and expectations. I had no boundaries to protect myself from other people’s dysregulated emotions and behaviours.
As a child growing up in an unstable situation, with one parent that raged and dominated and swung wildly between a victim mentality and controlling aggressor, and the other who absorbed it all and made themself small to just survive the unpredictability and pain, I learnt that I was not safe to be an assertive, independent person nor safe to hide away as I was always needed to regulate the situation. It meant that I had no boundaries physically within the painful family dynamic, and no boundaries internally to protect me from the unhealed wounds of two emotionally dysregulated adults.
I went through life like this. Absorbing, fixing, saving, using rage and aggression myself when I felt unheard and misunderstood, hiding away in depression and smallness when it all felt overwhelming.
So learning about mental and emotional boundaries gave me a whole new way of being in the world. When I started to practice putting up an emotional barrier to stop other people’s emotions ‘entering’ me, I felt a huge sense of control and freedom. With this new space inside of me to feel my own emotion rather than just absorbing and trying to process another person's emotion, I had the time and space to actually be with my own emotion, honour it, explore it, and work with the parts of me that needed to learn how to digest these emotions to move through them.
It was like I had been trying to save other people from their suffering all my life by taking on their difficult emotions and trying to digest it for them. It’s like trying to eat someone's food and digest it for them to gift them the nutrients.
It doesn't work. It can never work.
Other people’s food, other people’s emotions, can not be digested by anyone other than themselves. That is a skill that they must learn for themself. Over-empathising and trying to fix or save or care for someone else in this way is not helpful to them, and it is most certainly not helpful to us. We only end up toxic with each other's burdens.
The reasons behind us trying to do this are our own and can be safely explored using the Gupta Program techniques and working with a coach or in a coaching group. My reason was simple - I wanted to survive, and I wanted them to love me. So I took in all their pain and tried to fix it for them so they could meet my needs.
Boundaries gave me the safe container I needed to really engage with my healing techniques, and gain insight, perspective shifts and new skills in feeling and processing my emotions, thoughts and physical symptoms. I could finally look after myself, and I learnt that I could at last meet my own needs - rather than depending on and expecting others to do so.
Once we can free ourselves from this desperate child’s need to have our caregivers fulfil our needs, we can be free and truly move into healing and health. This is a boundary in itself - realising we are separate from them and independent, and can find that love and care and sense of self elsewhere, as they were never able to provide it (no matter how dearly we hold on to the idea that it was their job to give it to us. Resisting the truth can lock us in long term illness).
My new skills in being able to metabolise my own patterns and feelings provides me with all the ‘compost’ I need to create new patterns and feel more expansive and positive emotions. This is what has given my body the break from a constant onslaught of stress and overwhelm my whole life, allowing it to heal at a deep level.
Being more boundaried has also allowed me to develop the trust and compassion I lacked before to be able to deeply connect with other people. So, even though having boundaries may seem at first like a ‘blocking out’ of other people and experiences, having them can lead to the opposite.
As Pixie Lighthorse says of boundaries, “Boundaries make room for the deeper connections and intimacy we actually want to have… The more secure we are that we can endure some painful feelings, the less we avoid each other”.
So I invite you to take a breath, step back and to consider your boundaries. Are you creating safe spaces for yourself to do your retraining? Are you able to separate your own emotions from other people’s emotions and issues? Where do you need support and guidance on creating boundaried space and time for your parts to heal, bloom and live a fulfilling, healthy, happy life?
To get direct support with setting boundaries for empowering your retraining, join a small group of retainers on 10th June for a one-off workshop with Gupta Program Coach Jen Evans - more details here