Week 2, Session 1: Emotional boundaries and physical boundaries
Hello everyone! We’re back with Week 2 Session 1.
If this is the first time you’re reading this, welcome! We’re so happy to have you here. However if you’re just starting out please do head back to the first session. We build on material throughout the weeks, and we don’t want you to miss anything!
The goals for this session are:
- Begin to talk about boundaries types
- Consider what happens when our boundaries are “violated” - and to break down our two categories of “harm”
And of course, we do grounding exercises at the start of every session! Grounding exercises are designed as techniques to bring us to the “present” when we feel ourselves “dissociating” or as though we’re outside our own bodies. If, at any point, you feel uncomfortable while reading this session (or at any time), you can use one of our grounding exercises to bring yourself back and away from hard emotions or physical sensations.
If you can, please join in.
**Our grounding exercise will be…
**Place your feet on the ground. In your imagination, pick your favorite colour, then imagine that colour as you draw an outline around each foot. Start at the heel. Then, using an imaginary pencil, trace with your eyes, going slowly up the side of your foot to your pinky toe. Make sure you draw around each toe and then go back towards the heel. Repeat on the other foot.
In addition to helping to ground us, this exercise can also help determine the physical boundaries between our bodies and the world outside it. Mentally drawing your boundaries when you have to face challenging situations can help you feel calm, safe, and better contained.
Remember: we’ll be doing a different exercise each session, so we can find the ones that work best for us. If you don’t feel able to do one, feel free to step back.
Fun question: What mythical creature do you wish really existed?
Today, we are going to focus on the different areas of our lives where boundaries come into play.
As we’ve been learning, boundaries are set when we sense what we need, and then when act upon those needs. However, boundaries exist - regardless of our intentions. They appear as we interact with the world - including when we feel others act against us: crossing our lines, pushing at our “borders”, or clawing at where we’re exposed.
We will discuss consent in next week’s course sessions. But, given that we are not used to or often prepared to identify those missteps or violations, it can often feel as though we don’t get to act against those intrusions - we can’t set our own boundaries, as we don’t identify what is wrong, or bad for us, or “against” our own limits until much later.
Some people are fantastic at knowing instantly that something or someone has bridged their personal boundaries - and they are able to say something about it at the time. Others struggle to know this is going on, and only are able to see this trespass in hindsight, often blaming themselves for not stepping up when they could. And others don’t recognise that their boundaries have been overstepped at all - or else, they can’t acknowledge that discomfort in the moment.
What statement do you identify with?
What’s important to remember is that our replies will also vary and mix together. Our “knowledge” of violations differ depending on who it is that is betraying our trust, pushing our limits, or questioning our values.
We might find it easier to spot when our new friends overstep their boundaries but not when our childhood friends do. In this case, we might have “rigid” or “healthy” boundaries with our new friends, but “loose” boundaries with those from our youth, as it’s easier to make excuses for people who’ve been a part of our lives and our stories for so long.
It’s tricky work - but Pia Mellody, author of “Facing Codependence” suggests two categories - to help us to name, spot, and break down these types of violations that manifest in interpersonal relationships, so it becomes easier to know when we’re wronged:
- External boundary violations:
These are when people overstep us boundaries in a physical way. This type of violation is seen, heard, and feels more tangible - as though it can be measured. We can “picture” a before and an after in our minds. Examples of this can include when someone stands too close to you, sexual abuse, physical abuse, financial abuse, online abuse (or image-based abuse, such as the sharing of unwanted images), assault, and unwanted touch.
It can also be someone pushing in front of you in a queue, someone getting your child’s hair cut without your permission, or taking your things without asking, not cleaning up after they make a mess, and not taking off their shoes when those are the rules of your house.
External boundaries occupy the physical world we move in - what we can see, shape, and alter with touch.
- Internal boundary violations - because these DO exist! And they’re often the ones we have the most trouble with, as they are less visible, and can therefore feel invisible.
These boundaries are when people get into your emotional and psychological space - in an attempt to change your views and behaviours without being transparent about their intentions, as when we are manipulated.
These violations can be harder to know and express - as there are fewer visual indicators to “mark” them or ground our reality.
They can include asking you personal questions when your relationship has not reached that level of trust, snooping on your texts, opening your mail, sharing your secrets, asking you where you are REALLY REALLY from (as a common racial microaggression!), demanding your time instead of requesting it, asking for inappropriate favours, applying pressure on you via a third party to do what they want - guilting you, abusing you, misgendering or deadnaming someone after their transition, or being racist, and using sexist language. The list is so long - we are CERTAIN you have some of your own already immediately coming to mind - but you get a picture.
Let’s come back to these internal boundaries in more detail in the next session - the boundaries that we set for ourselves. But for the rest of this resource, we’ll be focusing on how these types of violations manifest in interpersonal relationships.
There are of course violations that can fall under both internal and external boundary violations - and one can also be accompanied by another. This is because - just as our boundaries have a style - we also have different “types” of boundaries, as our session title suggests! We are full human beings: with physical, mental, and emotional needs. Our boundaries will consider each “piece” of these needs: apart and together.
With that said, we are going to use the rest of this session and next session to list out these boundary types, to help you further “zoom in” on just what bothers you, and what you can change!
The first is…
Emotional boundaries: These are all about respecting feelings - of others and our own.
It is easy to repress or step away from difficult emotions. Yet, not honoring our own feelings can be detrimental to our health and wellbeing in many ways - including in experiencing disconnection from ourselves.
Being able to create emotional boundaries allows us to measure the amount of emotional energy we are prepared to give, know when it’s appropriate or not to share, and reduce our interactions with people who do not respond with kindness or with compassions. Having emotional boundaries means both understanding and respecting the limits of others, as well as setting our own - and also expecting that same respect from other people.
We feel this is a good transition to speak briefly about emotional burdens - which often falls to women in relationships, or else those of us who are easily trusted or considered empathetic (which is a great compliment by the way!).
Yet, sometimes, it can be difficult when people want to share some difficult personal stories with us at a time when we are not prepared to hear that or to support them. We might feel like it’s too much right now and start getting nervous, because we don’t want to upset them by turning them away or turning them down. In a situation like this, you may want to evaluate the situation first: how prepared are you to support this person, right now? Without judgment or guilt?
If you feel you are not in the right space for it, it’s probably better to set a boundary in a kind way instead of being half there. You could say something like: “I am really sorry you are having such a difficult time, thank you so much for sharing that with me. I am in a place right now where I feel I cannot take in all that information, but I want to be there for you. Could we have this conversation at a different time (and then say when) so I can be of more help?” By protecting yourself, you are also protecting them. You are not “wrong” for not having the energy you need at all times. We weren’t designed to rest as much as we were to speak, laugh, and move. It is a function of all human bodies, love, and connection.
Another example of a difficult situation where you may want to set an emotional boundary is if you are feeling undermined or exposed in a group setting. This might happen with a group of friends, for instance. Many of us can find ourselves in situations where a friend or colleague picks on us and then claims it’s a joke. This is a tricky situation as it can make us feel like we can’t set the boundary, or our sense of humor and sensitivity will be questioned/attacked. As much as having a sense of humor is a great thing, it can never work if it is used in detriment of a person’s feelings.
You have all the right to raise this and make this stop if it’s affecting you. Doing this might sound like “when you make those comments about myself, they are not funny to me, they make me feel upset and insecure. It might not feel like a lot to you, but I feel I can only be here/be friends if you are respectful to me and my needs”.
Examples of violations of emotional boundaries are:
- Dismissing and criticising feelings
- Asking questions that are not appropriate for the relationship
- Reading or going through personal and emotional information
- Asking people to justify their feelings
- Assuming we know how other people feel
- Telling other people how they feel
- "Emotionally dumping" on people without their permission
- Sharing inappropriate emotional information with your children
The next boundary type we want to consider are our…
These boundaries refer to your need for personal space, your body, and privacy. It also includes your physical needs to rest, sleep, and hydrate. Physical boundaries vary from person to person and culture to culture in the most radical ways. You may have experienced this when someone stays or speaks too close to you, or they walk into your room without permission, or when someone touches you when you don’t want to. Even though it may seem difficult at times, it is OK to tell people you don’t want to be touched or need more space - and for this space to be a reflection of your needs and your history.
It is also OK to make sure your physical needs are met and say things like “I am really tired, so I need to rest right now”. As with our emotional example, we are allowed to rest and to be human. It does not make us unkind or uncommitted to have our own needs, spaces, or concerns.
Examples of physical boundary violations include:
- receiving inappropriate or unwanted touch
- being denied your physical needs (told to keep walking when you are tired or that you need to wait to eat or drink)
- or having someone come into your personal space in a way that is uncomfortable (entering your room without permission, for example)
This can vary on a spectrum from mild to severe. We’ll discuss some culture-specific examples of this in our final session - how to navigate cultural norms of handshakes, kissing cheeks, hugs, and other physical boundaries. Of course, the most severe physical boundary violations result in serious physical abuse or neglect - when those physical lines are crossed or else rejected. We will talk about consent and abuse, again, when we get to Sexual boundaries - but there is an intersection between the two so we want to make sure you know.
As much as it is our job to set boundaries to protect ourselves and our wellbeing, we are NOT responsible for people overstepping them or nor respecting us - regardless of how healthy, loose or rigid your boundaries are today, tomorrow, or in the past. We can assure you, abuse is not founded on someone not knowing where our boundaries are.
However, setting our own boundaries can be a way of protecting ourselves and learning ways of dealing with some unwanted situations. As we said, boundaries are set when we sense what we need, and then when act upon those needs. We can decide what we want, and we can mobilise.
We will continue to look at other types of boundaries in our next session - but today we have covered 2 very important ones - and also categorised our internal and external violations! Are you already connecting some of your experiences to emotional and physical boundaries? Are there any insights you want to share, or “types” you feel that your violations fall under?
A very important thing to do when thinking about boundaries is to learn to read ourselves. Being able to connect to what we are experiencing, and to listen to our gut feelings is key in the process of setting boundaries. In your interactions with people, you may not realise what violation has happened in the moment, but, after your homework from the last session, you might now be able to identify the feelings that come up when one of your boundaries is being crossed, based on the “types” of violations. These feelings of discomfort, the awkwardness, maybe a bit of anger… they’re all clues. Once you get a hold of the emotion you are feeling you might be able to trace it back to something that has just happened. That comment, that way of referring to you, that unwanted hug. This exercise takes practice. Just doing this, observing your discomfort, can help prepare you to voice your needs in the future. But don’t worry about this part yet. It´s key to learn to respect our own pace and we will walk you through the different stages in this course.
And it is normal if this is taking you back to some situations where you were feeling vulnerable and upset. It is all part of the process! But you are safe here, now, and we know you can handle these memories - and check in with our grounding exercises.
The homework for this session is…
Choose your dance style.
Remember what we referenced at the end of our last session? When you want to learn to dance, the first thing you may do is research and learn about different dance styles. Second, you would be looking at which style you prefer. How do YOU want to dance/create your boundaries?
You have looked at the emotions you have in certain situations, what makes you uncomfortable, and what brings you joy. You need to feel contained, protected, and nourished in your life - and your boundaries need to enable that. Let’s use our homework to take the next step.
Tune into your feelings - what does your gut tell you?
We would like you to focus on the situations that bring you discomfort and resentment (big red flags in the boundaries world!). Now think about the boundaries you would like to work on first - which situations do you want to prioritise. This can come from your list of 15, or from whatever came to you during our course today. Choose 2-3 examples max. Even 1 would do! Write this example down. You can write it as a title, such as “boundaries with friends” - or you can express it as a desire for the future: “I will say NO to my friends when I don’t want to do something;” “I won’t be undermined in the presence of X;”“I will have more alone time without feeling guilty”. “I want my family to respect my decisions”are some examples.
Remember, this is an investment in your own journey to recovery. Give yourself the best chance to build resilience. You can do this.